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Alumnus Douglas Odom Using Talents at AmeriCorps VISTA

Posted on: June 9th, 2016 by woodward

His goals revolve around helping improve education, life in Mississippi

Douglas Odom on the Inca Trail in Peru.

Douglas Odom on the Inca Trail in Peru.

Students are encouraged to engage in community service as part of the learning experience at the University of Mississippi. Douglas Odom, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and classics in 2013, took those lessons and made them a core part of his life.

During his time as a student, Odom served the university and community in many ways. He was a part of the Columns Society and UM Judicial Council, and he worked as an Ole Miss Ambassador, orientation leader and committee member for the Big Event in 2012 and 2013.

After graduation, Odom traveled with his father. They spent 15 months adventuring in the Western Hemisphere: dog sledding in Canada, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, zip lining in Costa Rica, scuba diving in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean and Cenotes Caverns of Mexico and visiting nearly half the Major League Baseball stadiums across the nation.

His love of the university and the state of Mississippi drew Odom back to Oxford in fall 2014. Since then, he served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the North Mississippi VISTA Project. He worked in the College of Liberal Arts with programs such as FASTrack and College Corps and with the nonprofits More Than a Meal, the Boys and Girls Club, and some schools, including Della Davidson Elementary and Bramlett Elementary.

“Doug has successfully developed programs for college students, organized field trips for high school students and strengthened summer learning and after school programs for elementary students,” said Stephen Monroe, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Doug cares about education. He is a fabulous colleague with a bright future.”

Odom has also been working closely with Janice Carr, a university employee and Abbeville resident, and her project at the Gordon Community and Cultural Center. She and other board members at the center launched a seven-week summer enrichment for 40 elementary students in the county this summer. Odom worked with local businesses and organizations to provide food, school supplies and other general funding to help make the summer enrichment program a success.

Odom is the 12th member of his family to graduate from UM, following his father, mother, three aunts, three cousins, two brothers and a sister-in-law.
This fall, he is pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration from the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University.

“I want to venture out and learn everything I can, but the ultimate goal is to bring what I learn back to Ole Miss,” Odom said. “So many Mississippi children grow up here and then, first chance they get, they leave. We need more Mississippians to stick around, or at least to come back after leaving.

“That was always my mentality. I knew I wanted to give back to the state that has been so good to me as I’ve grown up. I may be leaving to pursue higher education, but my plan will always be to come home.”

UM Receives $575,000 Grant to Maintain VISTA Project

Posted on: June 9th, 2016 by woodward

College of Liberal Arts given federal funding for fifth consecutive year


Susan Nicholas (left), North Mississippi VISTA Project assistant director at UM, welcomes new volunteers Allen and Susan Spore.

Susan Nicholas (left), North Mississippi VISTA Project assistant director at UM, welcomes new volunteers Allen and Susan Spore.

The University of Mississippi College of Liberal Arts is leading the fight against poverty through education, thanks in part to a federally-funded volunteer program. The North Mississippi Volunteers in Service to America project entered its fifth year of funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Directed by Stephen Monroe, assistant dean of the college, VISTA brings more than $575,000 annually into the region.

“In the last four years, VISTA has partnered with university departments, local nonprofits and schools in rural areas to build and strengthen programs that fight poverty through education,” Monroe said. “Our VISTAs serve with passion and energy. They are selfless people who work behind the scenes to improve lives in Mississippi.”

Examples of VISTA projects include a back-to-school fair in Tupelo that benefited thousands of low-income students, a community mentoring program to help children in the DeSoto County Youth Court system, tutoring and fundraising collaborations between UM’s LuckyDay Academic Success Program and Crenshaw Elementary School in Panola County, and the Horizons Summer Learning Program on the UM campus.

Most VISTAs have been recent graduates from UM programs, such as the Croft Institute for International Studies and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Doug Odom, a 2013 graduate with bachelor’s degrees in classics and English, spent last year building academic support programs for low-income college students and raising funds and recruiting volunteers for youth programs. He is attending graduate school at Vanderbilt University this fall.

“The most fulfilling aspect of the VISTA project, at least in my eyes, is the fact that it’s so focused on education,” said the Jackson native, who launched an after-school and summer program in Abbeville during his time as a VISTA. “I had the chance to help coordinate educational programs for elementary students in impoverished areas, as well as programs for first-generation college students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The students may have differed in age, but the underlying focus of all of the programs was the same: improving education in my home state.”

Many other VISTAs have followed a similar path, going into graduate programs at New York University, the University of Georgia, Harvard University and Stanford University.

“VISTA service benefits include a living allowance and education award,” said Susan Nicholas, assistant director of the program. “I believe the greatest benefit is the professional experience volunteers receive while honing their skills in program development, fundraising and engaging in diverse communities. All these are important to future employers and graduate school admissions committees.”

Although most VISTAs come from the university, others such as Susan and Allen Spore of Oakland, California, are recruited from out-of-state. The retired couple will be stationed at different schools in north Panola County.

“We had been researching for full-time volunteer programs, including the Peace Corps and VISTA, and were interested in working with youth and in public schools,” Susan Spore said. “We did extensive research on the Internet and felt the University of Mississippi had the best all-around VISTA support and had projects that were in line with our interests.”

The couple’s son, a Jackson attorney, encouraged them to consider Mississippi. After visiting Oxford, the Spores decided that it would be a great place to live during their assignment.

“My short-term goal is to start a literacy reading program for the lower grades at Crenshaw Elementary,” Susan Spore said. “A long-term goal is to develop and train volunteers to expand the program and ensure sustainability and investigate the feasibility of writing programs.”

Her husband shared similar objectives.

“My short-term plan is to assess the needs for college/career awareness programs, determine potential resources and partners, and recommend possible programs for the North Panola High School,” Allen Spore said. “My first long-term goal is to develop and implement college/career awareness programs, including recruiting volunteers to staff the programs and ensure sustainability. Secondly, I want to develop a fine art photography program for North Panola High/ Junior High and to recruit volunteers to implement and sustain the program.”

Monroe said he is grateful to CNCS for the work made possible by its grant.

“We’re inspired everyday by our VISTAs,” he said. “They are people of action who are strengthening our state.”

For more information on VISTA service opportunities, contact Susan Nicholas at or 662-915-1905.

New VISTAs Needed for Sunflower County Freedom Project

Posted on: June 9th, 2016 by woodward

IMG_3164The North Mississippi VISTA Project is proud to announce that it is expanding and will be placing its newest AmeriCorps VISTA Member at the Sunflower County Freedom Project.

Nestled deep in the Mississippi Delta, Sunflower County has a median family income that is half the national average. Over 40% of students will leave high school without earning a diploma. The Sunflower County Freedom Project was founded to reverse these trends. Over the course of the last 18 years, the project has developed a program filled with intense academic enrichment, mentoring, health education, and educational travel.

The goal of the Freedom Project, to empower each child with skills to become a leader, heavily aligns with the North Mississippi VISTA Project’s, to fight poverty through education. Every year, they place up to 25 full-time volunteers with non-profits around North Mississippi to help organizations build their programs. VISTA Members commit to a year serving communities struggling with poverty, while, at the same time, living at the poverty level themselves.

The VISTA serving the Sunflower County Freedom Project will gain professional skills writing grants, creating data systems, developing volunteer opportunities and expanding arts programming. In addition to these professional development opportunities, VISTA members also receive a modest living stipend, health benefits, and non-competitive eligibility for federal jobs.

Any person interested in applying to become the VISTA for the Sunflower County Freedom Project can find more information at or can email any questions to