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Dr. Paul - Thank you for leaving us better than you found us.

Senior year of college is strange, folks.

Sometimes it doesn't really seem real that I will actually be graduating in a few short months. I have honestly always viewed things like graduation as an abstract goal that never really seems reachable. I never thought I would finally hear from my advisor, "You are done. You get to graduate." 

Senior year has made me sit back and reflect a lot. The question I keep coming back to is, "How did I get here?"

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question but there are definitely catalysts in my story who made all the difference in me getting from there to now.

One of those catalysts is Dr. Joseph Paul.

I literally would not be graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi if it were not for his influence in my life. To say that Dr. Paul loves the students as Southern Miss as his own children is a drastic understatement that almost seems offensive once one looks upon the legacy Dr. Paul is leaving behind as he moves into retirement. 

The beginning of my freshman year was a rocky roller coaster to say the least. I lost two family members, one after another, the summer before college. I decided to take a different career path than the one I had planned and prepared for years. I didn't know what I was doing with my life.

I am a planner, and when you take plans away from a planner, things can go downhill at a rapid pace. I couldn't function without a game plan.

I checked into orientation, moved into my dorm, went to my scholarship meetings, played ice breakers - all the usual things freshman do their first day on campus. 

Somehow in that 12 hour span, I decided that Southern Miss was the last place on earth I wanted to be. I came home that night and told my mom I wanted to transfer to a school that I hadn't even applied to. I told her that I refused to go back to Southern Miss. 

She told me that if I could get a scholarship match at the other university, that I could transfer. I met with countless people that Monday.

They matched the offer. I dropped out of USM, enrolled in another school, moved out of one dorm and into another - all in one day.

It didn't take me long at all to realize how big of a mistake I had made. When I say it didn't take long, I mean it literally took one day. I stayed in my new dorm room for one night.

My mom came to visit me that Tuesday evening to bring me a "dorm warming" present. As soon as she got to my dorm, I broke into tears. All I could mutter was, "Mom, what have I done?"

I have a pretty go big or go home type of personality, and my capacity to mess up is not an exclusion to this rule.  

I had given back an incredible academic scholarship, dropped out school, put my family through *insert not nice word that references a particularly warm place* and transferred to a school that doesn't even offer anything I was interested in studying.

This week will forever go down as one of my best mess ups of all time. 

My mom told me to get in the car. We went to Winn Dixie to buy fruit and tried to think of what to do. 

I knew I had lost my scholarship, but hoped that maybe, just maybe, Southern Miss would allow me to re-enroll. 

The only person my mom could think to call was Dr. Paul. So, I called Dr. Paul at home that night. When he answered, all I could do was cry. I knew I had messed up monumentally this time. 

Dr. Paul's response was simple and to the point. He just told me to go to class the next day and that everything was fine. He reactivated my ID from his house, and told me that as long as it was ok with my roommate, I could move back into my dorm immediately. 

Dr. Paul had frozen my withdrawal from Southern Miss because he knew I was going to realize that I made a rash decision. He still let me make the decision, but he provided a safety net and warm, welcoming arms for me to run back to once I realized what I had done. 

He never lectured me about the incident. He only encouraged me to strive to be the best student I could be. He allowed me to make that mistake, but was there to make things right when I was at the end of my rope. 

Dr. Paul truly is a father to the students at the University of Southern Mississippi. 

I do not doubt that he would do for any of his students what he did for me. Over the last 40 years, Dr. Paul has been the catalyst figure in countless student's lives. He believes in us even when we don't believe in ourselves. He doesn't just look at our behavior, he looks at the person behind that behavior. He searches for the best in people and helps them see it for themselves. 

I would not be who I am today if Dr. Joseph Paul was not part of my life. Through my four years at Southern Miss, I have learned that an education reaches far beyond the stretch of a classroom. My time at Southern Miss has shaped me into the person I am today. The people I have met at Southern Miss have undoubtedly left me better than they found me. Without Dr. Paul, I never would have met the person who told me to pick up this whole "camera" deal as more than a passing fad.

I would not be the person I am today without him. 

Dr. Paul, thank you for leaving me and the rest of Southern Miss better than you found us.

- Kate