usm spring graduates

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Spring 2020 Graduates Optimistic About Future in Face of COVID-19 Crisis

 By: David Tisdale

Tristen Miller chose public health as her Tristen Millermajor at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM); that decision appears prescient as she earns her degree during a worldwide pandemic.

Spring 2020 USM graduates adjusted to a major disruption midway through the semester, as the COVID-19 virus and its global spread prompted university officials to extend spring break and transition in-person instruction to online delivery for the safety of students and instructors. Colleges across the country faced similar challenges, adapting to recommended and mandated practices in public human interaction to stem the virus’ spread, which included postponement or cancellation of this week’s spring commencement exercises; USM plans to hold those ceremonies in August.

“While our University community has adapted to many challenges throughout the years, this semester has proven exceptional,” said USM Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Steven Moser. “We’ve all been profoundly affected as we consider how our sacred rites of passages have been missed or experienced in a different way. However, I am extraordinarily proud of the way our students have persevered. I commend our graduating students, in fact, all of our students, for their resilience.”

Miller and many of her classmates say that perseverance has helped them become ready for whatever may come next, as they turn to the next page in the story of their lives.

“I’ve grown personally and professionally here,” said Miller, an Atlanta, Ga. who plans to begin working in healthcare after graduation while pursuing a master’s degree, also in public health. She praised faculty mentors Dr. Tanya Funchess and Susan Dobson for their guidance during her USM career, helping her “step outside of my comfort zone and gain new relationships while also motivating others, even as we faced a major life-changing challenge (in the pandemic).”

Miller expects she and many of her USM classmates graduating this semester with a healthcare-related degree will be in jobs or volunteer positions working with COVID-19 patients and their families.

“Before coronavirus was located in the U.S., I initially anticipated working after graduation to tackle healthcare issues within the state of Mississippi, such as elevated teen pregnancy rates, opioid abuse, and lack of access to quality health services,” Miller said. “However, I foresee most of my work now dealing with communicable diseases, infectious diseases and infection control, which aligns with three of my areas of interest. Many will turn to public health workers for leadership and strategic planning during this time.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty as to when the coronavirus will be completely under control; however, I believe the public health program at Southern Miss has greatly prepared its students to get out into the workforce and apply what they’ve learned.”

Miller’s roots run deep at USM, going back four decades. Her parents, Warren and Tracy Miller, are alums, as is her sister, Chesnee, a recent graduate of the university. Her aunt, Sethe, was a Dixie Darling; her grandfather, Samuel Tucker, helped establish USM’s School of Social Work; and her grandmother, Jewel Tucker, served as an administrative assistant for five USM presidents during a 35-year career at the university.

She made her own mark on the Hattiesburg campus as a Dean’s List Scholar; recipient of the Robert D. Pierce, II Legacy Scholarship; service on the Southern Miss Activities Council and to her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Miller also earned the Overall Outstanding Assistant Award for Event Services and Conferences.

“What brought me to USM was the idea of completing my family’s wonderful legacy here,” Miller said.

Tiffany ColeA graduate of the USM Gulf Park Social Work program, Tiffany Cole of Gulfport, Mississippi plans to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) at the school. She came to the university as a transfer student, and jumped into campus life as a student worker in the USM Gulf Park Academic Success Center and leader in its Student Government Association (SGA).

“In both positions, the students were our main concerns,” she said. “We’re adamant about making their experience on campus the best it can be, and it was wonderful being a part of such an amazing team.”

Cole says she saddened commencement exercises are not taking place as scheduled, but believes it was the best decision to postpone them, as school officials follow guidance from public health leaders – a continuation of what she’s witnessed since the beginning of her time at USM: compassion and care.

“It’s wonderful knowing our university is truly concerned about the wellbeing of its students,” Cole said.

Cole was nominated NASW- BSW student of the Year for the 2019-2020, and local Student of the Year for her cohort for both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. She was recipient of the Academic Excellence Award for the past three years.

Among the many USM Gulf Park faculty and staff members who contributed to Cole’s success, she noted Karen Aderer, Kevin Walker and Jona Burton for their special contributions.

“These individuals have been with me throughout my journey and provided assistance, guidance, and support the entire time,” Cole said. “They pushed me into becoming an advocate, leader, and a professional, providing me with the skills, qualities, and examples that can be used for a lifetime.”

Kayla Jo MartinKayla Jo Martin came to USM from Baskin, Louisiana; she’s earning a bachelor’s degree in accountancy this semester. Her goals include pursuit of a Master of Professional Accountancy degree from USM while also sitting for sections of the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam, enroute to a career in public accounting.

In the home stretch that was the spring 2020 semester, Martin encountered a few hurdles before making it to the finish line.

“I’m not going to lie – this semester was pretty tough. It seemed like my apartment complex decided to mow under my window every day,” Martin said. “I’m so grateful for the study rooms that USM supplies us with, because I could shut myself off from all distractions and focus. It was challenging to bring that same energy this semester, confined to my home. “I also struggled to deal with the fact our graduation ceremony was postponed and my study abroad trip was canceled, and my workplace closed due to COVID-19. However, our university put a lot of effort into making sure students could make a smooth transition to online. I’m

thankful for all their hard work – and their compassion – during this time. We’ll still get to share that special graduation moment with family and friends in August.”

Love led Martin to USM – “Honestly, I followed my boyfriend here,” she said. Then after immersing herself into her studies and extracurricular activities, she also fell in love with the university.

“He was set on coming to USM due to its excellent relationship with military veteran students,” Martin said. “Now, I can’t imagine going to any other school. This place has become my home and allowed me to rise to my highest potential. I can’t say enough great things about its faculty and curriculum.”

Martin closes the book on her undergraduate career as a Highest Honors graduate; recipient of the fall 2019 Beta Alpha Psi service hour award; a 2019 MSCPA scholarship recipient; the 2020 MSCPA Outstanding Accounting Major; and as president of the newly formed Student Center for the Public Trust, voted “Best New Organization” on campus.

She worked with faculty member Dr. Marvin Bouillon to get the Student Center for the Public Trust going this past semester. “He (Bouillon) is a great leader and pushes students to make the right decisions,” Martin said. “He makes us feel like our voices are heard and our opinions matter. I am grateful for that. “And Amber Hatten has been such an advocate for accounting students. She is continuously sending us internship/job updates, and that’s something I hope our students don’t take for granted. She really wants to see us succeed.”

Erin CraterErin Crater of Laurel Mississippi, a Presidential Scholar and Honors College student who double majored in polymer science and chemistry, will pursue a doctorate in chemistry at Virginia Tech University after earning her degree from USM. She came to the university on the recommendation of her high school chemistry teacher, Karen Deniakos, who encouraged her to apply to USM to study polymer science after Crater expressed interest in studying the physical sciences in college.

At USM, Crater was a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar; a NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholar; was offered an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship; co-authored two peer-reviewed publications; and studied abroad at the University of Exeter in England. She said the Honors College was highly influential in her decision to come to USM, as the Presidential Scholarship allowed her to focus on her academic development. “From the beginning of my time here, the Honors College encouraged me to study abroad, to get involved with research, and to apply for nationally competitive awards,” she said.

The semester’s mid-point transition to online instruction delivery afforded Crater the time and space to reflect upon her career at USM.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given here, and the faculty members who guided me along the way,” she said. “My research advisors, including Dr. Jason Azoulay, provided me the unbelievable opportunity to contribute to their research, while allowing me to have a hands-on learning experience; Dr. (Bernd) Schroeder, who exposed me to the world of differential equations; Dr. (Julie) Pigza, who developed my skills as a spectroscopist; and Dr. (Robson) Storey, whose lectures on polymer organic chemistry felt more like an interesting story than a class.

“These professors made the classroom my favorite place on campus.”

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