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University Lauds Red and Blue Graduates

Thirty University of Mississippi staff members were recognized Wednesday (April 28) for receiving a UM degree while simultaneously working as university employees during the third Red and Blue Celebration of Achievement.

The university employees received either a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree during the 2019-20 or 2020-21 academic years. Held at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the celebration was open to last year’s graduates because the planned 2020 celebration was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since its inception in 2018, the event has recognized nearly 100 staff members, known as Red and Blue Graduates.

“As an institution dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge, lifelong learning is at the heart of what we do,” Provost Noel Wilkin said. “I am impressed by the number of people who embrace the power of education and pursue degrees themselves while facilitating the education of others.”

With the university adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols, including masks and physical distancing as well as other safety parameters, graduates were limited to two guests, but many were joined by family members and friends.

These staff members are employed primarily in nonteaching activities in support of the educational, research and service programs of the university. The 30 staff members – including 16 graduates from the 2020-21 academic year – obtaining degrees this year are employed across campus, working jobs that assure student success, assist student-athlete triumphs, maintain building maintenance and infrastructure, oversee printing services, serve student housing needs and more.

“The Red and Blue Celebration is an important ceremony to recognize and honor the hard work and dedication of our colleagues,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said. “Earning a degree while balancing work, family, and outside activities and obligations presents unique challenges.

“Our staff members who take advantage of the amazing opportunities and resources available here to further their education become living examples of the transformative work we do here every day.”

The staff members balanced working jobs with classes, and then studying and preparing for exams while not working. Many are also parents, spouses and caregivers on top of their work and academic commitments. And all this was accomplished in the face of a worldwide pandemic.

One of the staff members recognized was Elisabeth Alexander, who works in the School of Business Administration as a program coordinator.

“My educational experience as a staff member at Ole Miss was fantastic,” said Alexander, who earned her bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies in December 2020. “From my counselor, Christi Rogers, to exceptional professors, they all ensured I was successful and doing my best. 

“I am very grateful to my supervisor, Beth Whittington, for her support in not only achieving my bachelor’s degree but also my currently being in the higher education and student personnel master’s program. Above all, I am grateful for the unyielding support of my family during my past and continued education.”

Flora Jones is graduating this May with a master’s degree in higher education and student personnel.

“Deciding to continue my education for my master’s was very intriguing and intimidating at times where I faced a lot of challenges and opportunities,” said Jones, who works as an administrative coordinator in Contractual Services Management/ID Center. 

“The professors who teach these courses are phenomenal individuals who understand that we, as grad students, are also full-time working adults who have spouses, children, etc., outside of class, so they structure their teaching around that and that means a lot to someone who wants to further their education.

“One, in particular, Dr. George McClellan, was not only my adviser but my professor for a couple of courses, and he is an extraordinary individual. I truly believe he lives by the motto, ‘No student left behind,’ as he goes out of his way to make sure every student in his class is on the same page before moving on. Even though it’s a lot of work trying to juggle it all, it helps when you have a supportive family at home as well as a department head who is there encouraging and pushing you to always strive for better, and I have that in Mrs. Kathy Tidwell and my co-workers, and for that, I am very grateful.”

Cliff McCain works as a learning specialist in the Office of Student-Athlete Development in the Academic Enrichment Department. He earned his master’s degree in educational administration at Delta State University in 1996 and has worked at UM since 2014.

In May 2020, he received his doctorate in higher education.

“My experience in graduate school has been extremely rewarding,” he said. “Going back as a little older student was a little intimidating. However, the higher education faculty could not have been better at making me feel at home while simultaneously challenging me. 

“In addition, my supervisors and co-workers within the FedEx Student-Athlete Success Center were always supportive of my goals. Overall, the last three years were extremely positive and a time I will never forget.”

Cole Russell is on track to earn his master’s degree in integrated marketing communications in August, which will assist his work as manager of printing services in University Marketing and Communications.

“Juggling work and home life, along with trying to earn a master’s degree, was exhaustive, but worth it,” Russell said. “The classes I’ve taken have given me more confidence in my area of work, and I look forward to putting this new knowledge into action.”

Another learner who is thankful for the opportunity to further her education is Amy Saxton, operations supervisor in the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education and the 2013 Thomas Frist Student Service Award winner.

“First, I would not be graduating without the immense love and support of my husband, David, my daughter, Maddy, and my extended family and friends,” said Saxton, who is earning her bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies in May. “My supervisor, April Thompson, and my co-workers in Academic Outreach have really helped to cheer me on to the finish line. 

“The faculty in sociology and anthropology, especially Scott Barretta and Mark Franks, were some of the most understanding and empathetic professors I have had. They worked with me to grow as a student and helped to reinvigorate me about my studies.

“Lastly, staying focused and obtaining my bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies would not have been possible without assistance from my academic adviser, Christie Rogers. She understood what I required as an adult learner with a full-time job and family to take care of. I appreciate the University of Mississippi for allowing me to pursue a goal of mine; I am forever grateful and proud to be an alumnus.”

By Shea Stewart

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