Laura Smith said she felt pretty certain that University of the Ozarks was the right place for her as soon as she visited campus for the first time. Four and a half years later, she's absolutely positive it was the right place.
The Denton, Texas, native will graduate from Ozarks on Dec. 18 with a degree in early childhood education. She will represent the senior class when she provides the student’s welcome address during Commencement.
Smith first learned about Ozarks at a college fair during her senior year in high school.
"When I was college shopping, I knew my number one priority was a college that could make me the best-equipped, most-prepared elementary school teacher there was by the time I graduated," Smith said. "I spent several months looking at schools, in Texas and out-of-state, to see what would be a good fit for me. I always told my parents that I wanted to go to a big school and maybe even participate in Greek life. But when I found out about Ozarks and then visited the campus, I was in love. Every person my parents and I ran into was warm, welcoming and genuinely nice. I was sold."
Laura Smith will soon be one step closer to her goal of becoming a classroom teacher, thanks to her dedicated professors, the TEACH Award, and a strong and embracing University support system.
Smith’s college career did not get off to a smooth start. She was seriously injured in a car accident the summer before her freshman year and had to postpone her enrollment into Ozarks for a semester. What happened next made her even more sure about her college decision.
"The University sent flowers to my home, along with cards from the Admission Office and the president," she said. "Later, as I was wishing I was at orientation with the other freshmen, I received another get-well card and an orientation T-shirt from Student Life. I knew then that I had made the perfect decision and that Ozarks would be my home away from Texas."
Smith has thrived in the teacher education program at Ozarks. She has used the University’s TEACH (Teaching Excellence in Arkansas Challenge) Award to help fund her college education. The TEACH Award provides a grant of up to $5,000 per year for education majors who agree to stay in Arkansas and teach in low-income areas for at least four years.
"I’m on way to fulfilling my dream of being a teacher thanks to the great education program here at Ozarks," Smith said. "To have an opportunity like the TEACH Award was a real blessing for me and my family."
Smith did her student-teaching at Westside Elementary School and Lamar Middle School. She credited her Ozarks professors for helping her grow and flourish as a classroom teacher.
"Coming from a large metropolitan area like Dallas, it was a little difficult for me at first to work in small, rural schools," Smith said. "I think I had a little trouble relating with students on a personal level. But to have professors like Ms. [Janie] Chappell and Dr. [Michael] McManus talk to me and help me keep things in perspective, really helped me. They’ve been wonderful resources and mentors for me. I feel like I’m as prepared as anyone to begin my teaching career."
It’s that type of support system that Smith believes sets Ozarks apart from other universities.
"The faculty and staff at Ozarks care just as much about us and sometimes, in our not-so-shining-moments as college students, more than we do ourselves," Smith said. "Everywhere you turn there is a professor, secretary, librarian, maintenance work or other student who will be a fan and provide encouragement in the tough times."
While at Ozarks, Smith has been an active participant in numerous organizations, including the Residential Housing Authority (RHA), Campus Activities Board (CAB), Student Government Association (SGA) and the Student Foundation Board (SFB). She was also one of the founders of the College Republicans chapter and was a pilot RA for the Living & Learning Community of the Jones Learning Center. One of her favorite volunteer efforts with SFB was to guide tours for prospective students and their parents.
"Being able to share my pride and love for the University was a highlight of my time here," Smith said. "I loved helping new parents, prospective students and other guests understand just how amazing and unique our little slice of paradise is here in Clarksville, Arkansas."