ALUMNUS Spring 2022 - Mississippi State University

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Our PEOPLE

ALUMNA USES EDUCATION DEGREE TO SERVE CHOCTAW COMMUNITY By Camille Carskadon, Photos by Megan Bean

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shland “Coby” Willis knows a thing or two about family. For her, it’s something that stretches beyond those who share her household to include the whole Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Without that family, she says she might never have become part of MSU’s. “My tribe has done everything to support me,” Willis said. “I’m so thankful for my tribe.” As a new mother in 2009, Willis said her goal was simply to find a job to support her family. That desire led her to an associate degree and into a classroom as an assistant teacher. Then, her extended tribal family did its work. The urging of her principal gave her the idea of going back to school. A chance encounter with the program director of the Choctaw Tribal Scholarship program gave that idea a way forward. Willis soon enrolled in the Division of Education at MSUMeridian with a full scholarship from the Teacher Initiative Program,

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which enabled her to pursue a bachelor’s in elementary education. “The tribe’s teacher initiative is what allowed me to become a teacher, and teaching is my way of giving back to my tribe,” explained Willis, who now has four children with her husband Poncho. “My kids are my reason for doing all of this. And I don’t just mean my biological children, I mean my nieces, nephews, cousins and all my school babies, of course. It’s the kids all around me, in my community and my tribe, they’re my reason for doing everything.” Having earned her degree in 2019, Willis is now a science teacher for fourth through eighth grades at Tucker Elementary School in Philadelphia, the same school where her desire to serve others began years earlier. She explained that having a teacher “just be there” for her really made an impression. “I remember going to school one day and being so upset,” Willis said, explaining that her father—who raised her as a single parent— wasn’t the best at fixing her hair. “My teacher, Karla Russell, saw how upset I was, pulled me aside and fixed my hair how I wanted it. She showed me that she cared and that’s what made me begin to think that I wanted to be of service to others.” Willis said Mississippi State further fueled that passion for service as she moved deeper into her undergraduate education. She said the curriculum’s focus on establishing and maintaining mutual respect with her students was one of the key lessons that stuck with her. Another eye-opening concept was that not every student will learn in the same way or at the same pace and that a teacher needs to accommodate that.