By Errol Castens, J.B. Clark and Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Most of this year’s high school graduates will accept their diplomas with a mixture of nostalgia, relief, ambition and trepidation.
Several valedictorians from the Class of 2003 in Northeast Mississippi schools remember well those feelings, but 10 years of experience have put both the emotional and the practical side of graduation into a useful perspective.
Michael Seger led his class at Ingomar Attendance Center and intended to major in biology at the University of Mississippi and then go to medical school. Coaching changed his direction.
“Midway through my sophomore year I decided I wanted to be a teacher and not go to med school,” he said. “I started coaching an AAU basketball team for fifth- and sixth-grade boys and decided to combine the two things I liked, which were biology and spending time with students, and went the school route instead.”
Today Seger teaches biology, coaches cross country and basketball and is the athletic director at Hickory Flat Attendance Center.
“It’s a little less money, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my decision. This is an opportunity to invest in the lives of young people,” he said. He and his wife, who also teaches at Hickory Flat, live a block from the school with their toddler son – a real advantage when Seger is putting in 12- to 15-hour days in the classroom, gym and office.
“Having a family definitely puts everything in perspective,” Seger said. “You realize everything’s not about you, and you learn to make decisions based on what’s best for everybody else.”
Seger regrets letting high school friendships get away from him.
“We had a meeting for our 10-year reunion a couple of weeks ago. There were people I was best friends with in high school, and I haven’t seen them five times since,” he said. “And I can look back now and see how certain adults shaped my life, but I definitely did not appreciate it then.”
Amory High School’s 2003 valedictorian, David Wathen, graduated with a long list of extracurricular activities, including Envirothon team, scholars bowl, and physics team.
“In high school I really focused as a student, but at Ole Miss, I developed a lot as a person and really branched out,” he said.
Wathen attended Ole Miss from 2003 to 2008, earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. He got his first job soon after with Kay Upholstery in New Albany, where he oversaw various machines and equipment. From there, he was transferred to oversee the opening of new factories in North Carolina, then in Tampa, Fla.
“Even though my degree was in engineering, my job got to be much more management-oriented,” he said. “So I learned a lot about leadership and how to deal with people.”
Wathen’s experiences became crucial when the recession put his employer out of business. He and other employees started their own company, Newport Furniture Company, in 2010.
“I’ve learned the most important thing is to do things by your own standards. Make your decisions by your own assessment, not on what others say,” he said. “Because nothing is as good as anyone tells you, and nothing is as bad as anyone tells you.”
Amanda (Whitehead) Tennison, 2003 Shannon High School valedictorian, knew her senior year that she wanted to pursue a degree in social work and help patients and families dealing with serious illness.
Ten years, two degrees, a marriage and baby boy later, she is a social worker for people going through dialysis in Tupelo.
“I lost a brother to cancer my junior year of high school and decided I wanted to pursue something where I can help people and their families going through major medical crisis,” she said. “I had my mind set early.”
Knew career path
Henry Dodd also was one of those rare individuals who knew his career path before he entered college.
After graduating Corinth High School, he followed through with his plan to attend Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., where he ran on the school’s varsity cross country team.
“I was really passionate about running, and it was still pretty close to home,” he said. “I love the area I grew up in and I wanted to stick around.”
Currently, Dodd is in his third year of medical school at the University of Tennessee. By graduation he hopes to be matched with a residency program in ophthalmology. He got married in December 2012 to a woman he said is fun and challenging. They run together when they can in their current town of Memphis, usually with their two dogs.
Dodd said he has learned that he will always be learning, but anything is possible with hard work.
“You hear about the long hours it takes to be a doctor, but once you’re in it and you develop a relationship with patients, it’s easy to see how lots of doctors become obsessed with it,” he said.
Neeley Moore, 2003 Saltillo High School valedictorian, also knew she wanted to pursue a medical career. After leaving Itawamba Community College, she decided to go to pharmacy school and is now a pharmacist for North Mississippi Medical Center.
She told the Daily Journal in 2003 that high school taught her to live every day like it was her last.
“In high school that meant focusing on getting great grades and where I’ll go to school,” Moore said. “But now I’ve started to learn what’s really important and focus on family and friends.”
Not everyone’s plans turned out the way they were first envisioned.
Blythe (Keenum) Lollar, Booneville High School valedictorian, told the Daily Journal after graduating she would go to the University of Mississippi and pursue a degree in history and teach and conduct research at the college level.
She has veered from that path and said it’s been fun.
“I did go to Ole Miss and graduated political science instead, and waiting until the last possible moment to pick a major,” Lollar said.
She said an interesting political science professor got her hooked on the subject. After college she moved to Tupelo with her husband and sold real estate until returning to the University of Mississippi for law school.
“I just graduated from law school on Saturday and I’m going to clerk at the Northern District Court of Mississippi in Aberdeen,” she said. “I’m very excited about that.”
Stefanie Kellum led the Class of 2003 at Lafayette County High School. While her family is plugged in deeply at the University of Mississippi – her father, David, is the radio voice of the Rebels – a full scholarship and her love of books propelled her to study English literature at LSU. (“Geaux Tigers!” she emphasizes frequently.)
A master’s degree in library science later, she is now a children’s librarian in North Carolina.
“I get to encourage children and teens to read, help them find books they love, and plan fun programs,” Kellum said. “It’s an honor to give back to my community every day.”
She encouraged this fall’s college freshmen to take advantage of electives, noting, “College is the perfect time to study outside of your box.”
“Outside the box” has defined Kellum’s non-academic pursuits as well, from joining organizations to making friends by chance to diving into big-city life.
“Travel as much as you possibly can,” she urges. “The more you see of the world, the more you find yourself and the more you come to care about and understand others.
“Even if it’s a weekend road trip with your friends, get out of town once in a while. Some of the most meaningful conversations I had in college were riding shotgun in the middle of the night on the way home from a football game or sitting on the subway on my way to work in New York.”