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Tristen Judy, Jael Zuniga and Jack Baker are three of the first students to graduate from Itawamba Community College before receiving a Tupelo High School diploma as part of the school’s Middle College program.

TUPELO • For 10 of Tupelo High School’s Class of 2021 seniors, crossing the stage to receive their high school diplomas wasn’t their first graduation ceremony. They had already graduated from Itawamba Community College with an associate’s degree a week prior.

The Middle College program, which started during the 2019-20 school year, allows high school juniors and seniors to take dual credit classes at ICC Tupelo. They earn 15 credits per semester, for a total of 60 credits, to be awarded an associate degree.

The students enroll in a combination of in-person and online classes at ICC Tupelo, but still had one class on campus at THS each semester, like courses with a state testing requirement or those that don’t have a dual credit equivalent available at ICC.

The school’s first Middle College cohort includes students who will go on to pursue pre-med, engineering, political science, accounting and business degrees, Middle College Coordinator Tyler Philley said.

The program sets them up for success by helping them get two years ahead, he said, because most of the Middle College students plan to pursue advanced degrees that will take much longer than the typical four years of college.

Tristen Judy: Getting a jump-start on his Ph.D.

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Tristen Judy, one of ten students to graduate from Itawamba Community College before receiving a Tupelo High School diploma as part of the school’s Middle College program.

Tristen Judy, a 2021 Middle College graduate, said his goal when joining the program was to accrue college credits as early as possible so that he could finish college quickly.

“I’m wanting to shoot for my doctorate, so going ahead and getting two years of college done while you’re in high school is a really good leg up,” Judy said.

During the program, he was able to join Phi Theta Kappa honor society and form relationships with new friends at the community college level.

Judy will attend the University of Mississippi this fall where he’ll major in psychology. He hopes to eventually work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation as an analyst or special agent.

“It feels very strange, but it’s also really cool,” Judy said of entering college as a junior. “I’m glad that I have those first two years out of the way.”

He encourages any Tupelo High School students that are interested in the Middle College program to go for it.

“It’s a different change of pace, but it’s a welcome change of pace for a lot of people,” Judy said.

Jael Zuniga: Program opened doors to more scholarships

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Jael Zuniga, one of ten students to graduate from Itawamba Community College before receiving a Tupelo High School diploma as part of the school’s Middle College program.

Jael Zuniga, another 2021 Middle College graduate, said she saw joining the program as an opportunity to challenge herself academically.

She initially thought college was going to be scary but had plenty of guidance throughout the entire Middle College experience.

“I learned to be more outgoing,” Zuniga said. “And about communicating with teachers, which was helpful in different situations.”

She will attend the University of Mississippi at the Tupelo campus to study accounting. She plans to earn her bachelor’s degree and complete internships before deciding exactly what role she’d like to have in the accounting field.

“I’ve had several scholarships that I got because of the Middle College, which was really helpful,” Zuniga said. “It was a nice environment to go into that kind of pushed me forward.”

She said the Middle College program was a good in-between transition from high school to college.

“I am a bit nervous, but I’m not as nervous as I would be because I’ve had this guidance,” Zuniga said. “I’ve also been through classes that other students have been through, so I have that in common with them.”

Graduating from ICC before THS was a bit nerve racking because other than her cohort, everyone else there had been through at least one graduation ceremony before. But still, Zuniga said it was a fun fact to share with people, “I graduated college before I walked for high school.”

Jack Baker: Learning responsibility, time management skills

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Jack Baker, one of ten students to graduate from Itawamba Community College before receiving a Tupelo High School diploma as part of the school’s Middle College program.

Jack Baker, another 2021 Middle College graduate, said his reason for joining the program was to get two years of college out of the way so that he can graduate and start working.

He said ICC instructors were very accommodating and worked with the schedules of Middle College students involved in activities or extracurriculars at Tupelo High.

Baker will transfer from ICC to the University of Southern Mississippi. He’ll work towards a bachelor’s degree in International Business and hopes to get an internship at Wesley Hospital in Hattiesburg. After finishing his degree at USM, he plans to attend Florida International University to earn a Master of Business Administration.

The two most important things the Middle College program taught him were time management and responsibility.

“At one point I was taking 23 hours, and so I had three online classes and I worked full time, so I had to really plan out in advance when I could work, when I could study, when I would be in class,” Baker said.

Baker said Philley always encouraged students considering the program to think about what’s best for them.

“At that point, I was like ‘This is the best decision for me,’” Baker said, adding that it didn’t work out for some classmates.

Goal is to continue growing program

There are plans to grow the program in the future, according to Philley.

Fifteen upcoming seniors are set to graduate as part of the program at the end of the 2021-22 school year, and Philley hopes to have 20 juniors participate this year, for a total of 35 students in the program.

Eventually, the school would like to have 20 students in each cohort, for a total of 40 in the program.

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