After 30 years of teaching at The University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. James Pat Smith, professor of history, will attend his final Commencement ceremony as a full-time faculty member at the University. Smith has attended each Southern Miss Gulf Coast Commencement since they were held annually beginning in 1997.
“I enjoy attending our Commencement because, as a faculty member, you feel connected to your students in a bigger way,” said Smith. “You see the people who are there for your students outside the classroom. With all the people attending the ceremony to support their graduate, you see a group assembled who impact your students beyond the classroom and it gives a different level of meaning to the work that is being done.”
With such a long career at Southern Miss, Smith has no doubt influenced the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of students who have made their way through his classroom. Michael Thensted, Smith’s former student who now teaches social studies at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, said Smith helped to influence the direction of his career.
“Southern Miss is losing one of its finest,” said Thensted. “His teaching definitely has an impact and influenced me in what I’m doing today. I try to emulate him in my own classes.”
Smith’s excitement and passion for history exuded in his lessons. Both current and former students described his teaching methods as the ability to immerse students in whichever time period was being taught.
Smith believes he was born with the ability to teach; however, he does not believe he is the best there ever was. “I feel like I’m doing what is best with the gifts that I have. I love the interaction with students, studying the subject and thinking about how that might be communicated to other people.”
Julia Speed, a current master of science in history student and 2008 graduate with her bachelor’s degree in history licensure, describes Smith as personable and an inspiration both in and out of the classroom. Currently teaching history at West Harrison High School, Speed says Smith maintains high standards in the classroom. “If you make an ‘A’ in his class, you know you have truly accomplished something.”
“Dr. Smith is approachable and really makes time for his students,” added Speed. “He’s very knowledgeable about the university, the Gulf Coast and his subject area. Students coming through the program after his retirement are really going to miss out.”
Teaching is not the only impact Smith has made at the university. His research and publications are as popular as his teaching methods. His most recent book, Hurricane Katrina: The Mississippi Story, was published by University Press of Mississippi in 2012. He has authored 20 articles, chapters or reviews which have appeared in a variety of publications. Dr. Smith is a recipient of the Carter G. Woodson outstanding article award from the Journal of Negro History and co-authored the book, Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle, with Dr. Gilbert Mason.
“The happenstance of working at Southern Miss has given me the opportunity to teach, which I love, as well as partake in a wide variety of areas while being on the Gulf Park campus,” said Smith. “I’m able to conduct my research, have a significant publication record, and take part in community service. Beyond teaching and books, I really enjoyed being connected with the larger community in different service projects over the years.”
Smith, who was recently approved for professor emeritus status at the University, says his focus in the classroom is to think about what he would want his students to come away with that would be useful in later years. “I want my students to think they are better communicators and better at understanding the world around them. I want them to look back after five years and reflect on how they experienced something significant – that they will be glad they took these steps and these are the skills they developed.”
The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast will host the 2014 Commencement ceremony Saturday, May 10, at 10 a.m. in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi. This year’s ceremony will feature guest speaker U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, a Southern Miss alumnus and supporter.
For more information on the Southern Miss Gulf Coast commencement, visit www.usm.edu/gulfcoast/commencement.