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Former UM Students Find Pathway to College Degree

The University of Mississippi honored its first recipients of the new Bachelor of University Studies degree program Aug. 4 at the Jackson Avenue Center. Among the graduates honored at the event was Oxford police officer Hardie Meeks, accompanied by his wife, Katrenia, and their children Hayden, Ty, and Ani. Photo by Larry Agostinelli/UM Division of Outreach and Continuing Education
Police officers, pro football players, substitute teachers, stay-at-home moms and Nissan employees are just a few of the professionals who took part in a special event Aug. 4 at the University of Mississippi’s Jackson Avenue Center.
The special graduation celebration event honored adults who applied to the Mississippi Complete to Compete, or C2C, program and had previously completed the full slate of college coursework, making them eligible for the university’s newest undergraduate degree, the Bachelor of University Studies.
“Finally holding this degree is going to help me get off the line,” said Aspen Cannon, of West Point.
Cannon works full time on the assembly line at the Nissan plant in Canton, but was part of the drum line for the “Pride of the South” marching band and a music and business major at UM from 2004 to ’07.
“Life happened,” Cannon said, reflecting on leaving the university without completing his degree. Family obligations and student loan debt played a part of his decision to leave school, but he said he always regretted not getting his diploma.
At the celebration event, Cannon just happened to sit next to a former bandmate and friend whom he had not seen since leaving Oxford. Timothy Stine, from Millington, Tennessee, also left the university before finishing his degree.
After applying to C2C, Stine received an email from Ole Miss in the spring about the B.U.S. program, and he jumped at the chance when he found out that he met the requirements to receive this degree.
“I’m hoping having this piece of paper will give me better job opportunities,” Stine said. “I’m about to start sending out my updated resume.”
The B.U.S program was created this spring to work in conjunction with the statewide C2C program that began in August 2017. C2C was created by the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning and the Mississippi Community College Board to help adults who have been out of college for at least two years to finish their postsecondary degrees.
In less than a year’s time, UM academic advisers have received C2C applications more than 1,200 former students who had some college coursework, but had not completed a full degree program.
“The first thing I ask people interested in this program is, ‘Tell me your story,'” said Audra Trnovec, UM academic counselor and C2C coach. “I ask for the background on their educational journey so I can help them put together a plan to be successful.”
Many C2C students have shared stories about the reasons surrounding the pause in their education.
“Some students needed to stop taking classes so that they could care for their children, some were supporting wives or supporting husbands; they might have been serving in the military or needing to financially take care of their families,” she said. “They all have a unique background and a unique goal.”
Fhan Cooper, of Crystal Lake, Illinois, played right tackle for Ole Miss during the banner 2014 and 2015 seasons, but he left Oxford for the NFL just a few credits shy of graduation.
“As a transfer student, I had a lot of credits, but my playing time was limited, and I needed to make the move to the pros,” Cooper said.
Cooper, who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and later traded to the Indianapolis Colts, is a free agent looking for his next opportunity.
“I want to be ready for what is next in my life,” he said, noting that he is considering coaching, scouting and training as his next career move.
“I’d like to earn my master’s degree in education so that I can become a good teacher. I think this will help me in a coaching role if I know how to teach concepts and information in an understandable way. And I think completing a degree shows people you take pride in what you do, and you value the work.”
During the past year, staff in the Office of General Studies have identified 150 C2C applicants who had completed all requirements for the B.U.S. degree without taking additional courses. Many of these students had changed majors or completed the bulk of coursework but were never able to finish their chosen degree, so they were encouraged to consider the B.U.S. program.
“We just felt that these students did the work and deserved to be honored like other UM graduates,” said Terry Blackmarr, assistant to the dean for general studies. “One student is so excited to have earned his college degree that he invited 48 family members to the celebration.
“We can already see that completing this degree means so much to these students, and it’s going to make a positive impact on their lives.”
Coffeeville native Jennifer Reeves, who lives in Houston, Texas, drove 600 miles to Oxford to be honored after 20 years since her enrollment.
As an English major in the early ’90s, Reeves married and moved away before graduating. Her husband became an engineer with Exxon Mobile, and his position took them around the globe. They lived in the Netherlands, Singapore and Thailand before landing in Houston. During that time, they added five children to their family.
“I made my mother a promise that I would finish my degree when I got married,” Reeves said. “I’m so happy that this program honors the credits I had already earned and gave me the opportunity to have my diploma.”
“The government, the state of Mississippi and Ole Miss, they don’t owe me anything. I feel that this program is just grace extended to people like me who were so close to finishing but needed a little extra assistance to get across the finish line.”
The B.U.S. program is available for students 21 and older, with a minimum of 90 degree-applicable credit hours who have not been enrolled in college in the past 24 months and have not earned another bachelor’s degree. All applicants must meet the university’s admissions requirements and apply to C2C.
Designed to provide adult students with a flexible pathway to complete a baccalaureate degree, the program allows an individualized curriculum for a student to complete up to three emphasis areas that will position them favorably in their career.
During the celebration, Tony Ammeter, associate provost for the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education and dean of general studies, addressed the graduates.
“It is our hope that the courses you took and the degree you now hold better your life,” he said. “You represent the best work of UM and even though for some of you, it may have been a while ago, we hope Ole Miss has helped you become a leader – a leader who especially understands that success isn’t about the riches you gain, but the people you help.”
Since the program was new this year, this celebration event will make way for future B.U.S graduates to be honored during the university’s official commencement exercises in May, when graduates will walk alongside Bachelor of General Studies students to receive their diplomas.
“Since the university hosts only one commencement ceremony per year, and we were unable to confer degrees for the B.U.S. students until that date had passed, we decided for this year only to host this special event to encourage and celebrate these new graduates who had already waited so long to hold their degree,” Blackmarr said.
Former Ole Miss students who are interested in learning more about this program can visit https://c2c.olemiss.edu/university-studies/.

By Pamela Starling

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