Finish Line Program Helps 70-Year-Old Student Graduate

Seventy-year-old Eva Jones’s journey to earn her bachelor’s degree began in 1963, when she enrolled at Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas.  After two years, she felt it was time to go home to Memphis.  Eva turned down a full scholarship to a college in Oklahoma in order to return home.  She began studying at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) in 1965. She took courses at Memphis State steadily for a few years, but as time went by she found it difficult to balance the demands of school with the responsibilities of work and family.  After attending on and off in the 1970s, Eva decided to put her dream on hold.  Since then, she has proudly watched both of her children and one grandchild go on to earn bachelor’s degrees.

In early 2015, Eva’s older sister recommended that she get in touch with Graduate Memphis, one of the University’s community partners, to inquire about completing her degree.  As one of thirteen siblings, Eva was one of the few who had not yet completed a degree, and it was her time.  With her sister’s encouragement, Eva contacted Graduate Memphis, who ultimately connected her with the Finish Line program at the University of Memphis.  Finish Line assists prior U of M students who left the institution just shy of earning a degree.  The program provides several benefits, including dedicated academic advisors who provide support to students from initial meeting to graduation day.  Eva says, “My advisor simplifies things for me.  It was like I was taking so many steps, and she took all those steps with me.”

Eva Jones with her Finish Line Advisor, Ashley Coffer

Eva Jones with her Finish Line Advisor, Ashley Coffer

With Finish Line’s help, Eva learned that she only needed three courses in order to graduate.  She chose to complete her courses online in order to have the flexibility of studying from home.  Acclimating to online courses has been somewhat challenging for Eva, but with a determined spirit she has proven that she can handle whatever comes her way.  Eva completed two courses online over the summer 2015 semester, earning high grades in both.  She even found joy in them, saying, “by the end, it was fun!”

Some folks have asked Eva what she plans to do with her degree, to which she replies, “I will encourage other people to do the same, to help them realize their dreams too.”  Eva has a plan for her diploma as well.  “I’m going to hang it on the wall and say, look at what I did!”

Although she did not set out to become an inspiration, that is exactly what happened.  “I didn’t realize the effect it would have on other people,” she notes.  The Memphis chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women recognized her with a scholarship this past summer.  After the ceremony, a young woman in her twenties, and fellow University of Memphis student, approached Eva to say, “If you can do it, so can I.”  When young people see someone in her seventies actively choosing to complete a degree, the importance of education resonates with them.

Eva just completed her final capstone course, in which she wrote a fifteen page research paper.  “It’s never too late to learn,” says Eva.  Fifty-two years after starting her journey to earn a degree, Eva graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies.  Regarding graduation day, Eva states, “I’m looking forward to December 13th with great anticipation.  My daughters are just as excited as I am.”


MALS Program Offers New Hope to Graduate Student

One of the most unusual degrees on campus is the Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) in the University College. It allows graduate students to design their own interdisciplinary degree. The University College describes the degree as “designed for those seeking the personal enrichment provided by liberal learning, this degree encourages the development of intellectual skills necessary for lifelong learning—critical reading, scholarly writing, and the art of interpersonal communication.” Given the broad nature of the degree, it attracts a wide range of students from a variety of backgrounds. One such student is Deveeshree Nayak, who came to the United States from India in 2013; she completed her MALS degree in August 2015 and has gone on to pursue masters degrees in the department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, as well as in Business Information Technology.

NayakDevee Pic was very impressed with the support and individual attention in the University College, saying “many people encouraged and believed in my potential. Dr. Keith Sisson and the entire liberal studies department played a vital role in my success. I was blessed to have him as my professor and mentor.” After struggling in a different degree program, Nayak realized that she was looking for a different kind of degree. She sought out Dr. Sisson, who helped her outline her own graduate degree that incorporated her existing graduate credits while also fulfilling both the Graduate School’s requirements and the MALS degree requirements. While creating a unique degree might seems daunting, Nayak felt confident, “I never looked back again. The MALS program offered me the flexibility to choose my own courses. Dr. Sisson was very encouraging. I am always proud to be a Memphis Tiger and my dream is to finish a Ph.D. at the University of Memphis.”

As an international student, Nayak faced challenges of which American students might not be aware. Legally, international students cannot work off-campus and may only live in University housing, which can make life very complicated if they need to take a semester off or if they are placed on academic probation. Many traditional students who are placed on probation or have personal crises are able to take off a semester to regroup, save money, and then return to their students, but international students do not have this luxury.

Despite facing these challenges on top of the usual rigors of graduate study, Nayak has excelled. She has been awarded several scholarships, including the 2014 Facebook Security DEFCON scholarship, and is involved in her discipline, presenting papers and attending conferences. She has also been awarded a number of National Science Foundation (NSF) and other travel grants to attend a variety of conferences, including the Women Institute for Summer Enrichment (WISE), Security Education (SEED) Workshop, and the Google I/O conference. She credits her family and the supportive faculty and staff of the University College for her success; she was thrilled to find a path that is well-suited to her interests and career goals.

Finish Line Program Offers Hope for Returning Students

One of the most inspiring initiatives at the University of Memphis is the Finish Line Program, which targets students who previously attended the University of Memphis and have completed 90 or more credit hours but have regrettably had to abandon their dreams of completing a college degree. Many of these students have demonstrated the ability to be successful in college and are within a single academic year of successful graduation. Yet the primary reason for withdrawal at 90+ hours is exhausted financial aid and related external situations, such as needing to work full-time to support a family.

Karyn Tunstall

Karyn Tunstall, August 2015 Graduate

We are especially pleased to have this wonderful program featured in a blog post by Monica Herk, on the Committee for Economic Development’s website.  Herk highlights the impact of this program, writing, “Since being launched in the fall of 2013, 123 Finish Line students have graduated from the University of Memphis at an average cost of $1,649.  Over two thirds (68%) of the beneficiaries were women, with an average age of 36.” The entire essay may be found here.

The University of Memphis’s faculty and administrators are very proud of the program and its results.  Dr. Richard Irwin, Vice Provost of Academic Innovation and Support Services, says, “The Finish Line continues to thrive thanks to executive-level program support and the collaborative efforts of faculty and staff across campus.  A record number of Finish Line students are expected to complete degrees at the end of fall term.”

Kimberly Shields, August 2015 Graduate

Kimberly Shields, August 2015 Graduate

The students enrolled in Finish Line are equally pleased with the support and opportunities it offers. According to Kendra, who graduated in August 2015, “The Finish Line program changes lives! It gives students another option when we feel as if all options have been exhausted.”  Brian, who also graduated in August 2015, was relieved when the program began, “What earning this degree means to me is indescribable. Beyond the impact it will have on future opportunities professionally, it means a great deal personally. Leaving college before completing my degree had been the great regret of my life. I lost a great deal of confidence in myself and the prospects for my and my family’s future. Although I had not given up on my dream, I had run out of options to pay for school and could not see how it would happen. The Finish Line Scholarship was an answer to my prayers. I will eternally be grateful for this opportunity.”

The Finish Line Program is focused on helping students achieve their college goals in an affordable and timely manner, but it is also about giving students opportunities after they finish their degrees.  Dwanyel, a December 2014 graduate, summarizes the hope and promise that the program provides: “Through all of my barriers, the Finish Line Program gave me a chance that I did not think would be possible. The bachelor’s degree has opened so many doors for me that no one can shut because I have a piece of paper to back me and say I am skilled and disciplined enough to complete college.”


Profile of a Recent Graduate

Terrence Brittenum

Among our favorite stories are those of local Memphians who become successful and are able to give back to their communities.  One such story is that of Terrence Brittenum.  He graduated as Valedictorian from Trezevant High School in 1995 and knew that he had to go to college.  He says, “I was told by my mother and other family friends that education would provide me access to a better life.”  Determined to achieve a better life, Brittenum participated in the University of Memphis’s Adventures in Teaching Institute which offered collaboration and field experiences, which seemed second nature since, as he recalls, “At the age of 4, I would teach younger family members and other kids in the neighborhood. I always knew I would be a teacher.”

As an undergraduate, Brittenum served as the President of the Golden Key National Honor Society at the University of Memphis, learning valuable lessons regarding the importance of hard work, community service, resiliency, perseverance, and demonstrating courageous character and integrity in the face of adversity.  Upon graduating from the University of Memphis with a B.S. in Education, he began his teaching career, eventually becoming a school administrator.  He is currently serving as the principal of A. Maceo Walker Middle School.

Recently, Brittenum returned to the University of Memphis. The University’s now-retired First Generation PhD Fellowship program offered support during his rigorous program of study.  Brittenum says, “It is extremely difficult to work on a doctoral degree and work full time, but I am able to use my research in my everyday work.” He cites Provost Karen Weddle-West and Dr. Bonnie Cummings with fueling his passion for teaching, and one of his favorite memories at the University includes working as a graduate assistant in the College of Education under the leadership of former Dean Nathan Essex. Brittenum remembers that, “Dr. Essex always encouraged me to be my best and to push past adversity.”

Along with Terrence’s family and friends, the University is proud of Terrence and the many students like him.  He graduated with a 4.0 G.P.A. on Saturday, August 8, 2015, with his Doctorate of Education degree in Leadership & Policy Studies.  He is the first person in his family to complete a doctoral degree.

Living History: Tuskegee Airmen

Susan judging NHD 2012

Dr. ODonovan, center, judging NHD in 2012

Along with her graduate student assistant, Micki Kaleta, Susan O’Donovan, an Associate Professor in the Department of History serves as coordinator for West Tennessee History Day (WTHD). A subsidiary of both Tennessee History Day (THD) and National History Day (NHD), WTHD is an educational outreach program geared towards middle and high school students. This highly successful and ever-growing program always produces interesting projects that help the students learn critical thinking skills, research skills, and communication skills to prepare them for success in college and beyond.

This year, however, was different. One of the projects really stood out to Dr. O’Donovan and Ms. Kaleta. With the support of their teacher, Jeff Golson, Maya Harris and Logan Miller of Dyersburg High School in Dyersburg created a project about the Tuskegee Airmen that combined their interests in military history and aviation. The project was thoughtfully researched and placed 2nd at the WTHD contest and 1st at the THD contest before going on to the national contest held in June at the University of Maryland, College Park.

What really made the project special is that Maya and Logan wrote to all 25 living Tuskegee Airmen to request interviews. Lt. Col. George Hardy was so impressed by their letter that he not only agreed to be interviewed, he flew from his home in Florida to visit Maya, Logan, and their entire school. When Lt. Col. Hardy learned that Maya and Logan had won 1st place at THD and had been invited to showcase their exhibit at the National Museum of American History, he decided that he could not miss that either. The state history day coordinator, Jennifer Core, accompanied the students to the national contest and wrote this about the experience: “So he is here. A Tuskegee Airman. Hanging with our students. Not only has he befriended and encouraged Maya and Logan, he has also introduced them to the other members of his chapter. During the trip, the Washington DC area Tuskegee Airmen hosted Maya and Logan at a dinner and examined their exhibit. Maya and Logan had them sign their THD shirts.” This is a profound experience for all involved and will impact not only Maya and Logan, but other as well, since the pair has raised $2500 for the Tuskegee Airmen’s education fund.

Maya Lt. Col. Hardy Logan at UMD

Maya, Lt. Col. Hardy, and Logan at the University of Maryland

Ms. Core went on to share how important History Day is for students, and also for teachers and administrators of the program: “Maya and Logan have made professional and personal connections that will last them a lifetime. They acquired cognitive skills and exercised their creativity. They learned. According to Maya’s mother, she even started cleaning her room more often. Their teacher feels rejuvenated. Next year, he vows, ALL of his students are participating in History Day.” Mr. Golson commented that, “This is what teaching should be. This is what we are missing.”

istory Day sparks enthusiasm because it is so effective. A study commissioned recently by National History Day confirms that students who participate in the program out-perform their non-history day peers across the board: they are better critical thinkers, they are better problem solvers, they are better readers, they are better students, and they have far better oral and written communication skills. These gains can be measured in their post-collegiate careers. More than five million NHD participants have gone on to positions in business, law, medicine, and academics. In 2011, President Obama conferred a National Humanities Medal on NHD for its success in advancing the study of the humanities.

Maya Logan Mr. Golson at NMAH

Maya, Logan, and Mr. Golson with their presentation

This program is also a great opportunity for Ms. Kaleta and all of Dr. O’Donovan’s other students, who are involved in every aspect of the program. Dr. O’Donovan states that, “The graduate assistants who have worked with me share in all these endeavors.  I don’t run a hierarchical shop.  The work is too important.  Micki, her predecessor Caroline Mitchell Carrico (now with the Pink Palace Museum), and her successor, Ashley Dabbraccio, who begins her History Day assistantship this fall, do it all.  They are teachers as much as administrators.  They judge, they participate in workshops, they field scholarly as well as logistical questions, they mentor both students and teachers, they coordinate between our office and the state office at Nashville, they attend the district coordinator meetings, and they play a very important and central role in the ongoing work of expanding participation in West Tennessee History Day. We would not be enjoying the marvelous gains we’ve witnessed over the past four years if it weren’t for the work these graduate students do.  They are an invaluable part of the program.”

The University of Memphis is pleased to support this important work by our dedicated faculty and graduate students, since it is clearly so central to our mission of education and community engagement. The 2016 district contest will take place on Saturday, 27 February 2016, at the University Center. Dr. O’Donovan invites everyone, “Please come. I guarantee you a wonderful experience.”

Better Hearing and Speech Month

As part of Better Hearing and Speech Month for the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at The University of Memphis, Drs. Linda Jarmulowicz and Lisa Lucks Mendel appeared on “Live at 9” on TV channels 2 and 24.  They discussed the importance of early detection and intervention for speech and hearing issues.  You can watch the videos here:

Channel 3:

Channel 24:

LSON Professor Receives Prestigious Award

We are pleased to announce that Dr. Genae Strong, an associate professor in the Loewenberg School of Nursing, has received the prestigious Award of Excellence from the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, which is a leader in the health care of women and newborn children.

The press release from AWHONN follows:

Washington, D.C., June 16, 2014 — The Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) today presented the 2014 Award of Excellence in Education to Genae Strong, PhD, CNM, RNC-OB, IBCLC, RLC, CLC, CNE, for her commitment to educating student nurses. The award was presented at the AWHONN national convention in Orlando, Florida.

AWHONN presents its Award of Excellence in Education each year to an AWHONN member with an outstanding history of educating colleagues, patients and others. Winners have made contributions to the knowledge base of women’s or newborn health.

Dr. Strong is an Associate Professor at the University of Memphis, Loewenberg School of Nursing.  With more than 20 years of supporting breastfeeding dyads and their families through teaching, research and service, she recently designed a breastfeeding education curriculum for pre-licensure nursing students that will provide a standardized curriculum including competency measures. 

“Dr. Strong’s dedication to providing high quality, evidence-based education to current and future nurses is laudable,” said AWHONN’s Chief Executive Officer Lynn Erdman, MN, RN, FAAN. “Her passion for breastfeeding support and education helps nurses provide the highest quality care.”

Dr. Strong earned a PhD in nursing from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, a master’s degree in nurse-midwifery from the University of Kentucky, and a baccalaureate in nursing from the University of South Alabama.  She has authored several publications in the field of maternal-child health, serves as a member of AWHONN’s Research Advisory Panel, served on board of the Memphis Area Lactation Consultant Association (MALCA), and as the former president and currently as president-elect of MALCA for the second year.

New Graduate Student Professional Development Certificate Program

In an effort to further serve graduate students, the University of Memphis Graduate School has worked with the Graduate Student Association to launch a new non-credit certificate program to enhance the professional development of its master and doctoral students. It is a response to the fact that a growing percentage of master and doctoral students are now sought out by industry, start-ups, governments, and the non-profit sector upon graduation rather than primarily moving on into academic research and teaching careers as in the past. The Interim Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Jasbir Dhaliwal, noted that “while most doctoral programs focus on preparing students for academic research careers, we are seeing that in many academic disciplines more than 70% of research students go on to careers outside academia. In support of this trend, we have a responsibility to ensure that our graduates are the most professional and innovative in the country to enhance their future success in all sectors.”

The certificate program, which will allow graduating students to stand out in the hiring marketplace, is built around a seminar series focused on topics such as the following:

1) Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking
2) Career Development for Changing Times: “The New Job Search”
3) Personal Branding and Social Networking
4) Teamwork and Negotiation Skills
5) Dissertation/Thesis Workshop and How to Publish Primer
6) Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships
7) Pedagogy and Public Speaking

The program is offered free to all graduate students on a first-come-first-serve registration basis with those completing six of the eight seminar options receiving a completion certificate from the Graduate School.

Graduate students have responded strongly to the opportunity. The first seminar on “Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking” filled up on the first day and the second on the “New Job Search” was filled within the first hour on its launch last week. Participation in the program is also helping foster closer personal links within the university’s community of graduate students as they come from across campus from diverse programs to interact and professionalize together.

More information can be obtained from Ms. Kaitlin Duckett, President of the Graduate Student Association ( and Dr. James Kierulff, Interim Director of Graduate Student Services at the Graduate School (

Prestigious Truman Scholarship Finalists

The University of Memphis is thrilled to announce that two honors students, juniors Melissa Byrd and Danielle Davis, are finalists for the prestigious Truman Scholarship, a national fellowship that awards up to $30,000 for graduate study.  The Truman Scholarship will be awarded to 60 applicants from a pool of 200 finalists in April, after all finalists have been interviewed by review panels.

Melissa Byrd

Melissa Byrd

There are over 600 applications for this award each year and the finalists are chosen based on “outstanding leadership potential, exceptional academic achievement, and commitment to careers in government or elsewhere in public service.”  In addition to the scholarship funding, Truman scholars receive priority admissions, supplemental financial aid, leadership training, career and graduate education advising, and special internship opportunities with the federal government.

We are proud to have our school represented by such strong candidates from diverse areas of study.

Byrd is a journalism major, concentrating on public relations, and hopes to earn a Masters of Public Administration, concentrating on public and nonprofit management policy.  Her extracurricular activities complement her course of study, as she is involved with a number of organizations, including Emerging Leaders and the Student Government Association.  She is the executive director of Up ‘Til Dawn, a fundraising organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and is a member of Tiger Elite, a highly selective recruitment and ambassador program through the Office of Admissions and Recruitment.

Danielle Davis

Danielle Davis

Davis is an Early Childhood Education major, and plans to pursue a Doctorate in Educational Administration and Policy.  She is also involved with a number of community and campus organizations. She is an active volunteer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis, and is interning at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools.  On campus, she is the Public Relations Chair for the University of Memphis Association for the Education of Young Children, and is on the advisory board for the Center of Literary Research and Practice.  She hopes to combat poverty by working to change the educational opportunities for young children in Memphis by becoming a superintendent of a low-performing school.

Both Byrd and Davis are dedicated to improving their communities and we are proud to see University of Memphis students so devoted to helping others.







English Professor Publishes New Novel

We are pleased to announce the publication of Descent, a new novel by Tim Johnston, assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Memphis, by Algonquin Press.  Professor Johnston’s novel has received rave reviews from several national sources, including The Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, and NPR.  Descent has also been named one of the “ten titles to pick up now” by Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine.

Trying to summarize Descent is difficult because it is so much more than the sum of its parts.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune describes it as “an incredibly powerful, richly atmospheric and emotionally complicated novel about the way a family can fall apart, and be put back together again.”  Simply put, it is a thrilling and beautifully written novel about a family’s seemingly-innocuous vacation in the Rocky Mountains that quickly becomes terrifying when the teenaged children go for an early-morning run and the older daughter disappears.

This novel is more than just a thriller, the reviewers wax poetic about its style and characterization.  The W​ashington Post writes that “Johnston’s prose is lyrical, even poetic, to a degree rarely found in fiction, literary or otherwise” and that “the story unfolds brilliantly, always surprisingly, but the glory of Descent lies not in its plot but in the quality of the writing. The magic of his prose equals the horror of Johnston’s story; each somehow enhances the other.” The review ends on a resoundingly positive note: “The question is whether you value gorgeous prose and can accept a story as painful as it is beautiful. If you do and you can, read this astonishing novel. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Publisher’s ​Weekly shares a similar opinion, writing that Johnston “has a poet’s eye for the majestic and forbidding nature of the Rockies, and a sociologist’s understanding of how people act under pressure. … Combining domestic drama with wilderness adventure, Johnston has created a hybrid novel that is as emotionally satisfying as it is viscerally exciting.”  An NPR reviewer claims, “My heart’s still pounding even now as I’m trying to describe the novel, recalling just about every turn and twist of the action, remembering how engaged I was,​ and how surprised I f​​elt at just how far Johnston could wander from the main premise and still keep me with him.”

These glowing reviews confirm what we already knew when Johnston joined the Department of English at the University of Memphis in 2013: he’s a talented writer.  His previous publications include the story collection Irish Girl, and the Young Adult novel Never So Green, as well as a stories in various literary magazines, including New England Review, New Letters, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Double Take, Best Life Magazine, and Narrative MagazineIrish Girl has been awarded a number of prizes, including an O. Henry Prize, the New Letters Award for Writers, and the Gival Press Short Story Award, and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.  If that is not enough, in 2005 the title story, “Irish Girl,” was included in the David Sedaris anthology of favorites, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Johnston also holds degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In 2011-12 he was the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellow at George Washington University.johnston_poster

On top of everything else, Johnston is a great teacher and is very popular with students.  He was also involved in the creation of the University’s Communication and Writing Center (commonly called the CWC) and is currently the editor of The Pinch, the University’s award-winning literary journal.

The Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities, in conjunction with the Department of English, will be hosting a reading by Tim Johnston on Thursday, February 19 on the University of Memphis campus, in the University Center’s Bluff Room (UC 304).  There will be lots of festivities including: a reception starting at 5:30pm, a reading at 6:00p, followed by a Q&A session and a book signing.  Representatives from the university bookstore will be there to sell copies both of Descent and of some of Tim’s earlier publications.  Everyone is welcomed and encouraged to attend, both within the University community and the general public.  To find out more, watch for details on the MOCH website,, and the English Department’s Facebook page,

Pick up a copy of Descent today at one of the local bookstores and then join us for the festivities in February!