The science lab at J.E. Johnson Elementary School smells of teenagers and vinegar from the discarded homemade volcanoes littering the perimeter of the room. Those experiments done, the teacher begins to review weather in preparation for an upcoming nine-weeks test on earth science.
Standing in front of the class, Candace Johnson asks questions about clouds, wind and storm fronts until she stops, flashing a sheepish grin.
“Y’all know I have to brag on my alma mater,” she says, acknowledging it won’t be the first time she’s spoken to the class about Mississippi State University.
“We have this room, called the High Voltage Laboratory, where they can actually create lightning inside the building,” she continues. “It’s the largest lab like that at an American university.”
The eighth-grade earth-science students erupt into impressed ohs and excited whats, but one girl raises her hand.
“Ms. Johnson,” she starts, “What’s an alma mater?”
For Johnson, the answer is more than just the standard definition. She takes every opportunity to explain to her students that her alma mater is the reason she’s there to teach them. Her alma mater is what gave her options and opportunities in life. Her alma mater helped shape who she is. And with the support of one of Mississippi State’s most unique programs, her alma mater can one day be theirs, too—regardless of their circumstances.
“Their future is limitless,” Johnson said. “I tell them, ‘you can do or be whatever it is you want,’ this is how and this is my story. I speak from personal experience.”
A native of Prentiss and alumna of the very school where she now teaches, Johnson is a graduate of Mississippi State University’s Promise Program, which is designed to help financially challenged, academically promising students achieve their college goals.
More than a scholarship, Promise not only helps students meet their tuition needs but also gives them institutional support to help make the transition to university life and, later, into a career.
“Students often question their abilities,” Johnson, a 2013 educational psychology major explained. “They think, ‘I’m from small-town Mississippi, with one grocery store and one stoplight. How am I going to go to a place with 22,000 other people?’ Promise is how.”
Johnson, the youngest of five siblings, said her family’s college funds were depleted by the time it was her turn to enroll. So, she was grateful the Promise scholarship enabled her to enroll at State, achieving a dream she’d had since age 10.
“It’s wonderful because it makes you feel like someone cares,” Johnson explained. “You realize the donors care enough about me to help me financially, and the people on campus care about me and make sure I succeed in college. You’re not in it alone.”
Alison Stamps, coordinator of the Promise Student Support Program, said the most common concerns she sees among students are finances and navigating the university system. That’s why, in addition to providing funds to fill the gap between the cost of tuition and other financial aid, Promise provides a support system to equip students with the tools to succeed at the university.
Stamps said it alleviates some of the stress so students can focus on their grades instead of the logistics of college life.
“Coming to campus can be very overwhelming. This program is designed to take some of the fear and anxiety out of the situation,” Stamps explained. “Students need someone they can go to with questions, someone to be their cheerleader and someone to be realistic about where they are with their grades, and I serve as that person.
“I’m the one they can come to with questions about anything, and I think that one-on-one interaction makes all the difference for success,” she continued.
The Promise Program requires all recipients take a one-hour college success class with Stamps their first semester on campus. She also meets one-on-one with each student at least three times a semester and maintains an open-door policy so students can always come to her for help as needed.
The program is open to incoming freshmen and transfer students, who will receive the award the rest of their undergraduate careers, as long as they continue to meet the eligibility requirements. This fall, the new class of Promise students added 110 freshmen and transfer students to the more than 200 students already under Stamp’s care.
“I’m especially here during the adjustment phase, but once a Promise student, always a Promise student,” Stamps said. “Many of our students are first-generation college students, and my goal with them all is to make sure I can answer their questions, help them work through any issues and keep them on track.”
Brittany Stansel said the Promise coordinator has been like her “mom” on campus—someone she could go to immediately for help navigating what she calls one of the scariest times of her life.
“When I applied to State, I was honestly afraid I was going to be accepted, because I didn’t know how I would pay for it,” the Corinth native recalled. “But the scariest moment was when I found out I had been accepted and was going to be part of the Promise Program.
“I even started thinking, ‘How am I going to get out of this?’ because then the fear wasn’t how am I going to pay for it, it was how am I going to do it,” she continued. “I was so nervous I cried on moving day. Then the Promise stuff started and kind of walked me through the process.”
She said it was encouraging to be around people in similar situations, who can all support each other.
“I had no idea all of the things that would come from being part of the Promise Program,” Stansel said. “The moment I learned it would help pay for my education was sweet, and it’s just gotten sweeter each year seeing how much more has come from that moment.”
Now a senior majoring in psychology, Stansel said she hopes to one day work in higher education, so she can make a difference in students’ lives the way the Promise Program and its donors have in hers.
“I am super thankful for all the donors that help with this program because without them, without the program, well, I don’t know where I’d be, but I certainly wouldn’t be here looking at graduate school,” Stansel said.
Stansel said she suspects that without Promise, if she had attempted college at all, she would have been working part-time jobs to cover costs. She said she’s seen classmates shoulder that burden and is grateful she was able to focus on school instead.
Matthew Wong, who completed a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 2014, shared that sentiment. The son of immigrants from Singapore, he began working part time in high school, hoping to get a head start on what he knew would be a tough financial road.
“I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how much college would cost, but I wanted to make sure I could cover at least some of it,” the Greenwood native explained. “I knew it would get rough after my sophomore year when some of the scholarships dwindled down.”
However, with support from the Promise Program, he found more freedom to focus on his classes and even engage in undergraduate research and a cooperative education opportunity with Viking Range. These opportunities helped lead to a master’s degree from Mississippi State and a job with Sy-Klone International in Florida.
Wong said that in establishing a career foundation, he intends to support his father, who recently retired from owning and operating a small convenience store—-work that helped he and his wife support their four children.
“We lived in a house behind that store,” Wong said. “It was really lower income, but he and my mom wanted us to be prepared for college. Now, he’s enjoying the retired life.”
While Terrance Barnett’s mother Karen isn’t quite ready to retire, she is breathing a little easier now that her son is on solid footing—financially and academically—at Mississippi State University.
After learning from a recruiter about the university’s nationally recognized meteorology program, the self-professed “weather nerd” said he dreamed of enrolling. Still, seeing his mother struggle to support three children on her own weighed on him.
“It’s always been a struggle but I became more aware of it as I got older,” Terrance said. “She’s working all of the time to support us, but when it came to college she would always say, ‘let me worry about that, you just get your grades right so you can be successful.’
“At one point, we were driving and I said, ‘You know, there’s a factory near the house. I could work there, save up some money and make it easier to go,’ but she got really mad at me,” Terrance recalled. “She wanted me to come straight to MSU because she wanted something better for us. But it was hard to hear her say ‘don’t worry about it,’ because I knew somewhere along the line she would have to do without.”
A manager at Hibbett Sports in Kosciusko, Karen helps support her oldest daughter, who is a senior business major at State; Terrance, now a sophomore; and her youngest daughter, a junior in high school currently considering higher education options. Despite the financial burden, she said she wants her children to go after their goals.
“There are so many young people who don’t get the opportunity to go to college and I don’t want that to happen to my kids,” Karen explained. “I wanted Terrance to be able to pursue his dream. Without the Promise Program I don’t know what other avenue we would have had.”
Now, Karen has hope of fulfilling her own dream—using her 15 years of retail management experience to open her own business. Terrance said he’s almost speechless at the change and opportunities the Promise Program has afforded his family.
“When I found out I was receiving the Promise award, it made me feel supported, cared for,” Terrance explained. “And it makes me think that one day, when I get big, I’ll be able to give back and support people who are in the same situation I’m in now.
“This opportunity is amazing,” he continued. “I mean, these people don’t even know me but by funding this program, they’re saying they’re going to help me, they believe in me.”
Clay Armstrong, director of The Learning Center at MSU, which houses Promise, said stories like these serve to illustrate the spirit of the program.
“The university is blessed with alumni who went out and made great lives for themselves and want to give back,” Armstrong said. “It’s a win-win for all of the people involved and the state of Mississippi because this isn’t just helping these students succeed in college, it’s creating a generational change in their families and communities.
“Coming to college is almost a pipe dream for some,” he continued. “But if we can help these students get here and be successful, they create new expectations and opportunities in their families.”
Since completing her degrees, Candace Johnson has worked to help Mississippi students realize their potential. A former MSU admissions counselor based in the Hattiesburg region, she helped high schoolers navigate enrollment requirements and overcome financial hurdles to clear their path to Mississippi State.
In 2016, Johnson helped Bassfield High School, which reports 99 percent of its enrollment as economically disadvantaged, send its largest class ever to Bulldog Country. The students earned more than $40,000 in scholarships to Mississippi State, including several Promise awards.
“I always wanted to help students in this area,” Johnson said. “There’s a disconnect in certain areas that lack resources and have impoverished students. I wanted to be the person to come in and help figure out what that is and how to help.
“When you haven’t had access to college prep courses or didn’t have that incorporated into your high school—-or maybe you just don’t test well—-you might not have the same scores as someone who had access to it all,” she continued. “And that’s why I love the Promise Program. It’s need based, not merit based, and that’s what’s impactful. It says you still have an opportunity, here’s something for you.”
Like many other college hopefuls from rural or high-need areas, Johnson said she knew she wanted to pursue a degree but just didn’t know how. Though she excelled in her classes, she wasn’t able to cover her tuition, books and housing through academic scholarships, which are highly competitive. It was the Promise Program, with its need-based structure, that allowed her to not only attend Mississippi State but make the most of the experience.
She said it opened many doors for her that otherwise would have remained closed. And having taken advantage of the opportunities she’s been given, she is excited to share those experiences to help her community grow and thrive.
“I’m a product of Jefferson Davis County, this is home, but I want to educate these kids and show them life doesn’t end here,” Johnson explained. “You’re not limited by your environment or circumstance. There’s so much in this world they can do and experience, and there are opportunities available to help make their dreams come true. They just need help finding them.”