Beating the Odds Journey to Commencement: First-gen student Cellas Hayes seizes opportunities and sets sights on pharmacy doctorate

This story is part of the "Journey to Commencement" series that highlights University of Mississippi students and their academic and personal journeys from college student to college graduate.

Coming from a single-parent household in a small, rural Mississippi town, the odds are that Cellas Hayes should not have graduated from high school, much less college. The odds are that as a first-generation college student, Cellas cannot get a Ph.D.

The funny thing about odds, though, is that maybe they are meant to be beaten.

Ludlow is an unincorporated community in Scott County. It has a gas station, a post office and a stop sign. Not much else. As Cellas explains, it is a place of cycles.

"Ludlow is a place of big dreams with little effort behind them," Cellas said. "Few and far between make it out. We are born into one cycle and oftentimes never leave the cycle to only continuously pass those generational curses down to our children."

But for Cellas, Ludlow is also a place of pride in people, especially family. And it is a place of hope, hope that one day things will be better for the next generation.

As Cellas gets ready to graduate May 11 from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor's degree in biology and a minor in classics with a Latin emphasis, his hope is to honor his family and to be the inspiration he did not have growing up.

"My graduation is not for me at all," Cellas said. "It's for my grandparents who never had the opportunity. It's for my mother who worked day in and day out to provide. I do this for my nephew, for him to one day say, 'My uncle made it so that means I can.'"

With any journey, we seldom reach our destination without a little help and encouragement along the way. Finding his way to Ole Miss by the way of the Apex Leadership Summit – hosted by UM for high school and community college students – Cellas was assisted by a number of people in the early stages of his journey.

His Apex Leadership peer leader, Lori Simpson, guided Cellas through the application process and explained the steps he needed to take to become an Ole Miss student. And a big part of Cellas' successful college start can be traced to the UM admissions counselor for his area at the time, Neal Ann (Parker) Chamblee, who was there every step of the way.

"Neal Ann visited Morton High School to talk to me about what I need to be doing in order to become a student," Cellas said. "She walked me through the Special Programs and Scholarship application step-by-step and explained how housing worked.

"From not really being interested in attending college or understanding the steps to get there, thanks to Lori and Neal Ann, here I am now getting ready to graduate."

Simply getting into college was not the end goal. For Cellas, making the most of the opportunity, immersing himself into university life and excelling were top priorities. But he admits that being a first-generation college student meant that he was not fully prepared, and the transition was difficult.

"If you have not been a college student, then you cannot relate to what a student goes through each day," Cellas said. "Not being able to talk to family about school and academics was the most difficult challenge for me to overcome.

"I spent my entire first semester in the Ole Miss writing center, library and free tutoring sessions for a majority of my classes. I was determined to stay by any means necessary."

And stay he did.

While freshman year presented challenging circumstances and emotional hurdles, Cellas fully embraced college life and jumped at every opportunity and experience he could fit into his packed schedule.

With a list of activities, accolades and awards a mile long, Cellas has a hard time narrowing down his favorite experiences. He studied abroad in Italy and Poland. He worked as an archeologist assistant in the field. He gave tours as an Ole Miss Ambassador. He was an active member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, including serving as chapter president and was named the 2019 co-Greek Man of the Year for the university.

He was also a research assistant in the Department of BioMolecular Sciences and a summer counselor for the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education. He was a Luckyday Scholar. He helped charter the Minority Association of Premedical Students and served as its vice president. He earned a Distinguished Research Citation Award from the School of Pharmacy. And he was selected for the 2018-19 Ole Miss Who's Who.

"Being at Ole Miss has been a transformative experience and so much more than I ever imagined it could be," he said. "I thank Ole Miss for the opportunities and for being the best university for me."

For Cellas, all his college experiences have been more than just a checklist of accomplishments; they were about meeting a diverse group of people and creating relationships that will last a lifetime.

"The biggest thing is to surround yourself with individuals who are going to push you, sustain you and, most importantly, support whichever decision you choose to make," he said.

Among those whom Cellas surrounded himself were faculty members who shaped and inspired him, including Nicole Ashpole, Ryan Upshaw, Hilary Becker, Aileen Ajootian and Brian Foster. As Foster, assistant professor of sociology and Southern studies explained, inspiration can be a two-way street.

"College is a tricky thing," Foster said. "Young people have to learn who they are, develop some sense of what they want to do in life, navigate changing family and other types of relationships, work and figure out their finances, and reckon with the unexpected and traumatic, all while trying to make it to class on time and keep up with assignments and readings.

"I've known Cellas for some years now, and all the while I've watched and marveled as he did all of the above and more ... masterfully. His journey has not been easy or simple. It's been tricky. But, he's worked magic, and despite my being nearly 10 years older than him, I admire him for that. He's special, and I cannot wait to see what special thing he becomes in life, and what special things he does along the way."

A recent news publication featured an article about the lack of black doctoral students in the U.S. It highlighted data from the National Science Foundation that only 5.4 percent of the roughly 50,000 people who earned Ph.D.s from 2002 to 2017 were black. And for STEM majors, that number is even lower.

Determined to beat the odds once again, Cellas will begin graduate school at Ole Miss just nine short days after graduating with his B.A. He is pursuing a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences with an emphasis in pharmacology to follow his passion of finding ways to treat cognitive disorders.

"Every journey is different and there is not a time limit on goals and successes," Cellas said. "Life keeps moving; therefore, we have to keep moving and always have the foresight to continue toward the end goal.

"I have a dream and a goal, and as long as I have those, I have a reason to continue and push myself to do better."

Story by Lisa Stone/University Marketing & Communications

Photos by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

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