May 11, 2013 10:34:10 PM
Sarah Fowler - email@example.com
Since 1890, seniors at Mississippi University for Women have gathered each year on graduation day for the Magnolia Chain ceremony, walking from Callaway Hall to Columbus Hall with their fellow graduates before making a mad dash for a magnolia blossom, which is said to bring fortune and romance to the senior who receives it.
It is a ceremony steeped in tradition and is especially powerful for those making the walk with family members or alumni.
For Linda Cullum and her daughters, Blair Cullum and Bonny Cullum Kennedy, participating in the Mag Chain was an unforgettable experience: The three women were among 483 students who graduated from MUW later in the day.
Kennedy received her degree in elementary education at the 10 a.m. graduation ceremony, and Linda and Blair Cullum walked across the stage at 1:30 p.m., with the former receiving a bachelor's degree in nursing and the latter receiving a bachelor's degree in speech-language pathology.
"To be able to graduate with them -- I don't know if I can express the joy that is in my heart," Linda Cullum said Friday as the trio tried on their caps and gowns for a family photo.
Cullum, a native of Hatley, received her associate's degree in nursing in 2000, taking classes when her girls were small.
"My husband was laid off from his job and one of us had to go back to school for some kind of job security," she said. "I had more college than he did so I decided I was going to go back."
While she knew furthering her education was the best thing for her family, balancing her education and three children under the age of 7 was hard. Bonny was 6, Blair was 4, and her youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was just a baby.
"I did a lot of learning just by listening in class," Cullum said. "I had to take care of kids when I got home. But I did it and it was something that I enjoyed. It basically changed our family life, me going back to school."
Kennedy, 24, said she remembers many nights when her mother would come home, cook dinner for the family, tuck her and her sisters in bed and then stay up into the early morning hours, poring over notecards and textbooks.
She remembers the moment her mother received her first diploma like it was yesterday.
"I vividly remember going to the pinning ceremony and, as a 6-year-old, it was something exciting," Kennedy said. "I knew as a child how hard she worked. That was my feeling: I wanted to tell the world."
Kennedy decided to go to The W because of her family ties. Not only was her mother an alumna, but her grandfather, Fred T. Smith, was a strong advocate of his children and grandchildren earning their education from the college.
"He was a proud supporter," she said. "He loved The W without ever attending The W."
Blair Cullum, 22, said she too remembers her grandfather encouraging her to attend the historic college though she can't remember the reason. That was just the way it had always been.
After she graduated from Hatley High School, Blair attended Itawamba Community College in Fulton. Her sister, Bonny, was already enrolled at The W and she knew that after she earned her associate's degree from Itawamba, she would follow suit, enrolling at The W to complete her bachelor's degree in communicative sciences and disorders.
"I picked The W over Ole Miss," Blair said. "It's so close to home. I actually live in Starkville, so I get to see (my mother and sister) on campus rather than going home."
There are other fringe benefits as well.
"I always have someone to eat lunch with," she said.
Kennedy was excited when she learned her sister planned to attend MUW.
"I remember when Blair came to The W; I thought it was going to be like being back in high school," Kennedy said. "It was more of a comfort feeling. Even on bad days, when (I) needed somebody to talk to, she (was) there. I had good friends on The W campus, but I had family there as well. I couldn't have asked for a better college experience."
She feels honored to share her graduation day with her mother and sister, she said.
"It's an important time in everyone's life, and to be able to spend it with your sister and your mother -- you can't really top that," Kennedy said.
"It's not something that many people can say, I'm sure," she said. "Not everybody can say they graduated college. They certainly can't say they graduated together with their family. It's a good feeling."
Watching two of her three daughters graduate was the best Mother's Day gift she could have asked for, said Linda Cullum, who sat one row behind Blair during the graduation, both wearing their caps and gowns.
"It's a very special feeling, especially with this weekend being Mother's Day," she said. "I thought 'How many people can sit in here and watch two of their children graduate at the same time, let alone graduate with them? I have such joy in my heart."
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah