Ron Rychlak, Jessica Evans, and Cori Benefiel Recognized at Sullivan Awards

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi Division of Diversity and Community Engagement recognized outstanding accomplishments in community-engaged research, learning, service and scholarship Tuesday (April 18) during its annual Celebration of Service.

Honors presented included the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Service Award, the Excellence in Community Engagement Award, and the Community Engaged Development Partnership Fund awards. The Sullivan Award is the university’s highest award for recognition of service and is presented each year to a student, staff member, faculty member, alumnus, and member of the Oxford community.

Professor of Law Ron Rychlak received the faculty award, and Career Services Recruiting Coordinator Jessica Evans received the staff award. Additionally, Clinical Programs Manager Cori Benefiel received the Excellence in Community Engagement for her work with the Henry Miller Endowment and Marks Project’s mission to advance gateway reading in Quitman County elementary’s after-school tutoring program.

“The amount of work our university does in service to the community each year is truly inspirational,” said Castel Swett, the division’s director of community engagement. “While it is difficult to capture the totality of the impact, it is an honor to be able to recognize champions who have exemplified a commitment to building and sustaining long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships.”

“In their own unique ways, this year’s honorees are advancing the mission of UM by transforming communities through partnership and engagement. Therefore, they are well deserving of the recognition and celebration.”

Sullivan Awards recipients are:

  • Elijah Phoenix Murdryk, doctoral student in the clinical psychology program from Vancouver, British Columbia, student awardee
  • Jessica Gabrielle Evans, recruiting coordinator in career services at the School of Law, staff
  • Ronald J. Rychlak, distinguished professor of law, Jamie L. Whitten Chair of Law and Government, and faculty athletics representative, faculty
  • Tyler Yarbrough, of Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta project manager for a Partnership for a Healthier America, alumni
  • Betsy Chapman, market director for Oxford Community Market, community partner

The award, the university’s highest recognizing service, was established in 1890 by the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation to honor individuals who exhibit character, exemplified by selfless service to others and the community.

“Award criteria emphasize placing service to others and the community before oneself, while embodying the qualities of honesty, morality, ethics, integrity, responsibility, determination, courage and compassion,” Sweet said. “Each of these recipients embodies these characteristics within their community, campus and inner circles.”

Evans was praised for providing a safe space for first-generation students in the law school.

“As a first-generation college student, Jessica will be the first to tell you how difficult it was for her to navigate the collegiate world where no one in her family had gone before,” the nominator stated. “It’s this dogged courage and determination she possesses that fuels her work in the law school.

“She has clearly found her passion and is now not only surviving, but thriving and inspiring.”

Rychlak’s nomination cited the array of organizations he assists and leads, noting that his impact is felt both locally and around the world.

“Ron shows compassion in both big and small ways,” the nomination noted. “He uses his talents to serve others no matter what their background or lot in life.

“Ron leads whatever he joins. He not only volunteers but serves as an officer or chair on numerous boards at the local, national and international levels. The sheer volume of his service is astounding, much less to take the lead in those endeavors.”

Murdyk’s nomination letter for the award praised his morality and compassion, noting that he uses his position as an academic to “contribute to the well-being and dignity of others.”

“In conference presentations and public talks, he has stated the very skills that allow him to help others have not only shaped his actions, but also his intended career path to support a lifelong pursuit of community contributions,” the nominator wrote.

Yarbrough’s nomination cited his compassion, integrity and courage.

“His ability to challenge the status quo as a means of advancing change, and to do so in a way that is inviting and caring for all people, is truly admirable,” the nomination said. “This also allows him to build bridges and relationships that can transform communities.

“He operated with a strong sense of ethics and is mindful of how he engages and interacts with others.”

Chapman was lauded for her passion and fairness.

“The level of responsibility she takes in ensuring there is an opportunity to connect local vendors with customers in the community illustrates her selflessness to others,” the nominator said. “She is determined that our community has access to healthy food and fresh produce by actively identifying new opportunities to engage with the community.”

The overall recipient of the Excellence in Community Engagement Award is the Educating the Next Generation of Health Care Professionals project, organized by Anne Norwood, Lisa Haynie and Kayla Carr, all of the School of Nursing.

The team, based at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, has been working with the South Delta School District and Jackson Public Schools to help address health inequality and food insecurity for children in underserved communities. The effort involves UMMC students from multiple disciplines, including nursing, medicine, occupational therapy and social work.

The project provides service-learning experiences for the next generation of health care professionals on social determinants of health, specifically related to issues of health inequity and food insecurity in Mississippi. The award includes $5,000 to further the team’s community engagement efforts.

The overall recipient of this year’s CEC Excellence in Community Engagement Award is the Educating the Next Generation of Health Care Professionals project. Organizers (from left) Anne Norwood, Lisa Haynie and Kayla Carr, all of the School of Nursing, receive the award from UM Provost Noel Wilkin. Photo by Sri Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Two projects, Developmentally Engaging, Learning and Teaching Approaches for Mississippi and STEM Outreach in Northern Mississippi, were named semi-finalists for the Excellence in Community Engagement Partnership Development Award. They each received $2,500 for their work.

DELTA for Mississippi is a pilot program that encourages elementary school teachers to shift from worksheet-based activities to active learning activities, such as games, stations, outdoor and indoor activities that promote children’s creativity, communication skills, and social and emotional development.

The STEM Outreach in Northern Mississippi involves faculty members in the Department of Physics and Astronomy to expose the community to both fundamental and innovative research-based ideas in physics and other STEM disciplines.

The effort involves the QuarkNet program, which connects high school teachers with particle physics researchers at major research institutions, and the Oxford Science Cafe, which hosts scientists from Ole Miss and beyond in a conversation-style presentation of innovative research for general audiences.

The overall recipient of the Excellence in Community Engagement Award is a project working to boost reading skills through the Quitman County Elementary After-School Tutoring Program. Supported by the Henry Miller Endowment and the Marks Project, a team from the School of Education is helping to reinforce reading skills in a targeted group of underperforming students, using Mission Acceleration, a regimented instruction model developed by the UM Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction.

The project also invests in the future leadership of rural education by sending Ole Miss education students to different parts of the Delta, where they can get to know the people and the region firsthand and understand the circumstances behind its education deficiencies.

The team receives $2,500 to further its community engagement efforts.

The Community Engaged Partnership Development Fund is designed to support development of partnerships between faculty, staff or students collaborating with a community. Projects awarded funding this year are:

  • The Movement Starts Here, led by Melanie Ho, producer-director in the Southern Documentary Project, housed in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture
  • The OXCM Flower of Life Volunteer Squad, led by Jackson McArthur, junior international studies student from Ocean Springs
  • Whipping Up Good Health, led by Marie Barnard and Teresa Johnson, faculty members in the Department of Pharmacy Administration
  • OXCM Campus Farmers Market, led by Kathryn Kidd, project manager for the Office of Sustainability
  • Collaborative Oral Histories with Emmett Till Interpretive Center, led by Ryan Parsons, assistant professor of sociology and Southern studies
  • Building a SAFE Community: Establishing a Synergistic Relationship Between the UM Clinical-Disaster Research Center and SAFE Inc., led by Joshua Semko, psychology graduate student.