Bright Future: Natchez grad named to Ole Miss Hall of Fame

Published 12:14 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

NATCHEZ — When Debra Whitley decided to go to the University of Mississippi a friend warned her a non-white student could not succeed there.

Four years later, the integrated marketing communications major is set to graduate as a member of the school’s Hall of Fame.

“It means that all the time and effort I have put into school has been recognized,” she said. “It is validation for all of the people who believed in me.

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“It was rewarding, I felt like I made my family and friends proud.”

Whitley had many people present for the ceremony, but there were two people she wished she could have seen it, her father, Robert Whitley Sr., and grandfather Larry Brazley.

“My dad died when I was in the ninth grade, and after he died, my grandfather took the role of father figure,” she said. “From something as big as me being the valedictorian of Natchez High School, to little things at school or church, he was there every step of the way.

“I know he was there in spirit, and I know he would have been proud.”

Her mother, Connie, was present, though, and Whitley said she was able to surprise her with the Hall of Fame honor. Every year, approximately 150 students are named to the Who’s Who Among American College Students, and Whitley had convinced her mom that was the only honor she would get.

“I was seated with the other Who’s Who students, and when they started reading my Hall of Fame bio, I was looking over at her face,” she said. “When they finished reading it, she was just smiling.

“That was the best thing ever. I had some great moments in high school, but I think this one really surprised her.”

Whitley has been heavily involved during her time at Ole Miss — including the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Omicron Delta Kappa honor society, Black Student Union, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Freshman Council, Student Alumni Council and the Gospel Choir. She was also an Ole Miss Women’s Council scholar.

She interned for Southwest Airlines in Texas this past summer, and wrote her thesis required to graduate from the honor’s college on the experience. At Southwest, her internship was data-oriented, performing analysis on marketing strategies. The topic for her thesis is what companies are doing to attract millennials.

“Millennials have a gamer mentality, and I see that in myself,” she said, speaking about video games. “Hashtag winning is kind of our slogan. We look at everything as if it is a game, and what do we have to do to win, to achieve our goals.”

When Whitley graduates, she hopes to move to Texas to pursue a career in marketing or public relations.

“I would love to go back and work for Southwest — I really enjoyed my time there,” she said. “But I am looking for a major corporation in Texas for me to call home.”

Thinking back to that advice she got about picking another school, Whitley said she wouldn’t have it another way.

She said being at Ole Miss was tough at times. During her freshman year, some students took to the streets to protest when Barack Obama was reelected as president, and she was also there when the students from Georgia put a noose around the statue of James Meredith, who integrated the school.

But she recalls the good times, too. She witnessed the students vote to take the Mississippi state flag down. The school has also hosted many forums where students were able to voice their thoughts about race relations.

“Since my time there, I’ve seen a lot of people become more open to listening and learning,” Whitley said. “I think it’s been good seeing both the good and the bad.

“It makes you appreciate the changes a lot more.”