Meaningful Impact: Alumni Awards 2020

By Jantzen Haley

Homecoming each year provides an opportunity to reflect on the many alumni who have been shaped and changed by their time at the University. While this year’s Homecoming was unlike any other — alumni unable to gather on the campus of their alma mater  — the impact of their lives and influence on the Harding community is no less important. Each year, the University chooses exemplary representatives from more than 40,000 deserving alumni to honor for their achievements. The following have been selected based on their work and accomplishments, earning the respect of those around them while serving God, family and community.

Distinguished Alumni

Devoting their life to the practice of law and Christian higher education, Dr. Mike (’68) and Nancy Lavender (’75) O’Neal keep an active life in retirement — spending time outdoors, traveling and volunteering while staying involved in the lives of their two children and six grandchildren with Mike referring to Nancy as grandmother extraordinaire.

Earning his Juris Doctor from Stanford University in 1974, Mike practiced all aspects of real estate, tax, labor, litigation, contract, corporation, securities, and education law, and used his talents to teach accounting, tax and business law courses as well as lead universities in numerous administrative roles. After working for Harding, Pepperdine University, University of Rwanda and Ohio Valley University, he retired as president of Oklahoma Christian University where he serves as president emeritus.

“The opportunity to help shape young lives is such a precious gift from God,” Mike said. “Serving the Lord and our fellow man with desperately needed truth, and working with some of the finest of God’s children [is the most rewarding part of my job].”

Mike earned a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service in Vietnam as a Navy officer, as well as Navy and Army Letters of Commendation. He has won many awards in his lifetime, including a Pathmaker Award for Oklahoma County and a Christian Service Award by San Diego Christian Foundation.

He has been a member of many organizations, currently serving on boards for ACE Educational Foundation Inc., AEON Inc., BioEnergy Capital Corp., The Christian Chronicle, Heritage 21 Foundation, Kimray Inc., Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, and Salt and Light Leadership Training. Nancy shares in his desire to serve, and the two are passionate about missions as well, with connections to Rwanda and the Philippines through Shepherd’s Hill International and local churches, colleges and universities.

“I consider myself among the most blessed of all people for all time — to have lived during amazing times and to have been able to devote all of my effort to eternal purposes,” Mike said.

Married 45 years, the O’Neals live in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Outstanding Young Alumni

After a life-changing residency rotation at Tenwek Hospital in East Africa, Dr. Will Copeland (’04) had a decision to make about his future in neurosurgery. He and his wife, Alisa Wright (’04), thought through the choice to become missionaries, feeling much like Moses in Exodus 3 as he asked “Who am I that I should go?”

They currently serve at Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya, with World Gospel Mission — Will as a neurosurgeon and Alisa as mother to their seven children, Liam, Hayden, Harper, Charley, Nora, Emery and Rhett.

Will also is working with Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons to begin a neurosurgery residency program at Tenwek to train and disciple African doctors to become neurosurgeons and missionaries in other parts of the world. In addition to homeschooling their children, Alisa leads Side by Side ministry, an outreach ministry for doctors’ wives.

“The privilege to serve in a Christian mission hospital setting is a unique opportunity to model Christ in his ministry,” Will said. “Providing quality medical care in Christ’s name to those underserved allows God to demonstrate his healing power and opens the door to share the good news of his love to our patients.”

Prior to moving to East Africa, Will was a resident physician at Mayo Clinic. Fueled by a love for medicine and a unified desire to serve the suffering as Christ did, Will and Alisa said it is a daily privilege to serve those in need and see God at work in the lives of those they serve as well as in their own.

“We are finding our greatest joy in treasuring God and serving others,” Will said. “The reason why we’re doing what we’re doing is that we are learning what the writer Paul says in Philippians 3:8 to be true — ‘I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus.’”

College of Allied Health

Shelley Privett Chesney (’89) has been a successful speech-language pathologist in Arkansas and Louisiana since graduating from the University. Now owner and SLP at Chesney Center Therapies, she specializes in teaching children and adults who are deaf or hard of hearing to listen and speak using hearing technology.

“It is a powerful reward knowing and watching that the work we are doing — together with these patients and their families — makes their lives so much bigger because they can hear and speak and communicate with anyone they come in contact with,” Chesney said.

Since opening her own practice in 2007, Chesney says her main focus now is mentoring future SLPs, reflecting on the impact her mentors have had on her experience — namely, Harding professors Dan Tullos and Beckie Weaver. It was Dr. Weaver who aided searching sophomore Chesney when she realized accounting was not her ultimate calling.

And calling she found. Chesney said the unexpected loss of her and her husband’s first son, Cole, allows her to relate to patients and to share her experiences of how God supported and continues to walk with them.

Over the course of her 30 years in the speech therapy field, Chesney has held many roles, including board positions for Louisiana Speech-Language-Hearing Association, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and Southern University Department of Speech-Language Pathology. In 2007, she became the first — and remains the only — LSLS Certified Auditory-Verbal Therapist in the state of Louisiana. In 2017, she graduated from the Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, and in 2018 was awarded honors from the Louisiana Speech and Hearing Association and with ASHA’s State Clinical Achievement.

She and her husband, Patrick (’89), live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and have three children, Evan (’20), Claire and Kaylan, both Harding students.

College of Arts & Humanities

From a young age, Shelly Parks (’01) loved to help her mom in the classroom, developing a passion for teaching she still has today. Parks says she feels called to do three types of work in her life — teach teenagers, do mission work and be a mom.

“I don’t teach about Jesus, but I try to shine His light through my actions, my words, and the way I treat my students and colleagues,” Parks said. “And as for being a mom, fortunately, God has allowed me to be a ‘school mom’ to many of my students and a mom to our four children.”

While her desire to teach was never in question, Parks worried she was not cut out for teaching English, afraid that others had read more than she had — that there was much to learn before she could succeed. One particular conversation with Dr. Gary Elliott during her time at Harding put that fear to rest.

“[Dr. Elliott] told me that hearing me be honest and reflective while desiring to learn as much as possible let him know I would be a strong English teacher,” Parks said. “He also encouraged me to have this same attitude when approaching my spiritual walk: humility that there was much I didn’t know combined with a deep desire to learn and read as much as possible. I’m forever grateful for the time and energy he invested in me.”

Her love for her job was evidenced recently as she was announced 2019 Missouri Teacher of the Year. It’s easy to understand why when Parks describes what she loves about her profession.

“Teenagers are incredible humans,” Parks said. “They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re curious, and they need our support and encouragement. Some students need more advocacy and support than others, and those students who need more support have a big piece of my heart.”

Parks shares her heart with her students at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri, along with the youth group at church; her husband, Michael; and their four children, Elise, Bennett, Deacon and Judah.

College of Bible & Ministry

Dr. Leslie J. Williams (’88) has spent his life serving Christ as a missionary, minister and teacher. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in missions, he went on to earn his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Harding School of Theology. He currently serves as an elder and minister at Northwest Church of Christ and minister-at-large in Canada, sponsored by Germantown Church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee.

Williams said his interest in missions all began with an internship in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, after high school in 1982, where he stayed until 1984. He returned to Papua New Guinea to Port Moresby in 1988 and remained there until 1994, and once more from 2000-2010 to Milne Bay Province.

“One cannot serve in ministry or missions without the partnership of congregations,” Williams said. “To this end, the sponsorship of Prince Albert, Bel-Aire and Hernando Churches of Christ, and especially Germantown Church of Christ, currently sponsoring me for more than 20 years, has made my life’s work possible. The relationships with the elders and other servants from these congregations have been invaluable.”

In his time in the U.S. between missionary stints, he served churches in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. He also has spent time as a missionary in residence at Western Christian College in Saskatchewan in 2008 and at Harding in 2011.

“Christianity is service, first to God and then to his people,” Williams said. “[It is rewarding] seeing God’s transforming work in the lives of his people.”

Williams has volunteered with the Alotau Cancer Society and Regina Wildlife Federation. He served on the International Education Association of Papua New Guinea as board chairman of Alotau International School and national board of directors and was president and weigh master of the Milne Bay Game Fishing Club.

He and his wife, LaVonna Lafferty (’88), live in Regina, Saskatchewan, and have five children, Logan, Zachary, Tate (’16), Thomas (’16) and Baylee.

College of Business Administration

Paul Woolard (’87) was the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend a university, beginning his time at Harding as a social sciences major. The first test in Western civilization quickly changed his mind. While Woolard pulled through the class with a B — something he credits to the patience of Fred Jewell — he switched his major to accounting and the rest is history. In his more than 30 years in global agriculture and energy investing, Woolard has traveled to more than 20 countries and across the U.S.

“With a strong foundation in accounting, and soon thereafter the CPA credential in hand, I was able to experience a variety of industries and positions that kept things rewarding and challenging to this day,” Woolard said.

Woolard is currently vice president for finance and risk management at Eco-Energy, a leading ethanol and natural gas marketing firm based in Franklin, Tennessee. He began his accounting career with KPMG in Little Rock, Arkansas, and spent 20 years in central Illinois with Archer Daniels Midland Co. in a series of senior finance, innovation, M&A, and business development roles.

He has served on the University’s President’s Council and business advisory board, the Greater Decatur YMCA board of directors, and board of directors of BioBlend Renewable Resources. Woolard is a strategic advisor for Veteran Ventures Capital and has twice served as a guardian for Honor Flight for Veterans to Washington, D.C.

“[I serve God and others] by being a servant leader and instilling the platinum rule in all walks of life,” Woolard said. “I also have actively mentored Harding grads wherever possible and opened doors in several countries for study abroad programs to meet with my business connections and learn about a broader world vision. But more important than anything to me was being a good husband and father and providing for our family.”

He credits his wife, Heidi Meadows (’89), for her support raising their family while he traveled the globe. They currently live in Fairview, Tennessee, and have two children, Blake and Kayla Craig (’16).

College of Education

Dr. Charles E. Dupre (’84) is the superintendent of Fort Bend Independent School District, where his leadership affects more than 11,000 staff members and nearly 80,000 students each year. He attributes his leadership skills and talents to God and his unique childhood. Adopted from Morocco, Dupre’s adoptive mother died when he was 5, and at age 7, he was taken in and raised in Fair Haven Children’s Home near Springfield, Missouri.

“God shaped my heart in a way that allows me to provide love, mentorship and support to others,” Dupre said. “For many years, when I was an accountant, this calling was fulfilled as a youth group leader at Bammel Church of Christ. Now, as a leader in public education, I am able to invest in children and staff members. I am here because this is the work God called me to do.”

With a deep desire to teach and mentor others, and to ease the path for children facing obstacles, Dupre has dedicated his life to education, serving in many roles in the Pflugerville and Fort Bend school districts in Texas. After more than a decade in accounting Dupre became the internal auditor for the Fort Bend district and has been in education since.

“The work I do affects the community, state and nation because education supports our democracy and protects against losing the freedoms we enjoy,” Dupre said. “We are teaching young people to use their voice as active, contributing citizens who are willing and able to invest in their communities.”

In 2019, he was named Region 4 Superintendent of the Year. In 2012, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce named Dupre Superintendent of the Year and in 2008, University of Texas at Austin’s University Council for Education Administration awarded him the Excellence in Education Leadership Award.

He and his wife, Seeju Merritt (’86), live in Sugar Land, Texas, and have two sons, Drieux and Devin, and a grandson.

College of Nursing

Growing up, Audrianna Ward Copeland (’12) watched her mother as a nurse, eventually assisting her and cultivating an admiration for her mom and a profound impression of the ways a loving, Christian nurse can make a difference. Her passion for nursing only increased as she and her husband, Ross (’12), interacted with countless doctors and nurses in the pediatric ICU where their son Reese spent much of his short life.

“I was called to begin working in that very unit, which we had grown so familiar with, even after he passed away,” Copeland said. “I am confident that God has called me to this specific niche within the nursing realm, armed with a personal life experience that allows me to relate to and show genuine sympathy for the multitude of families facing difficult circumstances similar to mine.”

Copeland now works as a critical care registered nurse in the surgical ICU. She was a 2018 recipient of the DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses, 2018 nominee for Huntsville Hospital Nurse of the Year, and 2017 Huntsville Hospital Care Champion.

For her, the most rewarding aspect of her job is often the most difficult — meeting people when they are in the worst of health, caring for them and their families, celebrating in the good news of recovery, and grieving when the outcome is grim.

“Even when the worst case scenario happens, there is much joy seeing how God can ease the pain and comfort those in the same way he comforted my family,” Copeland said.

This spring, Copeland took a travel nurse assignment to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to assist during the pandemic, hoping to learn all she could about caring for COVID patients to bring back to her hometown in Fairhope, Alabama, and save as many lives as possible. She lives in Fairhope with her husband and their daughter, Adalynn.

College of Sciences

Dr. Fortune S. Mhlanga (’84) holds a master’s and doctorate in computer science from New Jersey Institute of Technology, which he uses in his role as executive director of the Data Science Institute at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife, Florah.

In addition to his executive director role, where he is responsible for academic programming and research and development in applied computational sciences, he also is a professor of computer science and data science. Mhlanga previously worked for Lipscomb, Abilene Christian and Faulkner Universities and University of Zimbabwe in a number of academic and administrative roles.

“My work as an educator has pretty much become my mission,” Mhlanga said. “I have had opportunities to work with kids from underrepresented groups in the metropolitan Nashville public schools, bringing them to my college to showcase and demystify computing and information technologies.”

He finds many ways to combine his passion for data systems and for missions, leading groups of students, faculty and fellow church members on Zimbabwe Missions and establishing an International Student Opportunity Fund to assist Zimbabwe orphans to come and study computing and technology at Lipscomb University.

When he returned to Zimbabwe after college to work at University of Zimbabwe, Mhlanga was honored as Outstanding Young Zimbabwean by the Junior Chamber International. In 2017, he was granted a Carnegie African Development fellowship, which allowed him the opportunity to collaborate with Ebonyi State University in Nigeria on a number of educational projects and initiatives to support higher education in Africa. He has spoken at the Fifth World Summit on Internet and Multimedia.

He is a member of Otter Creek Church of Christ, where he is on the racial reconciliation team. He and his wife have two children, Carl and Craig.

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