University Honors Two Beloved Employees with Frist Awards

JoAnn Edwards and Jacqueline Certion recognized for passion for serving students

JoAnn Edwards (left) and the late Jackie Certion are winners of the 2021 Frist Student Service Award at the University of Mississippi.

OXFORD, Miss. – Two University of Mississippi employees – the university’s head debater and a late administrator fondly remembered as “one of the brightest lights on our campus” – have been honored with a prestigious campuswide award for student service.

JoAnn Edwards, speech instructor and director of forensics in the Trent Lott Leadership Institute, and Jacqueline Certion, former assistant director of the Foundations of Academic Success Track, or FASTrack, program in the College of Liberal Arts, were selected as this year’s Frist Student Service Award honorees. Edwards is set to retire Aug. 5, and Certion died in December, but her impact continues to be felt across campus.

The two employees were chosen from dozens of nominations submitted by students, alumni, faculty and staff. A committee appointed by the chancellor is tasked with weighing nominations and selecting one faculty and one staff member each year.

“At the University of Mississippi, the Frist Award is an opportunity to recognize individuals who exemplify the caring characteristics of our campus community through their altruistic actions and dedicated service,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said. “This year, we honor Jacqueline Certion’s tremendous legacy and her steadfast belief in our students, and we congratulate JoAnn Edwards for her uniquely kindhearted approach to leadership in the classroom.

“Together, they have made a difference in the lives of countless students.” 

Any full-time faculty or staff member, except previous winners, is eligible for the award, which includes a $1,000 prize and a plaque. They also will be acknowledged May 1 during the university’s main Commencement ceremony at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

After a trying year of virtual classes and limited face-to-face interaction, the awards provide an opportunity to celebrate those who have prevailed over unprecedented challenges, said Kerri Scott, instructional professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a 2018 Frist Award recipient.

“This year’s nomination letters reflect faculty and staff working extremely hard and creatively on behalf of students, despite the additional demands and challenges created by the COVID pandemic,” said Scott, a member of this year’s award committee.

JoAnn Edwards, speech instructor and director of forensics in the Trent Lott Leadership Institute, is this year’s faculty winner of the Frist Student Service Award. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Edwards was lauded for recognizing “the humanity of her students” in a nomination letter, which also noted that she acts as “a coach, a mentor and a confidante to many.” The student nominator recounted how Edwards had encouraged him and changed the course of his college career.

“As a young freshman in my first week of classes, she saw something in me when I attended my first debate practice,” the student wrote. “She encouraged me to spend my freshman summer at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, an experience which changed my life.

“She dropped everything to write me letters of recommendation so that I can experience new opportunities. She put me in leadership positions that she knew I would thrive in. She has spent long days, nights, van trips and airport layovers sharing her wisdom.

“She has opened her home to myself and my fellow debate teammates and fed us blueberry bread that feeds your soul as much as your stomach. She is the kind of person who you know makes the world a better place, solely because she is in it.”

Edwards, a native of Cullman, Alabama, earned her master’s degree in theatre arts from Ole Miss in 1983 and immediately began serving as the university’s first-ever director of forensics. She and her husband, Dex Edwards, moved away for several years and returned in 1997, when he joined the faculty in the Department of Theatre Arts.

She revived the university’s forensics program, which had been on hiatus in the 1990s, in the Lott Institute in 2000. The team has since garnered regional, national and international recognitions, including winning the China Open Debates in 2013. She has served in various regional and national communication organizations and served as president of Delta Sigma Rho-Tau Kappa Alpha, the national forensics honorary, receiving its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. 

In 2003, Edwards and a group of UM alumni and friends founded Speaker’s Edge, the annual MBA public speaking competition. The program is also open to graduate students from the Patterson School of Accountancy and the School of Law. 

“I have taught and coached some amazing students with a capacity to change the world,” Edwards said. “Our conversations on the road, in the office and classroom have inspired me daily – to know more and do more. I am honored to have shared space with them.”

The late Jackie Certion, assistant director of the FASTrack Program, is this year’s staff winner of the Frist Student Service Award. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Certion, an Oxford native who died suddenly Dec. 19, 2020, received several nomination letters from staff members and students, all of whom wrote of her passion for encouraging students.

“Jackie constantly worked selfless hours to mentor students, easily staying long after 6 p.m. and working weekends and holidays,” one staff member wrote. “When I asked her why she sacrificed so much personal time and energy into serving students, she said, ‘I don’t know any other way. I have to keep going. … I’ve just got to make a difference for these kids. They need me.'”

A member of the UM staff since 2001, Certion was named the northeast district Harriet Tubman Award winner by the Magnolia Bar Association in 2019 for her work with African American students. She also was honored with the Black Student Union’s Guiding Light Award, which recognizes faculty and staff who help students excel not only while they’re on campus but also after they’ve earned their degrees.

The Oxford native served as adviser of the Educated, Successful, Talented, Evolving, Empowered and Motivated, or E.S.T.E.E.M., club, an organization for minorities that works to boost women’s confidence at Ole Miss. She was also an active member and chapter adviser of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority and served as a former Mississippi area coordinator.

Ryan Upshaw, former assistant dean for student services in the School of Engineering, recalled his first interaction with Certion, when he was an incoming freshman at the university.

“I had been in a car accident on the way to orientation and could not make it to Oxford for my session,” wrote Upshaw, who won a Frist Award himself in 2018. “I legitimately thought I wasn’t going to be able to attend Ole Miss because I was missing my scheduled orientation session.

“When I called, Jackie was on the other line and assured me that they could get me another session where I could still register for classes and attend in the fall. As a first-generation student (we didn’t know that term then), the comfort of knowing that someone cared on their end of that phone line meant the world to me in that moment.”

The Frist Student Service Awards were established with a $50,000 gift from the late Dr. Thomas F. Frist, of Nashville, a 1930 Ole Miss graduate. Previous Frist winners include faculty members Aileen Ajootian, Michael Barnett, Luca Bombelli, Robert Brown, Donald Dyer, Denis Goulet, Ellen Meacham, Ken Sufka and Eric Weber; and staff members Thelma Curry, Carol Forsythe, Cindy May, Anne McCauley, Valeria Ross, Marc Showalter and Linda Spargo.