‘From the First Day, JSU Felt Like Home’

Honors alumni reflect on their years at JSU and how the program influenced future successes

By Brett Buckner

When the letter from JSU first arrived at her home in Waycross, Ga., Courtney (Crosby) Newsome was excited, if a bit confused.

“I didn’t really know what it was,” she said. “At first, I was a little suspicious just because it seemed almost too good to be true.”

It was 2009, and she had been offered JSU’s most prestigious academic scholarship. She and future husband, Andrew Newsome, were among the Original Eight — the first group of incoming freshmen to be part of what was then known as the Elite Honors program. The top scholarship program has now been renamed JSU Honors and is awarded to exceptional high school seniors – covering all necessities for four years, including 16 hours of tuition each semester, the general university fee, books, housing and a meal plan.

To be eligible, applicants must have at least a 30 on the ACT or 1360 on the SAT and a 3.75 cumulative GPA through the 11th grade. The JSU Honors Scholarship is the top tier of several merit-based scholarships offered by JSU.

When that letter arrived, Newsome recognized it for what it was — an opportunity.

Andrew and Courtney Newsome, along with their two children

Andrew and Courtney (Crosby) Newsome, two of the original eight Elite Honors Scholars, along with their children.

“Since it completely covered all my expenses,” she said, “I decided to work really hard to try and figure out how to get two degrees out of it without overextending my credit hours. I went full throttle to make the most out of those four years.”

Newsome graduated in 2013 with degrees in chemistry and mathematics. From there, she and Mr. Newsome — who graduated from JSU with a degree in history — moved to Birmingham, where they both attended graduate school at UAB. He completed a master’s degree, and she received a Doctor of Medicine degree. She completed a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Medicine, where she was named co-winner of the Resident of the Year award. Meanwhile, Mr. Newsome taught 11th-grade U.S. history and coached girls’ soccer. The couple has since returned to Alabama, where she practices emergency medicine at Gadsden Regional Medical Center.

Dr. Newsome was always driven academically. But, looking back, she credits the Honors Program with forcing her to work even harder than she might have otherwise.

“I was able to prove that I have what it takes to be a doctor,” she said. “I’m not just saying that. I have the experience to back it up, to show what I was a part of, and I have carried those things into my career. I’ve tried to continue to give back to my community, to be a part of the community and do some good for people. JSU gave me that. They helped me achieve all that I wanted to achieve.”

The Honors Program is where a student’s academic drive is allowed the freedom to explore interests both inside the classroom and beyond.

“Really, it’s for students who want to excel academically and want to be in classes with other students with the same high goals,” said Dr. Lori Owens, program director. “Honors, by definition, is interdisciplinary. It’s our goal to have a variety of majors, and by doing that, we’re building an honors community. It’s not just about taking honors classes. We want these students to grow together intellectually and socially.”

Members can take classes out of sheer curiosity. For example, with an Honors contract, students can substitute one class for another if it incorporates well into their overall academic experience. One such contract left a lasting impression on Mr. Newsome. He and Dr. Newsome worked with chemistry professor Dr. Jan Gryko, analyzing soil in a local cemetery where they found surprising levels of cyanide. Their research found that higher ranking Civil War soldiers were embalmed with cyanide. Dr. Gryko asked Mr. Newsome to help identify potential soldiers based on the soil samples.

“I always thought about that when I was teaching,” said Mr. Newsome, who is now a stay-at-home dad following their birth of their second child. “How can I, in this history lesson, implement a bit of math or science to reach across those subject lines to interest students?”

David Rickless, Class of 2016

David Rickless, Class of 2016

It was just this type of academic exploration that David Rickless used for future benefit. The Anniston native graduated from JSU’s Honors Program in 2016 with a degree in geography. When he first came to JSU, he planned on studying environmental science. He soon discovered an affinity for research and geography.

“I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” said Rickless. “I was never the type of person who had a solid five-year plan. My mentors and advisors were very tolerant of that and let me take courses just because I was curious.”

After graduating from JSU, Rickless received a master’s degree in geography from the University of Georgia. While at UGA, he won a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he’s been ever since. Working for the government contracting firm Perspecta, he uses his geography background to improve public health by focusing mainly on environmental health projects.

“The program was perfect for me,” Rickless said. “I was someone who was motivated but not necessarily focused.”

For Birmingham native Latrice Green, who graduated in the spring of 2017, the Honors Program allowed her to discover a passion for education policy.

“I wanted a broader understanding of education and other public interests in America,” said Green, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at UAB. “I began reading, visiting with professors, and even speaking at state and national conferences on the topic of diversity in schools and what we can do to meet the needs of all of our students.”

In addition to her graduate studies, Green is the assistant band director at Pinson Valley High School in Pinson, Ala., just north of Birmingham, where she initiated a middle and high school percussion ensemble and organizes performances and field trips, including the Bands of America Grand National Championships in Indiana.

Among her recent accomplishments, Green is most proud of hosting a weekly drum circle for special needs students, which recently performed at the Alabama Music Educators Association Conference in Montgomery.

“I have seen countless times,” Green said, “how music gives so many of our students a path to happiness and success, compassion and empathy for others, as well as a lifelong love and appreciation for the arts.”

Among the program’s unique activities, Honors students participate in community service projects that they must research and choose.

“There wasn’t a lot of specific direction,” Mr. Newsome said. “It was very open ended, and they gave us a lot of autonomy for what we wanted to do. That’s what made it exciting, because we got to focus on the things that we were passionate about and turn that into something productive.”

The small classes and other activities associated with the program, including special advisement, career planning, mentorship, guest lectures and service opportunities, instill a sense of belonging and inclusion among the students. The Honors Program is a community from the start, which is good for incoming freshman who might not otherwise know anyone on campus.

Latrice Green
Latrice Green, Class of 2017

“There was a diversity of people and backgrounds, but it was cool to already have your group right there,” Rickless said. “People who already had the mindset that we were going to succeed. It was nice to meet people you already had a lot in common with.”

Even from the beginning, the Honors Program created a sense of belonging.

“From the first day, JSU felt like home,” Dr. Newsome said. “It was fun to think that we were all these bright-eyed college students getting the chance to build this thing together.”

The program sponsors weekend trips to places such as the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center for team-building exercises. Participants can even study abroad. Previous classes have visited Costa Rica and China. There are plans to go to Ireland in 2022.

“That was one of the best things I did in college,” said Rickless, who spent 10 days in China. “Absolutely. That was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Though Honors students spent a great deal of time together and were highly focused on academics, that’s not to suggest that they were isolated.

“I had a typical college experience,” Rickless said. “I wasn’t up in an ivory tower studying all the time. I went to football games and had a really good time when I was there. It’s important to have that balance. There’s more to it than just the academic, which is good for an 18-year-old overachiever to know coming in.”

After the diplomas are hung on the walls and life’s steady grind sets in, it’s the relationships that Honors graduates remember most.

“We were all very close — obviously we married each other,” Dr. Newsome said, laughing. “We were all in each other’s weddings, and we’re all still in contact with each other. We spent so much time together, and our personalities were so similar. Those bonds will always be there.”