The W's Unique and Personal Student Experience
Many are surprised to learn the average age of a W student is 25, with many students working fulltime. About 30 percent of students are enrolled in completely online classes, allowing them flexibility in scheduling and in completing assignments. Every student at the university learns in a way that suits their interests and needs. Continuing to meet those needs and provide a pathway to degree completion is part of the W’s focus for the 21st century student. Meet some of the great variety of students becoming members of The Long Blue Line.
On-campus studies and life
More than 500 students live in one of five residence halls on north and south campus. Typically traditional-age college students, they say on-campus living offers opportunities to become fully immersed in leadership activities and to be part of a community.
Kris Sullivan, a senior from Richland, came to The W after taking vocational courses in culinary arts. A teacher recommended The W, and “it was the only school I applied to,” he said. He originally pursued culinary arts but changed to family studies, an in-depth academic major dealing with children and families.
“My parents wanted me to go to a community college and live at home, but I wanted the full experience,” he said. “My brother lived in an apartment when he went to college, and he missed out on a lot of things.”
Sullivan said he especially appreciates the support he’s received from staff members “who have guided me through. I’ve learned that everyone you meet will stay in your life. I’ve learned professionalism, and I’ve learned as a young professional you have to keep growing. I’m thankful to have the support system I have here. I may not notice it until later, but I’ll know I learned it at The W.”
Following his May graduation, Sullivan began a year-long position at Camp Ramapo for Children in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a nonprofit that serves children and young adults who face obstacles to learning, as well as offering leadership retreats for adults.
“I will mentor a socially challenged young adult, facilitate leadership retreats and enhance small group activities,” he said. “It’s a little scary, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity. I’m ready to experience what life has to offer and to grow.”
Jaz Jackson, a sophomore elementary education major from Jackson, has embraced the leadership opportunities she’s found at The W. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “The W was not originally one of my choices, but my sister is a 2012 alum and she said, ‘Let’s tour The W.’ I got a personal tour and met my dean. I fell in love. The W is just the right size, and it’s so friendly.”
While taking five courses in the spring semester ranging from human growth and development to computers in the classroom, Jackson also is heavily involved in campus activities. She’s an Orientation Leader, a member of the Silhouette social club, the W Leadership Program and Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“You’re never bored,” she said. “There’s always someone to talk to, to help you with homework and to offer support.”
Looking ahead to her career, Jackson said, “I love children. They’re hilarious and they’re special and they’re our future. I’m looking forward to being an elementary teacher, and one day I want to teach high school English.” She hopes those teaching opportunities are in her hometown of Jackson.
"I fell in love. The W is just the right size, and it’s so friendly."
Research that challenges
On-campus Honors students say one of their learning opportunities is an in-depth research project that lets them expand their research skills while delving deeply into special topics. Their project culminates with a formal presentation of their findings.
Cassidy DeGreen of Birmingham, Ala., a graduating interdisciplinary studies major with a religion and psychology emphasis and a minor in business, found her research passion while volunteering for two weeks in Africa.
“Another volunteer asked me if I’d read ‘Half the Sky,’” a book about the oppression of women and children in developing countries. It is written by veteran journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.
“I began reading books by human trafficking victims and saw the reality of sexual abuse. It inspired me to want to do something meaningful for my research project. It made me realize there’s a problem at home. And it made me committed to wanting to see the end of human trafficking in my lifetime.”
DeGreen did extensive reading about recovery assistance programs and noted repeated needs mentioned in the literature. She developed a survey to send nationwide to determine how well restoration needs, especially of sex trafficked victims, are met. In all, she contacted 113 programs.
Of those responding, she found that only 10 percent met all 34 critical components she tested for. “Most were high, but some were fairly low,” she said. “A lot of programs are coming out of faith-based communities, and those in the program aren’t sufficiently trained.”
Her conclusion was that “In the future, programs need further expansion and development to include all evidence-based components and reach their fullest potential to foster survivor recovery.” She has presented her findings at state and regional conferences, and earned first-place honors at the state honors conference.
DeGreen's goal is to work with a recovery program such as the A21 Campaign, a nonprofit whose mission is to end human trafficking.
Kimberly Heath, a graduating culinary arts major from Petal, took a practical approach to her Honors research project. After taking a class in demonstration techniques, she became more confident in her demonstration and cooking skills. Combining that with her interest in nutrition, she began to research available literature on cooking demonstrations for college students. She found few.
“Students usually have only a small amount of time, which often leads to consuming unhealthy convenience foods,” she said. “My research showed that 23 percent skip breakfast, so that became my focus.” Her project, titled “Becoming Breakfast Savvy,” used cooking-skills demonstration to motivate students to cook. A followup survey gauged the effectiveness of her project in reaching goals.
She recruited 27 participants through campus flyers, social media posts and emails. She developed two recipes with fewer than five ingredients, focusing on those that could be prepared using only a microwave and a fridge.
In the demonstrations, Heath presented an oatmeal bar that offered a variety of dried and fresh fruit, nuts, granola and other toppings that could be easily stored. She showed that oatmeal could be bagged and prepared ahead for quick retrieval, cutting down preparation time when needed. She also showed that breakfast sandwiches could be assembled in advance, wrapped and frozen for easy use. Not only were the breakfasts healthier, they also cost less than convenience food.
Her study, she said, “reinforced college students are a segment of the population in desperate need of kitchen education and practice.” Heath is now headed for graduate studies in food science at Mississippi State University, with a goal of working with the Extension Service in food safety.
"I love The W and all the diversity. All of the political, religious and ethnic differences have broadened me."
Expanding cultural horizons
The W offers many opportunities for study-abroad, but for the first time last spring, students had an opportunity to participate in a "study away" program.
Led by Honors director Dr. Kim Whitehead and biology professor Dr. Nicole Welch, the program, which visited the American Southwest, had a goal of allowing students to develop higher levels of cross-cultural awareness while reflecting on their lives in a transformative way, Whitehead said. Students prepared with on-campus coursework on Southwestern literature and ecology, followed by on-site experiences over seven days. Whitehead said students “heard other languages spoken, learned about ancient ways of life, and ate foods they had never heard of before.”
Junior theater major Courtney Thompson of Sumrall and freshman English major Walker Winter of Houlka were two of the students participating. “The farthest West I had been was Texas,” Thompson said. Her perceptions of the West as a landscape of flat terrain with cacti was transformed when she discovered the diversity of the geography. “It was very different in a good way,” she said.
In particular, she was awed by the Grand Canyon.
“The massive canyon made me feel incredibly small and insignificant in comparison to its beauty and importance,” she wrote in her reflective essay. “I hope that future generations will understand how important these natural wonders are to the world as we know it and will continue actively protecting these landscapes.”
Similarly, Winter said the class “helped me challenge stereotypes and question my own perceptions.” Winter, who wants to be a secondary English education teacher, said the landscape—particularly the Grand Canyon—“put into perspective how small we are.”
Winter also witnessed the difficulties of poverty. “I didn’t know people who didn’t have the ease of access to water,” he noted. “We saw Native Americans pulling a trailer into town to fill up their water tanks.”
The study away experience, like his experience of attending The W, is giving him new perspectives and challenging his thinking. “I love The W and all the diversity,” he said. “All of the political, religious and ethnic differences have broadened me.”
Pathways for adult learners
The W also has a large percentage of nontraditional students—those beyond typical college age, many working fulltime, with both professional and personal responsibilities. They are finding new opportunities at The W, both through traditional and online academic options.
‘The credentials I want’
Steven Woodruff, 37, is a criminal investigator in the Office of the District Attorney, covering Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Noxubee counties. A law enforcement officer for 17 years before assuming his current position, he will earn his bachelor’s degree in legal studies in December. After attending Northeast Mississippi Community College for two years when he finished high school, he opted for employment and has been working ever since. “My daughter is extremely smart, and I watched her do homework,” he explained. “It made me realize I wanted to earn my degree.” He began to look at online programs and found The W.
A visit to campus convinced him it was the right place for him. “The environment here is amazing because they take the time to get to know you,” he said. After meeting faculty members in his major, “I knew I wanted to be a part of this program.”
Online learning is both challenging and rewarding. In addition to working 50-60 hours a week, Woodruff is taking 15-16 hours of coursework each semester. He’s proud that he’s made no grade lower than an A-.
“I love the discussion in the online classes,” he said. “The legal research projects mirror my real-life work, and I’ve been able to bring on some of my classmates as interns.” He’s so inspired by the challenge that “I don’t want to be finished. I really enjoy this.” He’s now thinking about pursuing an advanced degree at The W. “This place is amazing.”
Building job skills
Helen Robinson of Columbus, 46, is anything but a ‘traditional student.’ As an adult, she attended The W as a fulltime student, earning her bachelor’s degree in accounting in 2011. Now financial manager for the Columbus-Lowndes Recreational Authority, she discovered she didn’t want to stop with an undergraduate degree.
“The job market today is challenging, and I’m competing against much younger people,” she noted. “I wanted to build my skills and the diversity of my professional portfolio.” She enrolled in The W’s online master’s of business administration program in the College of Business and Professional Studies and earned her degree in May.
“It helps that the curriculum is so well planned,” she said. “Everything is laid out, so I knew what to expect. The professors really stick to the curriculum and will always get back with you if you have questions. They challenge students. They’re really great.”
She’s proud that her mother was able to see her graduate in 2011, but regrets that she died before seeing her earn the MBA. “This graduation was dedicated to her,” she said. Robinson is one of only two of her mother’s seven children to earn a bachelor’s degree and will be the only one with a master’s.
"The W has been the biggest blessing. I don’t know if I would have made it otherwise."
When roads diverge
Sometimes, because of changing circumstances and re-evaluated interests, studies take students on previously unexplored paths. Jacqui Bybee, 32, has proved that an adult learner is capable of reinventing careers. Bybee earned her bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology in 2006 from Florida State University. She followed that with master’s degrees in both management communication and marketing, also from FSU.
“I intended to enter the doctoral program in integrated marketing,” she said. “I was entering the dissertation phase when I discovered it wasn’t my calling.”
A family move brought her to Starkville, but a change in personal circumstances forced her to find work and to re-evaluate her next steps. From 2012-15, she worked fulltime as a research assistant at the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State and took a second job at night at the local Buffalo Wild Wings, working there 30 hours a week.
Her research job taught her that she loved the interaction with people with visual impairments, and she began to think about what she wanted to do. Her sister, two aunts and a grandmother all were nurses, and she decided that her true calling also was nursing. It was not an easy path to follow. “I had to take some pre-requisites to apply to nursing school,” she explained. “I took two classes a semester for a year and a half to apply to The W.”
She entered the bachelor’s nursing program in the summer of 2015 while continuing to work 40 hours a week at Buffalo Wild Wings, adjusting her work schedule to accommodate classes and clinical requirements. Scholarships helped defray her school expenses. While at The W, she earned the Exie Carlisle and Lewellyn Early Ory Scholarship, the Dr. Delene Lee Scholarship, the Rotary Club of Columbus Scholarship and the Lettie Pate Whitehead Scholarship. “The W has been the biggest blessing,” she said of the scholarships. “I don’t know if I would have made it otherwise.”
With her May graduation, Bybee already has secured a position as a cardiac ICU nurse at Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but she’s confident she will continue her education. “I want to advance beyond the bachelor’s,” she said. Looking back on her journey, she said, “I hope professors at The W realize what a difference they make.”
If you hit a bump, keep going
Kelli Smith, 31, earned her associate’s degree in nursing in 2015 from Northeast Mississippi Community College, but she hit a few stumbling blocks in her educational journey.
“I failed my third semester at NEMCC,” she confessed.
She kept plugging with encouragement from her husband and now works as an RN in outpatient infusion at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.
But she didn’t want to stop there. “I wanted to earn my bachelor’s degree,” she said. The W’s RN-to-BSN online degree program, based in Tupelo, offered her the chance to realize her goal.
She was at orientation for that program in August 2016 when she received a call from her husband. He had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. “It was a very emotional time,” she recalled. “I thought I might not be able to continue in the program.”
One of the professors at orientation had made the statement that “life happens,” and Smith became proof of that. “The professors urged me to keep going, and they worked with me.” Her husband had surgery and has had clear scans since. But two weeks after his diagnosis, she learned she was pregnant. Life, once more, had happened. Despite the personal challenges, Smith has continued to work 40-hour weeks at NMMC and to take 15 hours of coursework each semester to earn her BSN in the year-long program. “It really has not been an issue,” she said. “The W’s program is perfect. It’s for the working RN and is well organized. I love the fact that teachers are easy to talk to and want you to succeed.”
If anything, the difficulties she’s faced have made her more determined. Smith said, “I wanted to prove I could do it. My husband really pushed me, and now I know that I want to go even further.”
Her experiences also have given her new perspectives on her job. “It’s been very humbling,” she said. “I can really relate to patients’ stories.”
‘It feels like an investment’
Matthew Reeves, 27, originally from San Diego, Calif., landed in Columbus in 2008 because of military duty at Columbus Air Force Base. In his military role, he taught aerospace and operational physiology, a subject focusing on issues such as disorientation and air sickness that might be experienced by pilots in the air. A medical discharge in 2011, however, forced Reeves to re-evaluate his life.
“I decided to apply to about a dozen schools in the area, the state and the region,” he said. He was accepted to all of them.
Living across the street from The W during his military service, though, had made a special impression on him.
“Everyone always seemed to be happy. I never met a person in a bad mood.” He liked that atmosphere, as well as the fact that he would not have to travel to complete a degree.
Using his G.I. Bill, he enrolled and earned his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2015. Not content to stop, he earned his master’s degree in health education in 2016. His research focused on socioeconomic status and its perceived relation to foodborne illness susceptibility, pairing his interest in science with his desire to help others.
Today, he knows he made the right educational choice.
“The environment at The W is conducive to developing students,” he said. “Teachers take the time to listen and make sure you understand. You are not a warm body in a chair. The professors are very passionate about their work.” Now married with an 8-month old daughter, Reeves is in paramedic school working for North Mississippi Medical Center and beginning the application process for medical school. Eventually, he wants to practice emergency medicine or cardiology care locally.
Looking back on his undergraduate and graduate experiences at The W, Reeves said, “Students feel they are getting the best education for the price they have paid. It feels like an investment. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it at any other place.”