Hundreds gathered at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Jackson for the 30th annual Higher Education Appreciation Day — Working for Academic Excellence program that honors outstanding students and faculty members from 34 Mississippi public and private universities and colleges.

“A concurrent resolution from the House and Senate recognizes today as HEADWAE day,” announced Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, chairman of the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee.

Dr. Rod Paige, interim president at Jackson State University delivered keynote speech. Credit: Jackson State University

“Higher education is the greatest upward mobility engine,” said Jackson State University interim President Rod Paige, who gave the keynote address. “There are many ways to economic and social success. My claim is the greatest of them all is higher education.”

Paige, a native of Monticello, earned a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University. He coached the JSU football team in the 1960s and served as superintendent of the Houston (Texas) Independent School District in the mid-1990s. In 2001, President George W. Bush tapped Paige as secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, making Paige the first African American to hold the post. In that role, he helped implement the No Child Left Behind Act policy.

Last October, he succeeded Dr. Carolyn W. Meyers, who resigned the JSU presidency.

“I am a witness to what higher education can do,” said Paige.

Higher Education Appreciation Day was established in 1988 by legislative resolution to honor individual academic achievement and the overall contribution of the state’s public and private institutions of higher learning.

More than 2,000 individuals have been honored since, said Dr. Glenn Boyce, Commissioner of Higher Education.

“MUW helped me meet people and network. Higher education advanced my personal success,” said Gabriella Yray, fall 2016 science graduate from Mississippi University for Women. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Yray began working at a chiropractic office in Olive Branch soon after graduation and is preparing to apply to medical schools in the state.

“There’s no other state in this country more dependent for its future than Mississippi is on higher education,” said Dr. Mark E. Keenum, president of Mississippi State University and president of the Mississippi Association of Colleges and Universities. “That’s an important responsibility on everyone’s shoulder in this room.”

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.