College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

One Call Led to Fulfilling a College Dream

Journey to Commencement: Madison Varner lauds impact of Ole Miss First Scholarship

Madison Varner. Photo by Bill Dabney

Madison Varner. Photo by Bill Dabney

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.


Growing up, Madison Varner knew the burden of paying for college would rest squarely on her shoulders.

But it was not an obstacle the Brandon native has any bitterness about because her family’s spare resources had always been devoted to her physically and intellectually disabled older sister.

It was truly a team effort to provide her sister with the best day care, surgeries and medications. There were lots of sacrifices for the whole family, including Madison, who always knew exactly where she wanted to go to college.

“Attending the University of Mississippi was my goal,” Varner said. “It’s something I’ve known since my parents first dressed me in an Ole Miss Rebels cheerleading uniform as a toddler. When it was time, Ole Miss was the first and only school to which I applied.”

But knowing she wanted to go to Ole Miss and paying for it were two different things. To prepare for and fund her collegiate dreams, she began taking the ACT in eighth grade, took AP courses and earned college credit through a community college. Varner maintained a 4.0 GPA and got involved in her community.

It wasn’t enough.

“My initial financial aid offer left me overwhelmed,” Varner said. “I still would have owed $10,000 in tuition. I prayed about it and talked to my parents. I cried over the stress.”

She remembers thinking, “How am I ever going to come up with that money?”

As Varner prepares to graduate from Ole Miss on May 11 with a double major in art and psychology, she has plans to become a pediatric clinical psychologist.

During the last four years, she has been a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, the American Medical Student Association, Alpha Epsilon Delta health pre-professional honor society and the Vasari Society for art history. She also was involved in numerous research projects as a research assistant in the Department of Psychology.

But none of it would have happened without one phone call.

“It was Rosie McDavid, director of the Ole Miss First Scholarship Program,” Varner said. “She was calling to tell me about my Ole Miss First Scholarship offer.”

Created as a campuswide initiative during the tenure of Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat, the Ole Miss First Scholarship Program provides mentoring and leadership development in conjunction with tuition assistance for students who demonstrate outstanding scholastic achievement and leadership. Ole Miss First scholars meet with mentors and attend monthly dinners.

Although they all come from different backgrounds and disciplines, Ole Miss First scholars find common ground in their desire to succeed.

“It has been a privilege to journey these past four years with Madison and to see her grow academically, emotionally and professionally,” McDavid said. “She has found her passion in helping others and will now purse a graduate degree in clinical psychology.

“I am so proud of her many accomplishments and can’t wait to see the impact I know she will have on the world.”

The program was exactly what Varner needed, not just financially, but to help with the other, intangible needs that come with pursuing a college degree.

“Not only did the program help ease my financial stress, it came with a mentorship support system,” Varner said. “It also helped me with rent and housing. Because of my Ole Miss First Scholarship, I was able to focus on my studies and future.”

As she looks back on all her hard work over the last four years and plans to pursue a doctorate, Varner shares that she wouldn’t be here without Ole Miss First.

“My scholarship gave me an extended family of sorts to lean on for support,” she said. “I could not have made it through college without the love and support I’ve received from Ole Miss First.”