To celebrate the new year, we've chosen two students from Millsaps College, Mississippi College, Jackson State University, Tougaloo College and Belhaven College who really exemplify what their school has to offer. The staff and students of these schools agree: These folks are the MVPs of college life.
Michael Opata, 25, may be soft-spoken, but his accomplishments are earth-shattering. Originally from Kenya, Opata attended Rust College in Holly Springs for his undergraduate degree. He then entered Jackson State as a participant in the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement where he's now engaged in some pretty impressive work. Opata and his colleagues are researching the role of plant extracts in inhibiting the growth of breast-cancer cells. Their results have suggested that when combined with these plant inhibitors, some drugs on the market actually prevent the growth of breast-cancer cells. A grant proposal to the National Institute of Health soon followed, as well as spotlights in national science journals and symposia. But when Opata isn't working on ground-breaking research, he's watching (or playing) sports or singing in the church choir. His goal is to become a professor with the Research Initiative and encourage high school students to undertake a career in the sciences.
Chelsi West, 19 of Jackson, had the same dream a lot of students in high school have—to leave for an out-of-state college. But her parents had something else in mind. "I thought I was going to hate going to college here, but I love it," she says. West is a sophomore anthropology major at Millsaps College. She loves studying people, and to her, Jackson is the "perfect place" to do just that. Last year she did a study on private schools and visited a local one. She is this year's life editor for the Purple & White college newspaper. She is also a foundations leader and presidential ambassador for the admissions office. By being a foundations leader she helps freshmen during their first year of college. As a presidential ambassador she helps recruit people to come to Millsaps. West is very much in love with Millsaps College.
Becca Hemperley, 24, already boasts an impressive resume. A rising senior at Mississippi College, Hemperley holds down a managerial position at Pier 1 Imports and serves as a compliant specialist at Park Management; in fact, she works a staggering 70 hours a week. But this accounting major from Louisiana still finds time to juggle her jobs with her academics, which an aspiring MBA must of course master. Aside from these pursuits, she also sets aside time for charity-based activities, such as the Race for the Cure, which benefits breast cancer research. Hemperley asserts that one of the perks of being a student at MC (besides the caring administration and faculty) is its proximity to Jackson, a town she says is full of great people. "I fell in love with it," she says. "I want to stay here forever." Jackson should be so lucky.
Clinnesha Dillon, 21, has been writing plays since she was 12 and has written and directed at least one play for her every year at Tougaloo. Dillon produces and controls most aspects of these productions. "I don't delegate as much as I should," she confides, generally only pulling in help for composing songs.
She's a senior now and is looking forward to going to grad school, where she'll be able to get her MFA or MA in playwriting. What's surprising is that a person with such love for playwriting and directing is at Tougaloo at all, as the college offers no classes or majors for acting, theater or dancing. In fact, when Dillon came to visit Tougaloo, she was disappointed with Ballard Hall, its theater space. So why Tougaloo?
"It's not that I like Tougaloo; it's a love," she says, laughing. "We don't have a lot of things that a public university has. We're a struggling institution. Tougaloo alumni are proud. It's something that hits you on campus; it's very spiritual. You have to be in tune to something that's greater than appearances."
When asked what the best aspect of his college experience has been thus far, Kyle Doherty, 19, quickly replies, "The variety of things I'm able to do." A Meridian native and Millsaps College sophomore, Doherty seems so involved, you start to wonder if he has any time for class or homework.
Doherty recently became features editor of the Purple and White newspaper. He serves as secretary of the Young Democrats on campus, as well as T-shirt chair at his fraternity. He's also co-chairman of the Security Committee of the Student Body Association and is involved with Model UN. A double major in Spanish and history, Doherty aspires to a career in government.
And as if that weren't hectic enough, he plays tennis, reads avidly, and writes in his free time. To top it all off, Doherty is an indie filmmaker, partnered with friends from high school. One of his films, "Run," won top honors in the Youth category at Crossroads Film Festival. He's made more films since, including another Crossroads entry. As he continues to relish new opportunities that weren't available to him in high school, Doherty is truly one of Millsaps' most valuable players.
Roberlyn Searcy didn't just leave high school. She isn't experiencing dorm life and bad cafeteria food. After raising four sons, 52-year-old Searcy is enrolled at Mississippi College in the Accelerated Degree Program. Though she already puts in around 60 hours a week at Eaton Aerospace, where she is an account manager, Searcy integrates her studies at MC because she has always wanted to complete her degree. "This is something that's just for me," she says.
The business administration major wants to eventually teach college students—after she retires from Eaton. Waiting to earn her degree isn't something she regrets, though. "I wanted to be involved in my kids' activities," she explains. "I made a conscious decision to wait."
Because Eaton offers its employees full-paid tuition for any bachelor's degree, going to school while working has its benefits. "It's been a great experience," she says of her time at MC. "The staff and the classes are so great." Funny, that's what the staff says about Roberlyn, too.
Amanda Long, 20, may be the only student at Belhaven who actually likes community bathrooms. But the junior English major sees them as she sees anything else—a chance to share her love for Christ and people. She is a resident assistant in the freshman dorms, so spending time with new students is a perfect complement to her ministry. "You have a chance to get to know students on a different level," she explains. "It's a way for me to love them, to show them Christ. It's a ministry."
Her dedication to ministry also manifests itself in her minor—Christian ministry. Though spending her downtime with her freshmen residents is fun, her favorite thing about Belhaven is its commitment to a Christian doctrine and also to diversity. Long is the daughter of missionaries, and she grew up in Portugal. Meeting different types of people is important to her, and because Belhaven boasts curriculums in all five of the major arts, it is her ideal school. It doesn't hurt, either, that her parents are only a car ride away in Clinton. She is active at school—cheerleading, fellowshipping and planning everything from dances to comedy nights through the school's Activities Team.
Marion Harper, 19, is a remarkable example of achievement among today's youth. She was the 2004 valedictorian of Lanier High School and is now making great strides at Jackson State University. With a major in biology and an emphasis in physical therapy, she still finds time for what separates her from the majority—her steadfast spirituality. "A person's success is based on the place they put God in their life," she says.
Along with writing poetry, reading and spending time with family and friends, Harper stays focused by keeping busy. In high school she was the yearbook editor, a member of the Not Here Club, the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, and the Spanish honor society among her ministry as one of Jehovah's Witnesses.
As a sophomore at JSU, she is a member of the Honors College, the Pre-Health Society and member of Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement, where she participates daily in breast cancer research. After JSU, she hopes to go on to UMC. where she can acquire her doctorate in physical therapy. Bringing it all back to the cornerstone of her success she relates: "There will be challenges, but what keeps me motivated is my relationship with God."
Laquanta Murray, 21, is a senior psychology major at Tougaloo College. School is important to her, but what she really focuses on is lending a hand to people. The Crystal Springs native is president of Alpha Kappa Alpha—an organization that helps out with a lot of community service. She's also involved with the Boys and Girls' Club. When she's back home in Crystal Springs, she helps with the youth groups. But for now, Jackson is exactly where she wants to be. "I am fond of Jackson," she says. "It's not too country or too city."
Just one conversation with Zack Oines, 18, is encouraging. Originally from Zachery, La., the Belhaven sophomore spent his younger years in home-schooling, where he learned to be self-motivated. "It helped me to develop a routine, as opposed to normal schooling where teachers are always on your back," he says. "I had to motivate myself."
Along with being a very active member of the church, Oines spends a lot of time contributing to various community activities, at home and at Belhaven. He is in the Reformed University Fellowship, were students discuss the challenges of Christian life around Belhaven. He is also a member of the golf team. So what brought Oines to Belhaven College? "The joy, vision, and Christian atmosphere of Belhaven, and most definitely the diversity," he says. "I just couldn't imagine myself being in a limited environment."
With a major in biology, he hopes to enter the field of dentistry. But dentistry is only a means for his primary goal in life—to share the ministry in the form of missionary work.