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Published in CenterView on July 15, 2013

Small-town past informs POV for new rural scholars leader

By Gary Pettus

When she entered Mississippi State University two decades ago, more people lived in her residence hall than in her hometown.


Dr. Wahnee Sherman’s small-town upbringing will loom large in her new role as executive director of the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“I realize how important it is to do something that helps Mississippi, especially rural communities,” said Sherman, who earned her doctorate of education at the University of Alabama.

“This program does that.”

Established five years ago to ease the state’s shortage of primary care physicians, the program awards state-funded scholarships to medical students committed to practicing in underserved, usually rural areas.

“Medical students with large debts are less likely to practice in small towns,” Sherman said.

With that in mind, 50-plus students receive more than $1.6 million in scholarships today through the program.

“With these scholarships, they avoid those debts so they can return to those communities,” Sherman said.

“They are from those towns. So they’re already connected.”

Sherman is connected to Leake County, where she grew up, in Lena – population 148, as of the 2010 U.S. census. During her career as an administrator in higher education, she worked at the Mississippi University for Women (MUW), the University of Alabama, MSU and the University of Memphis.

Before returning to Mississippi to assume her new job on Feb. 25, she directed community service opportunities for more than 30,000 students at Alabama. Before that, she had various positions at MUW, including assistant vice president for student services.

“You’ve got a winner,” said Homer “Bucky” Wesley, who was Sherman’s supervisor at MUW. “There was no limit to the time she was willing to put into her job helping students at the W.

“Students are drawn to her. They can tell that she cares.”

Sherman has another thing going for her, Wesley said. “She loves Mississippi. She wanted to get back there, in part, because of her desire to make Mississippi a better place.”

At UMMC, Sherman is undertaking a task begun by Janie Guice, who retired on Jan. 17.

From the beginning, Sherman demonstrated her passion for the job, said Dr. Diane Beebe, chair of family medicine who also serves on the scholarship program’s board.

“She brings her experience working with college students, recruiting, managing state budgets and working with a state institution of higher learning and the legislature,” Beebe said. “We’re fortunate to have her.”

Sherman’s plans include expanding the network of pre-med advisors and linking the scholarship program to social media – Twitter, Facebook, etc.

“We need to figure out ways to let people know what the program does,” she said. “When doctors go back to these small communities, they will be ambassadors for the program; but it takes a while to grow a doctor.”