Bricks and mortar build a university. The true foundation of a university is the stories authored in each individual. Both current students and alumni have stories of how the arts have impacted them.


Surducan at Piano

Statistics show that between 75-90 percent of people have stage fright when asked to perform in public. What if your goal in life was to use music to impact the world, but you have stage fright? How far would you go to make a dream happen?

Lorena Surducan traveled around the world. She came to the United States for an education in music therapy, an opportunity that was not offered in her home country of Romania. Like many people, she was afraid to perform too.

“Look at everyone. Everyone came to see you. Everyone wants you to be successful,” are the words of wisdom Dr. Julia Mortyakova, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music, told Surducan.

These words constantly resonate in Surducan’s mind before performing and help her overcome her fear. Now she regularly performs for her classmates, professors and the community at The W. She recently received Honorable Mention at the Music Teachers National Association Young Artist Competition in 2017.

Since attending The W, Surducan has worked with kindergarteners, nursing home patients, foster children and one client who suffers from Huntington’s Disease.

Surducan’s desire and dream is to change a country by influencing the next generation. She hopes to open a school in a remote country to reach and impact children with music to bring change and hope.

“I believe music can affect children and people. It can help them think of greater things beyond poverty.”

Immediately after graduation, Surducan will pursue a graduate degree along with an assistantship to help with graduate school tuition.

Surducan with paintingsWhen she is not in the classroom, another art is a part of Surducan’s life. Though she has never taken a class, she gained fame for her small watercolor paintings. Flowers, birds and nature are often the focus of her paintings.

They started as postage-stamp size but have progressed to postage-card sized renderings.

“I began painting for fun and was proud of them. People then started telling me the paintings were good. Soon, people commissioned me to paint,” described Surducan. Her paintings are found in offices across campus.

Surducan was guided to The W by Dr. Valentin Bogdan, a native Romanian. With the assistance of the Office of Admissions and Dr. Bogdan, Surducan was able to navigate the admissions process from another continent and receive the necessary scholarships.

Once on campus, she found comfort in the European architecture of the building and the small quiet places around campus that are surrounded by flowers.

As if painting or the busy schedule of a music student weren't enough, Surducan is also a member of the Owls women’s cross-country team.

Before coming to The W, Surducan admits she was scared of the unexpected. She was scared because she was different. She spoke a different language, acted differently and didn’t grow up in America.

“My prayer every day was to be like Daniel in the land of foreigners,” said Surducan.

She explained that her gifts and talents are not from millions of hours of practice, but from her faith.


Campaign manager, music producer supervisor, marketing strategist, wife and mom are words that have been used to describe Stacey Boyett. She calls both Los Angeles and Nashville home. Her voice can be heard on 15 different television series that account for 350 episodes. Now, she is on the big screen.

Stacey and Brett BoyettFrom the small town of Forrest, Boyett graduated in 1998 with a double major at The W: one-half commercial music, the other journalism/public relations. Her parents, as most parents do, wanted her to major in a field that would allow her to make a living. They encouraged journalism. Music was a compromise.

In the early 2000s, Boyett managed an Emmy award-winning composer’s private recording studio facility and actual recording sessions for multiple simultaneous network TV series including "Friday Night Lights," "Lipstick Jungle" and "The West Wing." Continuing in both music and creativity, Boyett would go on to manage projects for an award-winning audio branding company in Nashville and eventually travel between LA and Nashville after becoming a music business consultant.

Boyett’s theory of life has been “bloom where planted.” She can recall as a young child taking her classical piano lessons seriously and being very competitive. At The W, she played saxophone in the jazz band, guitar with the Maskers and was a member of The Spectator staff. Boyett credits the legendary William “Wild Bill” Sorrels, journalism instructor, for her on-point editing.

“There were a lot of different activities. You miss them. You were encouraged to be well rounded, to put yourself out there and to take a risk,” said Boyett.

On January 19, “Forever My Girl” was released in theaters across the United States. In the credits of the film, you will find music by Brett Boyett, Stacey’s husband. During the film, pay close attention to the London concert scene. Boyett is a female back-up singer to the main character, Liam Page, during the song “Smokin’ and Cryin.” It’s not an act though, she actually recorded the background vocals for the song for the movie’s soundtrack.


Go to The W and seek a man named Peppy. These words piqued Christopher Ambrose’s curiosity.

“I walked in the building and everything felt like home,” said Ambrose.

Since that day, Ambrose never doubted that he made the right decision. He always wanted to be a professional actor and felt as if he had the talent to make it, but he also wanted the knowledge to pursue the profession. He signed up for a transfer student visit day and enrolled.

He credits William “Peppy” Biddy, Lee Crouse and David Carter for molding him into the actor and man he is now.

AmbroseCrouse jump-started Ambrose’s career by inviting him to be a part of an internship with the Scioto Society and their production of “Tecumseh.” From 2013-15, he ventured to a cabin in the mountains of Chillicothe, Ohio, to spend two-and-half weeks rehearsing and 15 weeks of performing shows Monday through Saturday.

After graduating, Ambrose joined New Stage Theater in Jackson. With the company, he traveled from one end of Mississippi to the other performing three different shows. One was titled, “Walk, Don’t Ride! A Celebration of the Fight for Equality.”

After exploring Mississippi, Ambrose spent a short stint with a Minnesota theater company. He would return to his home state for a self-proclaimed break. While on break, Ambrose attended an acting class in New Orleans and would later attend the same acting class in Jackson. Little did the Durant native know that there was an agent in the audience. They even chatted about his hometown, but he admits he had no idea he was speaking with an agent.

After viewing his first film, “Poison Tree Blues,” talent agent Angie Moncrief decided Ambrose was someone she needed to represent. On the last day of the application process, Ambrose received a phone call and was booked to appear on NCIS: New Orleans.

Ambrose described being on set as a combination of nervousness and breathlessness.

“I’m about to achieve a lifelong goal. I’m on the right path at age 27,” Ambrose said about the moment.

In Season 4, Episode 5: Viral, Ambrose portrayed the loud pedestrian.

“It was a gratifying experience. I’m blessed to have all these things going for me,’’ said Ambrose.

Peppy Biddy left a lasting impression with Ambrose with the simple phrase, “There will always be a parade.”

Ambrose uses those words to inspire his career.

“No matter what happens, there will always be a show. Perform the same for one as if you were performing for thousands. Look into the audience. Find the kid in the audience who is paying attention and give them the show. Make sure they understand the show,” explained Ambrose.


W alums at Thrive MediaIn a busy newsroom in north Mississippi, you will find a maze of cubicles. Papers cover desks like a rare southern snow. Everyone is scurrying, trying to either meet a deadline or get the next scoop. In contrast, in the back of the room, also known as the creative section, everyone is calm.

Jordan Langford, who was once inspired to be a veterinarian, has found her true love--art. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Langford was intrigued by digital art--a world with endless possibilities, including perfection and quick processes.

“With graphic design, I can be a part of everyone’s everyday life,” Langford said.

A recent graduate of The W, she walked across the stage of Whitfield Hall in the spring of 2017. Now at her desk at Thrive Marketing in Tupelo, she is a professional graphic and web designer. She confesses that she gets to do what she loves all day every day.

Though she has not been gone long from campus, she’s already homesick. “I miss it [The W] so much. We were a diverse little family,” said Langford.

She misses the wackiness of professor Shawn Dickey and his printmaking class. Langford also added that art majors are a little crazy, including herself. She credits professors Jonathan Cumberland, Alex Stelioes and Robert Gibson for helping prepare her for success in the real world by assisting her in preparing portfolios, packets and resumes.

Langford gave her professors one of the greatest compliments. “Professors generally care, they are like your brother, your parent,” explained Langford about her time at The W.

Sitting directly across from Langford with only a small cubicle wall in the way is Efrem Gillard, class of 2014. Like Langford, Gillard was a graphic design student at The W. Gillard has always liked to draw. He won his first art award in the second grade. When it was time for college, he made two lists. The first list was titled, “What I like” and the other “What I’m good at.” The commonality was art.

Just like Langford, Gillard was fully prepared for a career in art.

“They set us up for the real world,” explained Gillard. “At The W, they teach you everything you need to know.”

He explained of moments in his career that have drawn him back to Summer Hall. While performing daily tasks, he has thought, “this is what they were talking about.”

Today, Gillard is a graphic designer who focuses on branding, social media and web design.

Beyond the cubicles in the back of the newsroom is the woman “behind the curtain.” She sits behind a door with a big blue owl, its piercing eyes perhaps a symbol of wisdom presiding over the newsroom. Ashley Elkins ’05 is the agency’s marketing director.

When asked why she manages an agency full of W graduates, she responded, “W grads are very special because they are more than just studies. They understand life is more than the task that is in front of you.”

The giant owl on her door is reminiscent of her unofficial college mentor, Dr. Dee Larson. One day while Elkins searched for career advice Larson advised, “Not all managers can be marketers, but all marketers can be managers.”

Elkins took those words to heart.


Fortenberry at the MET.

Alumnus Chad Fortenberry jokes that he once was king for a day. The actor, who posed as the king of Spain, was removed from his throne and from the grounds of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To this day, he insists he did no wrong.

Six months after graduation, Fortenberry married and moved to New York City to begin a career in acting.

After some off-Broadway plays, a few commercials and short films, he began performing stand-up and improv comedy at venues around the city. To help book new venues and create new opportunities, Fortenberry turned then to the up and coming social media channel of YouTube.

Fortenberry with cameraFortenberry and friends would shoot comedy sketches similar to the familiar “Saturday Night Live” sketches. The video uploads have led to more gigs and opportunities from small businesses. A career in film and editing was born.

Fortenberry’s reign and kingship in New York only lasted around 10 minutes. To receive his crown, Fortenberry entered a content contest hosted by Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based comedy collective that stages unexpected performances in public places. The company is known for its annual pantless subway ride. As the contest winner, he dressed as his doppelganger King Philip IV and entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art to sign autographs in front of his portrait painting.

The Improv Everywhere YouTube video of the event currently has more than 1.5 million views. Coincidentally, the performance was the last day the Fortenberry family lived in New York.

Now living in the Music City of Nashville, Fortenberry’s has focused his career in two areas--music and medicine. Today, he is the senior video specialist for HCA Healthcare. Video and photography projects, creative marketing and business development are among his daily duties. Before joining HCA, Fortenberry was the director of photography for Ryman Hospitality Properties. He worked with the biggest country music stars as they visited and performed at the famous Grand Ole Opry. Before the days of New York City and Nashville, Fortenberry can recall the words of Peppy Biddy, “You need to be a theater major.”

“The W developed my groundwork of creating,” said Fortenberry. “Just to learn everything was pivotal-- to learn the set, the lights and make them do what you need them to do.”

Looking back, Fortenberry realizes and remembers how writing scripts, analyzing characters and creating sets established a foundation before he discovered his career or perhaps his career discovered him.

Most recently, as a passion project, Fortenberry wrote, produced, directed and acted in a Hardee's/Carl’s Jr. holiday commercial.