Like many of its new graduates, Meredith McPhail is grateful for the guidance of professors at The University of Southern Mississippi. One, however, stands out from the rest – the late Dr. James H. McPhail, a member of its College of Education and Psychology faculty who in the 1970s worked for social justice in the desegregation of public schools.
But Dr. McPhail was first and foremost Meredith McPhail’s grandfather. “’PawPaw’ was very much the patriarch of our family,” said McPhail, 22, of Mobile, Ala. “He instilled in all of us that we should treat every single person with respect."
Dr. McPhail served as an intermediary between the federal government enforcing desegregation and local school districts in South Mississippi struggling to comply. His example helped to inform his granddaughter’s career choice to work in the field of public interest.
With dual degrees in English and Spanish, and a minor in human rights, she plans to seek a law degree at the University of Michigan and career in public interest law with an emphasis on child advocacy.
“It’s hard to believe my time as a student here at USM is over, but it’s been an incredible experience at a place I’ve known so well since I was a little girl,” said McPhail, who received her diploma May 13. “Growing up, we always came to Hattiesburg for the holidays, family reunions and football games at USM, so it’s always been like home to me. But as one of its students, I learned to love Southern Miss from a new vantage point.”
At USM, McPhail was a member of Delta Gamma sorority; the Southern Miss Speech and Debate Team, Eagle Connection, Golden Eagle Welcome Week (GEWW) Crew, Lambda Sigma Honor Society, the Student Eagle Club, USM Freshman Woman of the Year Finalist and participated in USM’s study abroad program in Spain. In her senior year, she was chosen for Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.
“Meredith is an exemplar of what we hope an Honors College student will be: academically impressive, diverse in interests, hungry for experiences outside of their comfort zone, and committed to making positive change in the world,” said Dr. Ellen Weinauer, dean of the Honors College. “We are proud not only of what she has achieved here at Southern Miss and in gaining admission to law school at Michigan, but also of the kind of person she has used her time at Southern Miss to become.”
McPhail also completed three internships that have helped prepare her for a career in public interest law with the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office at the Child Advocacy Center, with Lawyers for Children in New York City, and with the American Bar Association’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project on the US/Mexico border. Her long of hours of work and participation with the USM Debate Team, she believes, gave her invaluable experience and the tools to succeed in law school and beyond.
“Students like Meredith McPhail who are excited about learning and determined to see a project finished absolutely encourage and give me hope about the future,” said Dr. Tim Rehner, director of the School of Social Work. “Meredith will make the future better for many persons because of her commitment to social justice, and looking out for and advocating for vulnerable populations. Her goal of public interest in law school will be a wonderful opportunity to extend her impact and reach in a positive way.”
Inspired by “PawPaw”
Dr. McPhail was a professor of education at USM and served a term as chairman of its Department of Education Administration and Research. An alumnus of Southern Miss who earned a Ph.D. from Boston University, he served as an intermediary between national forces pushing for desegregation and the local school districts, and his understanding of Southern culture helped to bridge divides among people and establish equality in South Mississippi. He retired from the university in 1985.
“What he did back then inspires me today to fight for the rights of those individuals society tends to neglect,” McPhail said.
Dr. McPhail also shared his love for USM football with the rest of his family. “I think we all followed his lead on that one,” McPhail said.
To the Top, to the end
No fair weather fan she, McPhail has never left a USM football game early, even when the Golden Eagles hit the skids from 2012-2014. Going back to when she and her family trekked to Hattiesburg to see Southern Miss take to the gridiron, heading for the exits -even when a game was out of reach - was considered blasphemous.
“I don’t leave games early,” says McPhail, who witnessed the Golden Eagles go from winless her freshman year to its first winning season and bowl bid since 2011. “True fans don’t leave early.”
To hear McPhail speak about the prospects for Golden Eagle football, one could envision the parallel between the fan and team – a bright future.
“Now we’re playing with the heart we used to have, and I can’t wait to see what it’s in store for the team going forward,” she said. “We’re definitely on the ascent.”