Written by Paul Wolf | Photographs provided
In the early 1900s, public two-year colleges were born. Known as people’s colleges, those institutions were founded to break the barriers of affordable, quality education.
From those early students came a group from eight junior colleges for women, assisted by their college presidents, who met at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. They drew Greek letters from a hat to assign chapter names to form an organization later named the official honors organization of the two-year college.
That international organization, Phi Theta Kappa, makes its home in Jackson’s LeFleur East neighborhood off Eastover Drive.
Now with over 3.5 million members, Phi Theta Kappa serves a co-curricular role, encouraging students’ academic efforts with activities outside the classroom in leadership and service.
“We study and follow our students and they have a 91 percent success rate,” said Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner, the organization’s third CEO in its 100-year history.
That success comes not only from their classroom performance but in the students’ proclivity to continue on the trajectory set by their time in PTK.
“At that time in your life, Phi Theta Kappa helps make you the best you can be,” Tincher-Ladner said. “Once you get that feeling, it sticks with you. It brings people up to a bar and that bar stays there.”
Membership in one of the organization’s 1,300 chapters at community colleges around the world is by invitation only. The opportunities that abound from that membership are exponential.
“High ACT and SAT scores are gateways many times to crack the scholarship code,” Tincher-Ladner said. “If you go to a community college, though, you want to be in PTK and flex your leadership and service muscles. Schools are looking at grades, but they ask, ‘What are doing in the community and how are you improving yourself?'”
Phi Theta Kappa members in Mississippi are offered free tuition at Jackson State University and Delta State University. Jackson State additionally adds free room and board and a book allowance. Many of the state’s four-year colleges offer large tuition subsidies as well.
“If I were a parent,” Tincher-Ladner said, “(I’d ask), ‘What do you have for my kid straight out of high school versus what do you have when they go to community college first?’ You need to listen to these answers. The second will be tied to whether or not they are in PTK.”
Beyond the First Two Years
Phi Theta Kappa is looking to a future where a four-year university education is not for everyone. Their newest initiative, the Five Star Competitive Edge, pushes employment outcomes.
“Not everyone is going to transfer,” Tincher-Ladner said. “We’ve developed a soft skills curriculum, that, if you take that course, allows you to understand how to curate a job, how to interview and how to communicate effectively. We’re trying to ramp up our benefit for students who just want to go to work. Because there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Over the years, Phi Theta Kappa has raised funds to the tune of $11 million for the American Cancer Society. Their recent service projects have included initiatives to register their members and the communities around them to vote. Named “Honors in Action,” Tincher-Ladner said it’s about learning about the world around you.
“It’s digging into undergraduate research, community college style, with a service component. They ask, ‘What can we do to solve this problem?’ Honors in Action is 50 years going, our longest standing initiative.”
Phi Theta Kappa celebrated its centennial last April, returning to Missouri for their international convention, attracting nearly 5,000 participants. There, Tincher-Ladner challenged the thinking of their memberships’ mindset toward the honor of Phi Theta Kappa experience.
“I tell students that membership is like a gym membership: the more you use it, the more it will pay off,” she said. “Think of PTK as a platform for students to stand out and shine, whether transferring to another institution of higher learning or to a job. They will be the person with increased success over the others. I believe that.”
Phi Theta Kappa’s International headquarters is in Jackson Mississippi because of Margaret James Mosal, who lead the organization for more than 50 years.
“Her parents were from Canton,” Tincher- Ladner explained. “When they needed care in their older age, Mosal came home in the 1930s. Wherever she was, we were.”
With the records of PTK in a literal card catalog drawer, Mosal worked in small homes before moving the offices to Briarwood Drive. At the current location, on the R&D campus off Ridgewood Road and Eastover Drive, the Phi Theta Kappa Center for Excellence celebrates 20 years in 2018.
“As CEO, I’m often asked to be part of policy conversations and I’m in Washington D.C. a good bit,” Tincher-Ladner said. “Why aren’t we in D.C.? If we were there, we wouldn’t have near the benefits we do for our members in operating here less expensively. Mississippi is, in some respects, misunderstood. By-in-large, our guests are surprised. I love for us to be here with all the Southern hospitality we can bring.”