Medical school ranking should be point of pride for Hattiesburgers

Last week, we reported that the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is headquartered in Hattiesburg, was recently ranked third in the nation in producing primary care physicians by U.S. News and World Report.

The top three schools in the list were separated by barely more than a percentage point, and the ranking is a tremendous achievement for a relatively new medical school.

The medical school admitted its first class of students in 2010 after years of careful planning by the university administration, and that first class graduated six years ago. The most recent class graduated Saturday, and they joined the ranks of more than 600 doctors of osteopathic medicine trained by William Carey.

Those doctors are practicing across the country, and many have remained in Mississippi or surrounding states.

The ranking is also the fulfillment of a promise made by the William Carey administration when they announced the opening of the school at a press conference in Jackson in 2008.

The school is the second medical school in the state, and it was established, in part, to train doctors to serve underserved populations, particularly in the Gulf South region. Administrators promised to improve access to health care in Mississippi, and part of that pledge included graduating more primary care physicians.

To that end, the university recently reported that 78 percent of its graduates have entered primary care residencies over the past three years. Instead of resting on its laurels, the school is doubling down on its commitment to produce much-needed doctors.

Administrators recently announced plans to double the size of the medical school’s incoming class over the next three academic years. Currently, the school accepts 100 new students each academic year from a pool of several thousand applicants.

In the upcoming academic year, the class size will grow to 150 students, and an additional 25 students will be added for the 2021-2022 school year. In the 2022-2023 school year, the school will accept 200 new students for a total enrollment of 800 students.

As a William Carey alumnus, I’m particularly proud of the accomplishments of the medical school, especially since I was a student and later an employee at the university during the school’s early years.

I enrolled at the university in 2010 at the same time the school admitted its first class, and, as a member of the university’s public relations staff in 2014, I helped that inaugural class of 94 doctors celebrate their graduation. In fact, I was reminded of that event just last week through Facebook’s “Memories” feature.

It was a happy time for all involved, and the university staff breathed a collective sigh of relief after a rigorous but successful accreditation process.

Dr. Italo Subbarao, dean of the medical school, and his faculty and staff members, along with university administrators, should be commended for staying true to the mission of the medical school and for putting such an emphasis on improving the health care of Mississippians.

The ranking is a testament to a lot of hard work, and Hattiesburg as a whole should be proud of the school. It’s a fantastic addition to our city, and I look forward to its continued growth and success.

Congrats to Class of ’20; now, go do great things

Each year, The PineBelt NEWS publishes a special section recognizing our area’s graduating high school seniors, and we’re currently preparing that section for release.

I’ve been working with local high schools to gather a roster of the graduating seniors and also their individual portraits. There are 11 high schools in Forrest and Lamar counties, including eight public schools and three private schools, and they’ll graduate approximately 1,600 students this academic year.

These students are entering the “real world” in a time of great uncertainty, and my heart goes out to all of them. Instead of spending their final months in high school worrying about prom dates and final exams, they’ve been worried about COVID-19 and if they’ll even get to have a graduation ceremony. They’re resilient, and we’re certainly proud of them.

Former President Barack Obama gave a virtual commencement address to the Class of 2020 on Saturday, and, as usual, I was inspired by his prose. Obama said the graduating class would have to “grow up faster than some generations” because of the world’s uncertainties, and he provided the class with three pieces of advice that I think are helpful.

The former president’s first piece of advice for the graduates was “don’t be afraid.”

He noted that America has gone through tough times before, and the country has always come out stronger as a result.

He said this is usually “…because a new generation, young people like you, learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better.”

Obama’s second piece of advice was for graduates to “do what you think is right.” He added that “…you won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do … but, if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself, even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient, people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you … and you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”

His final piece of advice for new graduates was to “build a community” because “no one does big things by themselves.”

He urged graduates to “be alive to one another’s struggles,” to stand up for one another’s rights and to ditch old ways of thinking, including sexism, racial prejudice, status and greed.

Obama ended his speech by saying the graduating class is already full of leaders, and he’s excited to see the great things they accomplish. I’m excited, too, because I know our graduating classes are full of talent and promise. I’ve been privileged to interview several of them, and they’ve filled me with Pine Belt pride.

Consider Lorin Brown of Petal, who I wrote a story about this week. Lorin’s high school career was filled with success, and she’s been widely recognized as a student leader and for her academic accomplishments. However, I was most impressed by her sincere desire to help others as she pursues her dream career.

Lorin wants to study psychology and fight disorders like autism and dementia. She’s not seeking vast fame or fortune, but she’s looking for meaningful ways to help others in her community. I know she’ll continue to do great things, and I’m ready to write about them.

The Class of 2020 is filled with people like Lorin, and they need our support as they embark on their next chapters. Let’s rally behind them and be their biggest cheerleaders.

Congratulations, graduates. Go and do great things. We’re behind you.

Payment to Southern Miss doesn’t pass ‘the smell test’

Mississippi Today recently wrote an eye-opening account of University of Southern Mississippi officials using $5 million in federal welfare funds – paid to them by the Mississippi Community Education Center – to build a state-of-the-art volleyball facility at the Hattiesburg campus.

MCEC was founded by a Southern Miss alumna, Nancy New, who also sat on the board of the university’s athletic foundation. The multi-million dollar payment was for a five-year lease on all of the university’s athletic facilities, and MCEC was supposed to use the facilities to provide programming for the local underserved population.

It’s unclear the extent of that programming, and university officials have only offered up one event as proof of the fulfillment of the lease. When I questioned them last week for our story, which added a Feb. 28 statement from the university to Mississippi Today’s fine account, they had no further comment but said they’d be looking to respond in the future.

I hope they do because, as one of our readers put in an email to me, this entire transaction “doesn’t pass the smell test.” It’s even more alarming when you consider that New is caught up in a state embezzlement investigation and is accused of stealing welfare money set aside to help our most needy neighbors.

As the Mississippi Today report pointed out, those neighbors don’t play volleyball and won’t benefit from the university’s beautiful new volleyball facility, which is officially known as the Wellness Center. I think it’s known as that, but I can’t be sure. University officials did not confirm its official name or when it will open when I asked for comment.

I do know it cost $7 million, and MCEC paid – upfront – $5 million. According to a statement from the university’s chief communication officer James Coll, the other $2 million was raised from private donors.

In the Feb. 28 statement I mentioned above, university officials admitted they were “disappointed that the concept (of services provided by MCEC) has not materialized to the extent presented to the University – through no fault of USM.” However, in the same statement, the university was quick to point out they had no legal obligation to return the $5 million if the deal fizzled out.

And it’s fizzling quickly, it seems. MCEC is suspending services around the state as its founder is in the midst of a legal battle and as grant awards to the nonprofit are withheld. According to an emailed statement from Coll to Mississippi Today, “it is now apparent that MCEC is unlikely to continue as an active partner in the agreement.”

From my viewpoint, it doesn’t appear that MCEC ever followed up on its promises, and I can’t tell if university officials ever pressed them on it – or if they just quickly deposited a check and started construction.

Under New’s leadership, MCEC received more than $65 million in federal funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services over the course of a few years, and that money was supposed to help the state’s poor. The state has admitted that it did not follow procedures, and the money was seemingly mismanaged.

They’ve instituted new policies to ensure “these actions never happen again … and the money goes to people who need it,” according to a DHS spokesperson. In the meantime, the poor continue to suffer, including people who are our neighbors here in the Hub City.

University officials have to be aware of the bad optics of this situation, and the ethical – and logical – thing to do is void the agreement with MCEC. Additionally, they should return the $5 million to state coffers, and DHS officials should ensure it is used to provide direct assistance to those who truly need it.

I’m not at all against the USM women’s volleyball team having a great facility to use for their practices and matches, and I think the Wellness Center is likely needed on campus. However, in light of these recent developments, the $5 million should be found elsewhere.

Three short years, but wow, the ‘Burg is prospering

Last weekend, out-of-town friends came to visit, and we went on a sight-seeing tour of Hattiesburg. I was proud to show them the changes “my town” has made since their last visit three years ago in February 2017.

There’s been a bunch, and all of them have been overwhelmingly positive. As we ate – and drank – our way through the Hub City, I noticed many of these changes, and they filled me with a sense of pride. The ‘Burg is such a fun and fulfilling place to live, and I’m glad I planted my roots here back in 2010.

The District at Midtown is one excellent improvement to our city. Located across Hardy Street from Southern Miss, the district offers wonderful dining and shopping opportunities, including treats like Robert St. John’s sinful Midtown Donuts. The district’s anchor, Hotel Indigo, gives visitors a charming look into Hattiesburg’s culture and history. The entire area is fun to visit, and I send my kudos to the developers and business owners.

Speaking of Southern Miss, I’m always happy to drive through that beautiful – and growing – campus. If you didn’t know, I’m a William Carey Crusader through and through, but Southern holds a special place in my heart. My friends commented on the university’s beauty, and I was reminded of the devastating 2013 tornado that destroyed much of the front of the campus. The recovery was remarkable, and I’m always happy to introduce USM to others.

On our eating and drinking tour, we stopped by Southern Prohibition in downtown Hattiesburg, and it’s just one example of a local business that’s prospering. They just completed an extensive renovation, and the entire operation is impressive. It’s an asset to our incredible downtown, which is always growing. I hear downtown will soon get an axe-throwing establishment (talk about a new way to vent your frustrations) and another independent bookstore. This news makes me happy.

Walk a few blocks from Southern Prohibition to Front Street, and you can buy bagels, chicken and daiquiris, and other great food. Since my friends last visited, Nelson Haskin Jr. has bought the famed SouthBound Bagel & Coffee Shop and opened Blu Jazz Cafe and Nellie’s Chicken and Daiquiris. Haskin continues to make improvements on Front Street, and his investments are our town’s gains.

One of my favorite places in the ‘Burg is a hop and skip away from Front Street. The Depot on Buschman Street moved to a new location a few doors away from its previous one, and the building – a rehabilitation project, indeed – is beautiful. Their old location, also on Buschman, is now filled by Fika, a Swedish cafe. These restaurants add great flavor to downtown, and I’m happy they’re here.

I can never resist an opportunity to “show off” my alma mater, and William Carey University has seen tremendous changes since 2017. If you’ll recall, on Jan. 21, 2017, an early morning storm produced an EF3 tornado that made a 31.3-mile trek across east Hattiesburg and into Petal. The tornado killed four and destroyed or severely damaged more than 1,100 homes.

The damage to Carey was catastrophic, with every building on campus receiving damage. Tatum Court, the 103-year-old administration building, was destroyed, along with the 98-year-old twin dormitories, Ross and Johnson Halls.

Shortly after the storm, I wrote, in a Signature column, “…Carey will rebuild. Its picturesque campus will one day be whole again – different, but with its same qualities: a beautiful, safe school offering a valuable education in a Christian environment. Carey will continue to be a place for the next generation of bright-eyed and eager students to find hope and peace within its gates.”

Thankfully, I was right, and, in three short years, Carey is back and better than ever. Its beautiful new administration building, still named Tatum Court, was completed last year, and several other new buildings are now in place. A three-story student center – the tallest building on the campus – is under construction at the site of the former Tatum Court, and the university is growing by leaps and bounds.

East Hattiesburg as a whole is steadily recovering and growing. I always loved driving by the very unique-looking Seventh-Day Adventist church on William Carey Parkway, and I was heartbroken when it was lost in the storm. The church recently finished rebuilding, as have several other places of worship, businesses and homes. There’s still work to be done, but the foundation is strong.

My friends, who last saw this area of town in tatters, were tremendously impressed by these recovery efforts and the overall growth of our city in three years. I’m not even mentioning their reactions to the growth down Highways 49 and 98 – and their reaction to our new Steak ‘n Shake – but I will tell you that one of them even said she’d like to move here.

That’s a testament to our greatness, Hattiesburg. Not only are we great, but we’re also resilient, and we’re poised for a bright future.

Let’s keeping moving upward.

A life intertwined with newspapers comes full circle

My life has been intertwined with newspapers for as long as I can remember.

As a little boy, I loved retrieving the newspaper from the bright-orange box at the end of the driveway and looking at the pictures. I was especially excited when my dad, a police officer, was mentioned or pictured in the paper, and I still remember the first time – in the second grade, after winning a spelling bee – that I saw my own name in print. It was exhilarating.

I caught the reporting bug shortly thereafter, and I loved to hold mock interviews with my grandparents after school. In about the fourth grade, I founded my own newspaper at my church. It was called Kids R Us and focused on my friends and our adventures. I think it ran for an issue or two, and I remember designing it in Microsoft Word and even selling ads for it.

In 2005, at the age of 15, I accepted my first newspaper job as a community correspondent for The Daily Leader newspaper in my hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi. For the next six years, I wrote a weekly column covering the goings-on of my small community, East Lincoln, and I dutifully covered every church potluck dinner, school reunion and new resident I could find.

When I wasn’t reporting live from my neck of the woods, I was in the paper’s newsroom typing obituaries, reviewing copy, answering phones and, eventually, writing stories ranging from the latest antics of the local legislative delegation to a bank robber on a bicycle. (Yes, the “Bicycle Bandit” was eventually caught, but not before I filed several stories on the topic.)

I fell in love with newspapers during that time, and I also learned their importance. Newspapers are more than ink on paper; they tell a community’s good news, help neighbors connect with one another and serve as a watchdog for local governments. They provide an incredibly valuable public service.

Those six years of on-the-job training provided me with a first-class education in journalism and reinforced my passion for writing and telling stories. My early experiences in a newsroom also opened an avalanche of professional opportunities for me, and, in 2010, I was recruited to Hattiesburg as the new editor-in-chief of William Carey University’s student newspaper, The Cobbler.

I was involved with Carey’s newspaper for another six years, including three as editor and three as adviser, and my work in its pages landed me my first full-time job as Carey’s marketing specialist. My career detoured into public relations and marketing for a few years, but the desire to return to my first love of newspapers was never far away.

So, I was thrilled when David Gustafson asked me to be the new managing editor of HubCitySPOKES and to help mold the pages of this newspaper and of Signature Magazine. You may have heard that newspapers are a dying breed, but I submit the paper you are reading now as evidence contrary to that opinion. The PineBelt NEWS is a strong, community-based newspaper, and David and his team have positioned it for long-term success in a challenging media landscape.

Our community needs, and deserves, a community newspaper, and The PineBelt NEWS is glad to be yours. I ask that you support our work, buy advertising for your businesses, encourage your friends to subscribe, and, most importantly, share your stories with us. We are looking forward to a bright future, and we know we can depend on our community.