Meet the 2003 Outstanding Seniors

April 23, 2003

Lois Gray’s first visit to Maryville College occurred back in 1995 when she and other Shelbyville Central High School cheerleaders traveled to campus for a week of instruction.

Nearly eight years later, many cheers on the Maryville College campus are for her.

Gray, the daughter of Jimmy and Susan Gray of Shelbyville and a 1999 graduate of SCHS, was applauded for her academic and co-curricular achievements during the College’s annual Academic Awards Ceremony held April 12, when she was introduced as one of five finalists selected for the College’s Outstanding Senior Award.

Established by the Maryville College Alumni Association in 1974, the Outstanding Senior Award recognizes those students “whose overall record of academic achievement and participation in extracurricular activities stands out as most exemplary.”

Only those students with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 are considered for nomination.

Gray, who is majoring in child development with teacher licensure and will graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree, was also recognized April 12 with the College’s Child Development Award, which is presented each year to the senior who “has demonstrated competence with children and achieved outstanding academic performance in child development and learning as well as overall scholarship as reflected in grade point average.”

Lois Gray has recorded a near perfect academic record at the College, but what most impressed the awards selection committee – as it has the rest of Maryville College – is the difference she has made on campus and in the wider community while enrolled at the liberal arts college.

Advocate for literacy

Active in community service and student government while in high school, Gray continued in those activities while in college. She has served as cabinet secretary for the College’s Student Government Association for three years, served on the Judicial Board and Student Programming Board for two years, been a Peer Mentor to new students for one year, and held the position of treasurer for the Psi Chi honor society for one year.

But it has been her work with illiterate populations, she said, that has given her the most professional growing experiences.

A four-year member of the College’s Student Literacy Corps, Gray coordinated the student group for an amazing three years. Dedicated to the empowerment of people through knowledge, the Literacy Corps sends volunteer student tutors to places like the Adult Basic Education Center, the Blount County Justice Center, and MC Families, a program that helps young mothers and fathers obtain their GEDs.

As a finalist for the Outstanding Senior Award, Gray wrote an essay that was submitted to the award selection committee. In it, she explains the connections she sees between her desire to teach and her work with adult learners: “It was towards the middle of my freshman year that I truly felt my calling to teach. During the spring semester, [freshman advisor] Dr. Berry introduced me to Linda Clark, who was the advisor for Literacy Corps. I registered for the [Literacy Corps] class, and to this day, that is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

“ That spring, my eyes were opened to a whole new world – the world of illiteracy,” Gray continued in her essay. “Never before had I been made aware of the frightening illiteracy statistics that are lurking in our country. I began tutoring at MC Families with the teenage mothers, and I became so addicted to volunteering that I picked up another class at the Adult Basic Education Center. I had never considered teaching outside of the public school setting, but soon after I began working at these local agencies, I realized that I truly did have a gift that could be extended further than school walls. That gift is teaching. From then on, I did not consider teaching as a future career, but I considered it to be a calling…”

Unique because of its success and its organization (entirely student-run), the Maryville College Student Literacy Corps has been nationally recognized by the John Templeton Foundation’s “Colleges that Encourage Character Development” guide. As coordinator of the Literacy Corps, Gray has made presentations on motivating volunteers, recruiting student tutors and running an effective literacy program at various other colleges and universities, including Harvard.

She has helped write grants for special literacy-related projects, including a Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education (SCALE) grant, which enabled her and three other Literacy Corps members to interview adult learners about their struggles to learn to read and obtain a GED. The resulting publication, “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of Blount County Adult Learners,” was presented at a conference at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2001.

A broken heart

In his introduction of his advisee during the April 12 ceremony, Dr. Terry Simpson, associate professor of secondary education and chairperson of the College’s Division of Education, commented on Gray’s promise as a teacher. He said if he had “absolute power,” she would be his granddaughter’s kindergarten teacher, her first-grade teacher, her second-grade teacher and so on.

Simpson said what set his advisee apart from so many other prospective teachers was a broken heart.

“ Her heart is broken because too many of our children never hear a positive word of encouragement at home or at school,” he said. “Her heart is broken when she comes into contact with those who work with our children but stopped caring long ago. Her heart is broken because, more than anyone in this auditorium, she understands the bondage of illiteracy. But if you think a broken heart is a sign of weakness, I must respond ‘no’ … It is the strong who continuously carry the burden of a broken heart.”

A future of exploration

Gray hopes to soon secure a job teaching kindergarten or first grade. Her future plans also include post-graduate study, volunteering with literacy agencies, and travel.

While enrolled at Maryville, Gray traveled to Turkey as part of the January Term experience, and she spent the summer of 2003 in Thailand, teaching English classes to kindergarten students and tutoring individuals. While there, she also conducted research for her senior thesis, which compares Thai and American educational systems with emphasis on critical thinking skills.

“If someone would have told me as a freshman that I would be teaching overseas in three years, I would have laughed at them and probably said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Gray said. “Coming in to Maryville College as a freshman, I was from a small town. I think I was scared to take risks. But I think I’m leaving here more independent, so much more open minded and better for being exposed to different things.”

Travel, she said, broke down some stereotypes for her and tested her ability to communicate with and relate to children in a different cultural setting. She said traveling also humbled her – gave her an appreciation for the American educational system and her country’s wealth. In her lifetime, she hopes to better understand herself by visiting every continent.

Borrowing some philosophy from a favorite professor, Gray lives by the advice “You never truly know who you are until you know who you are not.”

A College cheerleader

Gray never tried out for the College’s cheerleading squad, but she’s a big fan of her soon-to-be alma mater.

In her essay, Gray wrote that she would eventually “love to teach education courses at Maryville” so that she could ensure that the same strong foundation she received as a prospective teacher would be offered to future education majors.

The recipient of some major scholarships that are enabling her to graduate debt-free, Gray wrote that she may never be financially able to make large gifts to the College, but she intends to support it through other avenues.

“ Maryville College has become my family, my home,” she wrote in her essay. “I have developed so many relationships with the faculty and staff members – relationships that have carried me through my weakest moments. Maryville College has provided me with opportunities to make a difference, such as with the Literacy Corps. Maryville College has taken me to foreign countries and given me the courage to pursue my career overseas. Maryville College has given me a firm education on which to build my career.

“ Maryville College has made me who I am today.”