Tupelo Campus Graduates Earn University’s Highest Academic Award

University of Mississippi at Tupelo students are congratulated by UM Chancellor Dan Jones (center) for their academic achievement upon being named 2012 Taylor Medalists. UM photo by Robert Jordan.

TUPELO, Miss. – Sometimes people surprise themselves by accomplishing something they never imagined they could. This is exactly what happened to Toni Reiner of Fulton, a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi’s Tupelo regional campus. Reiner, who graduated last fall with a bachelor’s degree in social work, was named a UM Taylor Medalist for achieving one of the highest grade-point averages within her program.

“I can’t believe how well I did or how much I enjoyed college,” Reiner said.

“I didn’t like high school at all. I didn’t go straight to college out of high school because I didn’t think I would do very well. I didn’t know that I could be a good student until I tried.”

Reiner joins three other Ole Miss-Tupelo students who were awarded the university’s highest academic award, the Marcus Elvis Taylor Memorial Medal, during a recent Honors Convocation on the Oxford campus. The other Tupelo campus awardees are Carroll Lee and Kerri Franks, both of Amory, and Matthew Craig Pharr of Marietta. Taylor Medals recognize no more than 1 percent of the Ole Miss student body each year for meritorious scholarship and deportment. Recipients must have at least a cumulative 3.90 GPA. Reiner worked a variety of part-time jobs after high school before she realized she wanted more than a job – she wanted a career.

“I came to the realization that I needed to be able to provide for myself financially, but at the same time, I really wanted to make a difference in the lives of others,” she said. “I wanted my career to be worthwhile.”

Reiner works as a social worker with an emergency children’s shelter in Tupelo. Pharr decided to enroll at the Tupelo campus to become better equipped to serve the educational, emotional and spiritual needs of area residents. Pharr graduated from Booneville High School in 2007 and enrolled at Northeast Mississippi Community College. He began serving as a youth minister in local churches while he was a college student.

“A great deal of ministry is education,” Pharr said. “I knew that earning a teaching degree could be useful as I minister to others. I want to continue on in my personal education by enrolling in seminary and perhaps working on my Doctorate of Theology in the future.”

Pharr worked as a student teacher in the sixth grade this spring at Itawamba Attendance Center in Fulton. He learned about using best practices for teaching students who are transitioning from childhood to the teenage years, he said. “I was blessed with a wonderful mentor teacher and really great students,” he said. “I learned to use everyday things to teach creatively. There is really a push to be innovative in the classroom, and I learned to build on this concept.” Franks is another UM-Tupelo graduate who feels she had an eye-opening experience during her semester of field experiences at Itawamba Attendance Center.

Mentored by seasoned special education instructors, Franks appreciates the chance she had as a new teacher to experience a different type of educational environment.

“During my semester of student teaching in a special education classroom, I would wake up in the morning wondering what more I could do for this particular student, or what I was not teaching in the classroom that I should be,” Franks said. “This was truly the first time I realized that I was a teacher.” While taking courses at the Tupelo campus and completing teacher-training hours, Franks was also caring for her 5-year-old daughter, Jadyn. “Having a child of my own gave me a different outlook on education,” she said.

“I understand how important those early years of education are to the foundation of a student’s learning ability. This is where it all begins. I also took a different approach to my own education. I had to take it more seriously and have the end-goal in mind at all times.” Lee enrolled in the radiology program at Itawamba Community College before she realized that her true calling was in the education field. “It just grew clearer that teaching was what I had always wanted to do,” Reiner said. “I changed my major and switched classes when I realized that this was the profession I needed to pursue.” Lee worked as a waitress on the weekends while taking her junior- and senior-level college courses at the Tupelo campus.

“My education professors at UM-Tupelo were definitely instrumental in my success,” she said. “They took an interest in my education and me. They wanted me to become the best teacher possible.” Lee said she hopes to continue her education by enrolling in the Master of Curriculum and Instruction program at Ole Miss-Tupelo in the near future. “There is always more to learn,” Lee said. “I know I’ll always need to keep improving as a teacher. My students will benefit from my continued education as much as I will, and that is really important.” For more information on program at the UM Tupelo regional campus, click here.