In the corner of an Alaskan high school classroom hangs a bulletin board adorned with enough University of Southern Mississippi references to make any alumnus black and gold with envy.
The school is North Pole High -- and the teacher is Sherri Young, a 1984 Southern Miss graduate and mother of three students currently enrolled at the university. Katie Young, 22, is a senior English licensure major; Emma, 20, is a junior advertising major and Matthew, 19, is an incoming freshman who plans to major in history.
“The school administration asked that we dedicate a corner of our classroom to our alma mater, so I have a large bulletin board decorated in black and gold with pictures of my kids in various activities at USM,” said Sherri Young, who helps with the in-school suspension program. “Students are intrigued with it, and I have had large numbers of them ask me questions about Southern Miss.”
A call to duty in the U.S. Army brought Jim and Sherri Young to Alaska more than 20 years ago. They grew to love the scenic state and decided to stay. The family also includes oldest son Andrew, 23. Today Jim Young serves as project manager/estimator for a local construction firm and remains a member of the Army reserves.
North Pole, Alaska sits just outside Fairbanks – or approximately 3,360 miles from Hattiesburg, Miss., as the golden eagle flies. To understand how three siblings from a family living that far away wound up together at a university in Mississippi, one needs look no further than Sherri’s father, Richard B. Strong.
Strong, a 1959 Southern Miss graduate, served many years as president of the Birmingham Big Gold Club. He and wife Joy saw all five of their daughters attend Southern Miss – with Sherri, Linda S. Boozer (1985) and Beth Strong Hall (1986) earning degrees. Last year Richard Strong lost his lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
“He always referred to us as his Dixie Darlings,” said Sherri Young. “If there was ever a person who lived and breathed USM, it was my Dad. His Alzheimer’s had advanced to the point that he never understood that his granddaughters were going to USM, but I know he is looking down at my children now and he is so very proud.”
Katie Young expects the excitement that she felt when younger sister, Emma, enrolled to reach an even higher level when brother, Matt, gets to campus this fall.
“My experience at Southern Miss has only gotten better since my younger sister came the year after me,” she said. “USM has been such an amazing experience for me and I’m so thrilled to have them both with me for my last year of school. We’ve always been very close and going to USM together will only make us closer.”
But what about the fear of having three children in school so far away from home? Any emergency would require several hours of travel – even by airplane. Sherri Young credits Delta Gamma Sorority for helping alleviate those concerns. Katie and Emma are both members of the Southern Miss chapter.
“Katie actually had a medical issue during her freshman year and her Delta Gamma advisors and sisters visited with her in the hospital until we could make it down,” said Sherri Young, who was also a Delta Gamma during her Southern Miss days. “The sorority has been extremely important in helping both daughters feel comfortable so far from home. The sorority sisters and advisors provided them an instant family and safety net at USM.”
Emma Young made up her mind to follow in the family’s Southern Miss tradition during her junior year of high school.
“I have always wanted to get out of Alaska. My parents have encouraged all of us to leave and venture out,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere warm with no snow. Southern Miss happened to be a great choice for me. Being so far from home, it’s nice to have family around. This year with my little brother, Matt, coming to school it’s going to be so much fun.”
Matt Young confides that he seriously considered attending Iowa State University, his father’s alma mater. But Southern Miss always held the upper hand.
“I didn’t feel any pressure per se, but I knew my mom wanted me to go to her alma mater and my sisters wanted me to go to school with them,” he said. “While it would have been nice to be by myself for college, I love that I get to be near my sisters for a few more years.”
Sherri Young notes that she has been successful in converting much of the family’s home into a Southern Miss shrine. And husband Jim sports nearly as much Golden Eagle apparel as his wife these days. Hopes are high that Andrew Young will eventually make the long trek to Hattiesburg as a Southern Miss student.
As far as the Youngs are concerned, it is Christmas every day at their home in North Pole, Alaska.
“I could not be more proud of my children and I am beyond ecstatic that they can carry on my Dad’s legacy even though they had to travel so far from home to do so,” said Sherri Young.