TUPELO, Miss. – During this weekend’s Commencement ceremonies, University of Mississippi at Tupelo students Brianna Wallace and Sarah Catherine Ware will be recognized among the top of their class as recipients of Marcus Elvis Taylor Memorial Medals, the university’s highest academic honor.
Both Wallace and Ware are from Pontotoc, both attended the Ole Miss campus in Tupelo and both are gearing up for meaningful careers in Northeast Mississippi communities.
Wallace, a 2017 graduate of South Pontooc High School, began her college career at Itawamba Community College in Fulton. After high school, she began to find opportunities to help others and her community through service projects and mission trips.
“I’ve always wanted to give my energy and time to do something meaningful that would help people,” she said.
Wallace traveled to the Rosemary Home of Hope Orphanage in Leyte, Philippines in May 2018 and worked with children and caregivers on learning projects and activities.
“I knew I wanted to help people, but it blew me away how much I enjoyed working with the children in the Philippines,” she said. “It was rewarding to see that I could be a friend and an advocate for children going through tough times.”
Last fall, Wallace helped to raise more than $1,000 for repairs to the orphanage and to help with creating a second location to support orphans in the Philippines.
A 4.0 student, Wallace was focused on academics but also made time to serve as a leader among her peers in the social work program, said Shane Robins, UM social work instructor and program coordinator at the Tupelo regional campus.
“Brianna is passionate about community engagement and leadership community,” he said. “She was very active in the Student Social Work Organization and always willing to volunteer her time for community projects.”
The fundraising projects undertaken by this group of students from UM-Tupelo have raised more than $8,000 for local nonprofits this year alone, including donations to the Tupelo Autism Center and the area “Stop the Hurt” child abuse prevention conference.
“Part of the reason I got into social work is because I didn’t always have the best home life,” Wallace explained. “My father wasn’t really in the picture. My mom has had to raise me and my siblings. This has given me a soft spot for kids that need help and mentors.
“I’m really close with my mom, younger siblings and grandparents. They have been a great support system, and I appreciate their support and encouragement.”
Wallace hopes to be that support person for others in the community when she completes her bachelor’s degree in social work this summer.
“One of the things that has stuck with me most about this field is remembering that every small thing you can do to help a person or family is making a difference,” she said. “You might not always see big results, but it is.”
In recognition of her achievements, Wallace also has been selected to serve as her class marshal for the School of Applied Sciences during the university’s Commencement ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday (May 7-8).
Ware, a secondary education major, is also ranked academically among the top 1% of the Ole Miss student body this year. She plans to take her love for learning to a local classroom this fall as she begins a career as an English teacher.
Ware School graduated from Pontotoc Citys in 2018, attended Itawamba Community College and transferred to the UM-Tupelo campus in fall 2020 to pursue a degree in education.
“I’ve always felt called to teach,” she said. “My friends growing up would ask for my help with their English assignments, and at ICC I had the opportunity to be a peer assistance leader helping students that needed extra with writing papers, formatting and grammar.”
Ware said those experiences encouraging reading and writing skills in her classmates helped increase her interest in the teaching profession. She also credits Ole Miss faculty members as inspiration.
“My UM English professors, Shari Holt and Aleta Moore, as well as my education faculty mentor, Rosemary Oliphant-Ingham, all made such an impression on me,” she said. “Their love for literature made me love it even more.
“Their classes were so impactful and helped me decide that teaching English was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Ware’s hard work and enthusiasm caught the attention of Oliphant-Ingham, professor of English education in the UM School of Education.
“From the first day of classes, it was apparent that teaching is not only Sarah’s chosen profession but her life’s work,” Oliphant-Ingham said. “Good days or bad, Sarah was always upbeat and smiling. This is a trait that everyone needs, but especially teachers.
“Her students realize that Ms. Ware is someone who truly cares for them and their educational journey.”
Ware is student teaching at New Albany Middle School under the supervision of seventh-grade English teacher Christy Plunkett.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to be walking into a middle school classroom,” Ware said. “I had heard plenty of stories about that age group, but I had ended up loving my time there.
“The kids are sweet, and I have had success with teaching this age. I was able to make a connection with them, and that makes all the difference in how they learn.”
Plunkett, Ware’s field supervisor, also was her 10th-grade English teacher.
“I’ve learned so much from my mentor teacher,” Ware explained. “The way she handles her classroom and the connections she makes with her students is incredible.
“She makes English fun. She intrigues students so that they want to engage with her in what they are reading and discussing. The passages she chooses to teach are exciting. I can’t wait to incorporate the things she has taught me in my own classroom.”
Ware was able to continue learning more about her profession by getting involved with service projects through the Teachers of Tomorrow organization at UM-Tupelo.
“Going to a regional campus of UM has been a special part of my educational journey,” she said. “I feel like I was able to have close connections with my professors, my advisers and my classmates.
“We all helped each other through the pandemic shutdowns and continued to encourage one another. I really loved the experience.”