Since 1997, University of the Ozarks President Dr. Rick Niece and his wife Sher?e have hosted each senior class in their home for a very special dinner. The tradition of Senior Dinners has become a rite of passage as well as a highlight of senior year for hundreds of soon-to-be graduates. In mid-March, 67 current Ozarks seniors came together for one last meal in the Niece's entertainment room.
Countless groups of hopeful and sometimes anxious seniors have sat in the movie-themed room of the Niece’s home and received, in addition to a wonderful meal and good company, advice and well-wishes for their years after Ozarks.
At first glance, the Senior Dinners of 2013 seemed just the same as every year before, but for this senior class there was an added layer of significance as these were the last Senior Dinners to include the Nieces as President and First Lady.
"This is their night," Dr. Niece said before a recent Senior Dinner got started and while the students were somewhat nervously finding seats. "Naturally, this is bittersweet for us, but this night should be special for them. They have worked hard to make it here."
As he welcomed everyone to his home, Dr. Niece acknowledged the importance of these dinners as his last as President. However, in his trademark manner, he quickly moved the focus and conversation back to the students.
Mark Pearson, who will graduate in May with a degree in political science, addresses his fellow classmates during one of last week’s Senior Dinners, a tradition started 16 years ago by President Dr. Rick Niece and his wife Sherée.
Part of the Senior Dinner tradition requires that the students stand up and introduce themselves, describe what they think their lives will be like in one year, and then explain how their time at Ozarks has changed them. The students felt the emotion and significance of the occasion as they stood to answer these questions, knowing their time at Ozarks is drawing to a close.
"When I look around at everyone, I can’t believe how much we’ve changed," said Morgan O’Neil, a triple major in political science, environmental law, and English from Carbondale, Ill.. "We’ve all grown up so much. It’s amazing what a few short years can do."
Mark Pearson, a political science major from Clarksville, said he hopes to be teaching in a third-world country next year. After pausing for several seconds to reflect on the impact Ozarks has made on his life, he said that his college experience taught him what it means to be a student.
"I never like to read for fun before I came to college. Now I find myself reading all the time and even looking for new things to read about. Ozarks got me excited about learning," Pearson said.
Many of the students credited Dr. Niece and Ozarks with helping them find a true sense of independence, while also preparing them for success. Natalie Roden, a senior strategic communication major from Berkeley, Calif., said in a year from now she hopes to be helping people with disabilities.
"I’ve received so much from this university that I want to help others with disabilities get the same support and opportunities that I got here," she said. "When I came here I was shy and unsure of myself, but now I realize that I can achieve my dreams no matter what the obstacles. And, I owe that to the support and help I got here."
Most student spoke of the confidence and self-assurance they have gained as Ozarks students. Each one credited that change to the challenge and support of the Ozarks family. Lauren Ray, an environmental studies major from Fayetteville, Ark., was one of the students who mentioned how much confidence in her own abilities she had gained.
"I never thought of myself as a leader, but at Ozarks I’ve been given so many opportunities to develop those types of skills and get that type of experience. Without me even knowing it, Ozarks helped me become a leader," she said.
The evening wrapped up with the Niece’s offering the students gum from their own gumball machine as they filed out of the dining room. Laughter and hugs filled the small foyer space as everyone clamored to snap pictures with the Nieces. Several people wiped their eyes as they made their way out the door, understanding for possibly the first time why traditions like this are so much a part of Ozarks.
Glendon Jenkins, a mathematics major from Wickes, Ark., talks about what Ozarks has meant to him during a recent Senior Dinner held at the President’s House.