For the second year in a row, The Pine Bluff Commercial celebrates high school valedictorians, their classmates and college graduates in Jefferson County with a series of features and photo galleries highlighting the biggest moment of their academic lives thus far. This is the first of 14 entries in our series honoring the Class of 2022.
Working in the prison system is nothing new in Mae Morris' family. She, her uncles, aunts, sisters and brothers have all worked as guards.
With goals of working in the FBI, Morris wanted to move up in her profession, and a college degree would help.
"Growing up, I always had this issue of trying new things and trying to find myself," she said. "I stuck to the norm. I stuck to what I do. Working for the Department of Corrections, in some positions, you may need that bachelor's."
Morris began her career at the Dr. Lane Murray Women's Prison Unit in Gatesville, Texas, in 2001, two years after she graduated from Altheimer High School. Shortly thereafter, she moved back home to work in the Arkansas Department of Corrections and finally enrolled at Southeast Arkansas College for the fall 2006 semester.
She went to the Dub Brassell Detention Center for seven years and reached the rank of lieutenant before taking a break from working in corrections. She went to work at Lennox Industries, only to leave due to low pay and return to the field at the Tucker Unit.
Full-time motherhood and work life meant Morris couldn't just breeze through college classes, but a transfer to administration within the procurement department of construction helped her to complete her associate's degree in applied science in 2018.
"It was kind of hard to juggle," she said. "I didn't know my strength at the time. So I figured, let me do one class here, I may do two classes here, I may do three classes there, take a semester off, take a class there and take a class here. People were encouraging me, 'It doesn't matter how you finish, as long as you finish.' I used it as a crutch, a class here and a class there."
She enrolled at UAPB for the fall 2020 semester and did her coursework online before she was advised she needed to do her remaining five classes face-to-face to earn her bachelor's degree in criminal justice. She had to leave the Department of Corrections and take a night-shift job with Amazon in Little Rock to attend classes.
As Morris got closer to finishing at UAPB, the pandemic led to a mental block that threatened her son's path to a high school diploma.
Five years ago, Gerren Alexander Jr. was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Football helped him stay in good health, his mom said, but having to take virtual classes amid the covid-19 pandemic and manage his medical issue at the same time sent him down a path of depression, taking the longtime A-and-B student off focus from his classwork. He would ultimately have to pass summer classes at Dollarway High School to advance to the 12th grade.
"I didn't really deal with it the best way," Alexander said. "I did the work most of the time, but then you had teachers say, 'You still have to get on the Zoom and let them know you're present.' At a point, the diabetes got to me. I had a 'Why me?' moment. I'm young and it's an old-people disease, as I call it. It messed with my head, so I slipped up a little bit, but I got back into the groove of things and I got it right."
The virtual classes took Alexander away from his access to visual learning in a face-to-face environment. He was asked to read lessons and understand the concepts more.
"I can read and understand and comprehend, but at the same time, in some things, I'm used to getting help," he said. "Trying to get on my own good foot and get it myself is kind of hard."
Now, just days away from their birthdays, Alexander will cheer on his mother as she receives her bachelor's Saturday morning at Simmons Bank Field at Golden Lion Stadium. On May 17, two days before Morris turns 41, Alexander will walk across the stage to pick up his Dollarway diploma at UAPB's H.O. Clemmons Arena.
"It's a blessing," Alexander said. "Not a lot of adults finish college all the way through to graduate. The fact that my mother, through everything she's been through, let me go ahead and finish this out, and right when I'm about to graduate and attend college myself, it's amazing. It's an amazing feeling."
Alexander will turn 18 on May 25, with an ultimate birthday present in tow and enrollment at Langston (Oklahoma) University ahead with hopes of earning a business administration degree and making the football team.
"I always wanted to have my own business and know how to run that and hire people," he said. "I want to have my own construction company and know how to run that properly, because living in Altheimer and living in Pine Bluff, I always see old, dilapidated buildings messed up and left alone and torn down. In my mind, I want to come back to my city and my place and build on that."
He and Morris have lived a motivational story 12-year-old sister Kristen Hamilton witnessed unfold. Kristen is Mae's daughter.
"It shows me that, even if I don't have the platform that I need -- I have the desire to become a writer or an artist -- even if I don't have the platform, the setting or background I need, I can still be successful in the career and do it how I want to, even if I don't have what people deem is needed," Kristen said.
Her wisdom is well ahead of her age.
"Twelve to 38," her brother said.
Sunday: UAPB graduates are challenged to conquer the real world; Watson Chapel High School valedictorian is introduced.
Mae Morris and
Gerren Alexander Jr.
UAPB and Dollarway High School
Jefferson County graduation schedule
Saturday, May 7: UAPB, 9 a.m., Simmons Bank Field at Golden Lion Stadium
Tuesday, May 10: Watson Chapel High, 7 p.m., Pine Bluff Convention Center
Thursday, May 12: White Hall High, 7 p.m., Bulldog Stadium
Friday, May 13: Southeast Arkansas College, 7 p.m., Pine Bluff Convention Center
Tuesday, May 17: Dollarway High, 6 p.m., UAPB H.O. Clemmons Arena
Wednesday, May 18: Friendship Aspire Academy Southeast Campus, noon, school gymnasium
Friday, May 20: Pine Bluff High, 7 p.m., Pine Bluff Convention Center