Established in 2016 to combine three coastal-county alumni groups—previously Hancock, Harrison-Stone and Jackson—the Mississippi Gulf Coast chapter of the MSU Alumni Association boasts more than 5,000 alumni and friends within its borders. Working together, those Coast Dawgs are leaving a mark on their communities while bolstering the reputation of the Mississippi State family.
Every member of Mississippi State University’s faculty, staff and student body quickly learns the three tenets on which the institution was founded—learning, research and service. These words inform the university’s mission and shape the Bulldog family across the globe.
They’re also what drive the Mississippi Gulf Coast chapter of the Mississippi State Alumni Association to take an active role in bettering the communities it serves.
“We believe it’s important to perform community service because it speaks to the pedigree of the Mississippi State alumni base,” explained Jeffrey Ellis, president of the chapter. “We are a service-minded university and with that, it became one of the main focuses of our chapter.”
Since coastal alumni were unified as one chapter two years ago, the group has engaged in hundreds of hours of community service, seeking unique ways to share their love for Mississippi State and help people see what being a Bulldog is all about.
In the past year alone, the group has supported the Salvation Army and Relay for Life, as well as local food drives and the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, a Gulfport-based children’s museum. Members also helped children build model shrimp boats for the annual Gulf Coast Wooden and Classic Boat Show, hosted by the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.
Coast Dawgs also served at the National Veterans Golden Age Games, which were held in Biloxi, and hosted booths at numerous civic events and a Gulf Coast celebration for Mississippi’s bicentennial.
“It goes back to family,” Ellis, the 2006 mechanical engineering graduate, said. “That’s the one attribute Mississippi State has always prided itself on—being a close-knit family. And that extends into the local communities long after graduation.”
While the group undertakes these activities from altruistic desires, Ellis admits that they never lose sight of recruiting the next generation of Bulldogs. The chapter’s “adopted highway” is strategically placed on highway 67 in north Biloxi, between D’Iberville and St. Patrick Catholic high schools, to ensure those future Dawgs are never far from a Mississippi State influence.
Since 2016, the Mississippi Gulf Coast chapter of the MSU Alumni Association has offered $23,000 in scholarships to college-bound students across Mississippi’s coastal communities.
It’s a point of pride for the chapter members who earn every dollar of scholarship money from fundraisers and donations throughout the year.
“We want to show these kids that we want them to succeed in life, and the way we do that is by giving back through this scholarship fund,” explained Joe Abston, scholarship chairman for the chapter. “It’s kind of putting your money where your mouth is. We want them to go to Mississippi State and be successful, so we want to give financial support to get them there.”
Abston, who earned accountancy degrees in 1991 and 1992, said the chapter strives to provide as many scholarships as possible each year. That means always looking for ways to fundraise that not only help feed the coffers, but also bring the Coast Dawgs together for fun events. He said hosting the southern-most leg of the Road Dawgs Tour is a reliable big fundraiser, as is the chapter’s annual “drawdown,” a $50 per ticket party that includes food, drinks and friendly competition for door prizes.
“It doesn’t cost us a lot to put on our events because we hustle to get donations and good deals,” Abston explained. “And we are involved in almost everything we can be, trying to make a dollar every way we can.”
He added that selling “Coastal STATE of Mind” shirts this year actually earned enough to fund two scholarships.
Other than covering the expenses for the various fundraisers and events, all of the chapter proceeds go into funding scholarships. Each award, including the Joe D. Cole Endowed Scholarship, provides $1,000 of support for an entering freshman.
Abston said when making recommendations for how the university awards the scholarships, they try to divvy them up across the counties based on how many incoming freshmen each produces. From there, he said, they look for students who have well-rounded resumes, including community service, extracurricular activities and work experience—those who are doing all they can to ensure their futures.
“We try to raise as much money as we can and we don’t want to hold on to it,” Abston said. “We want to pass it out to try to help deserving kids—as many as we can. That $1,000 can go a long way.”
With membership that covers four, bustling Mississippi counties, the Magnolia State’s Gulf Coast alumni chapter hosts three separate send-off parties each year to celebrate the newest Bulldogs from the area.
Spread out across the four counties that constitute the coastal chapter, these parties are both a big celebration to welcome freshmen and transfer students to the Maroon and White family and intimate gatherings for communities to recognize the success of their students. It’s a unique balance that Richard Cannon said is achieved through deliberate planning.
“We try to limit the distance students and parents will have to travel for the parties, but the whole chapter pitches in for all of the events,” explained Cannon, who serves as the chapter’s send-off coordinator. “This three-party approach has worked well and they’ve grown each year.”
Cannon, who earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and an MBA in 1986 and 2000, respectively, attributes much of the send-off success to the chapter’s “welcome to the Bulldog family” theme, which focuses on making students and parents feel at ease with the university transition and immediately part of the MSU community.
“These parties demonstrate that Mississippi State is a family, and show students and their parents that people in their own communities value MSU, support MSU and support our incoming students,” Cannon said. “It is also an opportunity for the students to meet others from the area who will be attending MSU and might be in the same major or dorm—a familiar face when they get to campus. It’s all about reducing any anxiety students or parents may have.”
The set-up for each of the chapter’s three send-off parties is the same. It all starts with chapter members sending personal invitations to the new Bulldogs in their area. At the event, initial introductions serve as an ice breaker then transition into campus representative and alumni speakers who can offer words of wisdom. But Cannon said it’s how they conclude the evening that makes the coastal send-off parties unique.
“We usually give away MSU-themed door prizes, and recently, fundraising has allowed us to also give a cowbell to each student,” Cannon said. “We have them all put on the T-shirts the Alumni Association provides and hold their bells for a picture, then lead them in singing the fight song with all the alumni joining in.”