Approximately 1,900 students will mark a major milestone in their lives when they receive their diplomas at The University of Southern Mississippi this weekend during graduation ceremonies in Hattiesburg and Biloxi.
The institution also marks an important moment in its own history, as just more than 50 years ago it achieved university status Feb. 27, 1962, changing from Mississippi Southern College to the University of Southern Mississippi.
On June 2 of that same year, the university also awarded its first doctoral degrees – seven doctorates of education and one doctor of philosophy – after the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning approved the school’s request in 1959 to offer the program. Since then Southern Miss has awarded 4,657 doctorates, with 203 awarded during the current academic year.
L. Conrad Welker Jr. was a member of that first class of doctoral candidates 50 years ago. He is scheduled to join the platform party at commencement ceremonies on the Hattiesburg campus Friday and be recognized during the ceremony.
“It (earning a doctorate) opened up a lot of horizons for me,” said Welker, a Grenada, Miss. native. “It led to job offers I would not have received if I had not earned that degree.”
Other members of the 1962 class who received a doctorate were Eugene M. Keebler of Norman Park, Ga.; Elizabeth Martin Antley of Long Beach, Miss.; Herbert Eugene Lucy of Hattiesburg; Charles Edward Martin of Hattiesburg; Morris Osborn of Syracuse, N.Y.; Sylvester Tucker Pendarvis of Hattiesburg; and Samuel Luther Spinks, Jr. of Hattiesburg.
Welker began taking graduate courses in education administration at the university in the 1950s while working as a teacher for the Natchez School District. He was told he would need the courses in order to advance in the district, and then began travelling to the Hattiesburg campus of then-Mississippi Southern to begin his program.
His studies interrupted after being drafted to serve in the Korean War, he returned to continue his coursework, finishing in 1955. “I never thought I would be back in Hattiesburg again,” he said.
But Dr. Roy Bigelow, the first dean of Southern Miss’ College of Education and Psychology, asked Welker to return once more and teach summer courses to help prepare students to become school teachers. “I believe in addition to having me come to work for him, he was also recruiting me for the doctoral program,” Welker said.
He went on to complete the requirements for the doctorate of education, and after graduating in 1962 advanced in the ranks of the Natchez School District, from middle school principal to supervisor of secondary instruction and then assistant superintendent.
Southern Miss called him back again, this time to serve as assistant dean for the College of Education and Psychology and as chairman of the college’s department of research and human development, which included supervision of the university’s student teaching program.
His career path took him to Hinds Community College, where he was vice-president for instructional services before capping his 40-year career in education as interim president of East Mississippi Community College in 1990.
Now a Hattiesburg resident, Welker advises students considering a doctorate to be focused on and committed to their studies, with minimal distractions. “It requires careful discipline to succeed,” he said. “You can’t be over-involved in outside activities and you have to allocate time dedicated only to your studies and set personal boundaries to protect that time.”
Sidharth Muralidharan, an international student from India, will graduate Friday from Southern Miss with a doctorate in mass communication with an emphasis in advertising. He came to the university after working as a junior account executive at a leading advertising agency in New Orleans. He has already accepted a faculty position at Southern Methodist University and will begin teaching there this fall.
“When the recession hit in 2008, I lost my job. My initial plan was to get some real-world experience and then pursue a Ph.D., but in that situation my only option was to go back to school,” he said. “Among the universities that I applied to, USM accepted me and offered a graduate assistantship.”
Muralidharan said the smaller classes, individual attention and Southern hospitality makes Southern Miss an attractive choice. He also praised its School of Mass Communication faculty for its dedication to its students and multiple areas of expertise.
“I was really fortunate to have worked on research projects with some of them, and I must say that the experience really broadened my understanding of various topics in advertising and mass communication,” he said. “I was also blessed to have made some really great friends, who in the future will be stars in their respective fields.
“I would definitely recommend pursuing a graduate degree here, because Southern Miss offers a world-class education at a reasonable price.”
For information about graduate education at Southern Miss, online visit www.usm.edu/graduateschool or call 601.266.4369.