Mother overcomes odds and beats son to college degree

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MAGNOLIA, ARK. – Darryl Webb III was not able to say he was a first-generation college graduate because his mother, Carla, 45, accepted her degree from Southern Arkansas University just two hours prior to her son.

Carla was the first in the Webb family of the Falcon Community near Buckner to walk across a college graduation stage at SAU’s first evening commencement ceremony on Friday, May 6. She earned a degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Social Work.

Darryl’s ceremony was just two hours later, and he was recognized for completing a double major in Engineering Physics and Mathematics.

“I feel like I’m taking away from his special day, graduating college,” said Carla in an interview with her and Darryl two weeks before graduation. They both said they anticipated a lot of family and friends would be on hand to celebrate this triumphant day for the Webb family, and that Darryl Webb II may even shed a tear. “Dad’s gonna cry,” Darryl said with a smile.

Darryl has given Carla and his father many reasons to smile throughout his childhood and now as a college graduate. He was accepted in the only Ph.D. program for which he applied, meaning he will transition from a Mulerider to a Razorback in the fall. His friends and fellow seniors were baffled that he only applied to the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Arkansas. They applied to 10 or more schools, but Darryl’s reply was constant, “I can’t afford it, and I just want to go to the University of Arkansas; I want to stay in Arkansas.”

The UofA letter of acceptance reached the family home the same day he was honored with the Hall of Fame TRIO Achiever Award at SAU for his work as a student tutor, a role in which he excelled since his sophomore year.

He particularly enjoyed when Carla was enrolled in a course he had previously completed and she would request his tutelage. He admits his standard response to his mother was “this is so easy.” With a roll of the eyes, Carla said, “He’s always been really honest.” She followed suit with other proud descriptors of her son that included intelligent, loving, dependable, respectful, handsome and humorous.

Carla’s path to her college degree was anything but easy, though.

“It has been very stressful being in college as a non-traditional student. I had not been in a classroom in a while so I had to do some catching up, such as taking Comp I and College Algebra, which my son had already taken in high school,” said Carla. “Darryl was there when I needed him, and was also how I learned of the tutoring center and Supplemental Instruction (SI) sessions.”

Darryl and Carla Webb Sp16It was not just academic pressures causing stress, Carla and Darryl lost close family members during their college journey.

“We still maintained our grades pretty well. We had the support of each other along with our family,” said Carla.

Darryl echoed his mother’s sentiments. “Stress from all areas was overcome by maintaining a healthy relationship between me and my parents throughout college; not to mention one of my closest friends from high school was always there for comfort and encouragement when I needed her the most.”

Paying for college causes headaches and stress for many, but SAU does everything possible to ease those concerns. According to Marcela Brunson, director of financial aid at SAU, 78-percent of the May 2016 graduating class received some type of financial aid to complete college, whether it was federal, state or institutional assistance.

“SAU faculty and staff are dedicated to assisting out students in obtaining their degrees. We know how important a college education is, and we do everything we can to help alleviate student fears about paying for college and make them aware of financial resources available,” said Dr. Donna Allen, SAU’s vice president for student affairs.

Carla said she received a Pell Grant and received a two Student Support Services scholarships minimize the amount of loans she would need. Darryl earned a Blue and Gold Scholarship from SAU and the Arkansas Academic Challenge, as well as a Pell Grant and loans as needed by semester.

“SAU is proud to be able to offer institutional assistance to both undergraduate and graduate students in the form of scholarships and work on campus,” said Brunson. “Graduation is a celebration of our collaboration.”

Carla said that it was a challenge deciding to start back to college, but that it was her determination that pushed her to make it through. She had worked in many areas, none of which were fulfilling for her. They included being a cashier, cook, laborer and a certified nurse’s aide for 10 years. Through her first semester as a college student, she tried to balance working as a CNA with school.

“It became difficult for me to go to school in the daytime and then work from 3-11 nightly, especially doing that type of work,” said Carla. “I was determined to make it so that I could do better for myself and my family.”

After taking a class from Judge John Hawkins, Carla decided to declare her major as Criminal Justice with a minor in Social Work. She said she was inspired by his teaching style and the way he incorporates stories with almost every lesson. Now that she’s completed her degree, she feels a pull to work with parole and probation.

Darryl’s career aspirations were also inspired by stories, but his came when he was 16 courtesy of a television series called “The Universe.”

“I heard an astrophysicist say that by studying the universe, we are able to look into the past, and that by looking at the stars in the night sky allows us to get a glimpse of what the universe was like millions or even billions of years ago. I found this idea life changing,” said Darryl.

In college, he was further inspired by a television special about Einstein’s work as well as “The Cosmos” with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. These shows helped him realize his passion for studying and learning about our universe. His research interest lies in the question of how far science has really been pushed into space, the workings of the human body, and to see what new ideas or technologies we need in order to make venturing into the unknown less challenging.

His dream is to work with the NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology (CNT), the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), or the NASA Space Science Enterprise (SSE).

To the credit of SAU’s student-centered atmosphere, and specifically Dr. Abdel Bachri in the College of Science and Engineering, Darryl has already experienced hands-on research with NASA. He was chosen by Bachri to do cancer research in zero gravity. He worked alongside his professor at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute of the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences in Little Rock, where they looked into the treatment of radiation coupled with microgravity induced chromosome aberrations. Darryl explained that their research focused on the fact that anyone who goes beyond the Earth’s magnetic field will be at risk for many different types of cardiovascular diseases.

“It was easy,” Darryl said frankly. “But I learned a lot, it was an eye-opener for what it’s like to do research and it gave me insight into the field of science where biology meets physics. It’s really amazing.”

He also worked closely with classmates and Bachri to launch into space a high-altitude balloon equipped with a flight computer. The group was able to record altitude, position, time, and even video courtesy of a mounted GoPro camera. Although retrieval of the computer and camera was delayed as wind carried the balloon well past their estimated Louisiana landing zone into a wooded area in Mississippi, the campus was wowed by the flight’s footage shared by Bachri the following week.

It’s certainly not the first time Darryl’s work has impressed his supporters on the SAU campus.

“One thing I appreciate about Darryl is his honesty. If he is not able to help a student with a particular problem, he tells them and tells me so that we are able to figure out another way to help the student,” said tutoring coordinator Lavana Kindle. “I appreciate the goals that Darryl has set for himself since he was a young boy. I think his future is very bright.”

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