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Released April 25, 2005

By Daphne Alford

HATTIESBURG One obstacle after another in the life of Southern Miss elementary education student Robin Hill Sila of McComb has led to a reward for her tireless efforts to obtain a college degree.

Sila was named the 2005 Judge R.J. Bishop Mississippian Award recipient during The University of Southern Mississippi Awards Day ceremony on April 12. She was presented a $5,000 check to be used at her discretion.

This award, established in 1978 by Elna Bishop in loving memory of her father, Judge R.J. Bishop, honors men and women who have endured economic, family or physical hardships to pursue their education so that they, their children and other Mississippians might have a better life. The USM Foundation is the administrator of the fund.

“Robin deserved this reward for the way she has run the race and finished this chapter, ready for the rest of what life has to offer,” said Anna Collins Trest, clinical assistant professor in the College of Education and Psychology Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Southern Miss. “She continues to struggle along with the help of family and friends and what she calls ‘a newfound belief’ in herself and her ability to be successful.”

The 20th graduating senior to receive this annual award, Sila was selected because she is a Mississippi native who possesses work ethics and determination in spite of difficulties. Sila, a divorced mother of two children, also suffers from a debilitating rheumatoid arthritis condition. Despite her adversities, she remains focused on accomplishing a lifetime goal — to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education on May 13 from The University of Southern Mississippi.

“I have never known a student quite like Robin,” said Trest of Laurel, who nominated Sila for the award. “She was an excellent student whose attitude was positive and work was also exemplary.”

Sila enrolled in Trest’s children’s literature class in spring 2003. It was months into the semester before Trest learned of Sila’s real-life situations through her best friend, Tonya Adams of McComb. The only thing Trest saw “was a smiley-faced blonde who sat on the front row, nodding her head during our class discussions.

“Robin is a nontraditional student in her mid-30s, who knew returning to school at her age with two children and a household to run wouldn’t be easy, especially since she was often incapacitated by a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. What she didn’t know was that an unexpected divorce would happen in 2000. Already tight finances instantly became strained to the breaking point. With no other choice, she lived on grants and loans. Insurance was gone, meaning, among other things, she was unable to receive the treatments she needed for RA.”

According to Mayo Clinic, rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition. It causes joints to ache and throb and eventually become deformed. The exact cause is unknown, but it is believed to be the body's immune system that attacks the synovium — the tissue that lines joints. There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but with proper treatment, a strategy for joint protection and changes in lifestyle, individuals can live a long, productive life with this condition.

“I am sure that there are others who have struggled to complete their education, too,” said Robin Hill Sila, who was surprised to be named the Bishop Award recipient. “I hope that others who suffer from rheumatoid or any other disability can see through my story that anything is possible if you believe. God has a way of giving you the strength you need to keep going, you just have to believe and rely on Him.”

To complete the required course study at Southern Miss for the past three years, Sila has had to travel more than 150 miles a day, back and forth from McComb to Hattiesburg, and even more miles every other weekend to Flora, a halfway place to meet the father of her two children — 14-year-old son Robbie and 12-year-old daughter LeeAnna — for visitation.

“There were many times, after walking on campus carrying a backpack all day that she was unable, due to her illness, to get out of her car when she arrived home. Her children would bring her walking cane to help her inside the house,” said Southern Miss senior Tonya Adams of McComb, Sila’s best friend who rotates her class schedule to help with each other’s children. “That’s the only way we can make it through this is by helping each other. She is just like the sister I never had.”

Although Sila has a right deformed arm, she managed to complete her student teaching at North Pike Elementary School in Summit this spring semester. She has maintained a high grade point average and has been on either the dean’s or president’s list every semester. After graduation she plans to seek employment and eventually pursue a master’s degree and become nationally certified in education.

In 2003, Sila married Jeremy, who serves in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to London two weeks after they exchanged wedding vows. She also devotes her spare time to the First Baptist Church of Summit, where she volunteers with fifth- and sixth-graders.

“The last time I had the opportunity to be her instructor was fall 2004 in a practicum lab for elementary teacher candidates,” said Trest. “So many times I saw her offer help and show care and concern for the children as well as her peers. Even though her life has been in turmoil, she is not turned inward. It’s just not in her to appear pitiful or hopeless. She is forever looking outward and considering others. She will be an excellent teacher; I have no doubt.”


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May 16, 2005 3:29 PM