Every year, incoming freshmen and transfer students enter The University of Southern Mississippi with many thoughts and feelings. Some enter the golden doors of Bennett Auditorium for orientation feeling excited, nervous, overwhelmed but more importantly, the love of the Golden Eagle family.
With student leaders screaming chants such as “all of the love in my heart, it goes to Southern Mississippi” or “ Southern Miss to the Top,” incoming students get the first dose of Golden Eagle fever.
Beyond this, Joe Paul, a pioneer for the growth and development of Southern Miss and the current vice president for student affairs, leads all incoming students in a duty to “leave Southern Miss better than you found it.”
According to Paul, the coined phrase “leave it better than you found it” started roughly 20 years ago during new student orientations, beginning a proud tradition of encouraging young students to be active and involved in the campus and Hattiesburg community.
“With the statement, I challenged students to begin with the end in mind,” Paul said. “I wanted them to think of ways while they were here to make this university a better place.”
Serving 39 years at the university and 21 years as vice president for student affairs, Paul believes he has witnessed some of the best and brightest students during his tenure.
“I’ve always said at Southern Miss, we have students who come from very ordinary backgrounds who go on to do very extraordinary things,” Paul said. “It is my hope that I played in encouraging students to dream bigger and reach farther.”
Paul, who announced his retirement on Feb. 6, has a rich legacy for helping students, building student leaders for the world beyond and improving the overall student life of Southern Miss.
Paul said there are multiple memories that highlight his time at Southern Miss.
“The quality relationships built over the years with students, especially student leaders, is something that I will cherish,” Paul said. “These relationships have led to lifelong friendships.”
Paul, who is also an avid Southern Miss sports fan, shared his proud sports memories in which athletics plays an important role in taking USM to the top.
“Watching USM defeat Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant and the Crimson Tide was huge and my all-time favorite (memory) was when the Golden Eagle baseball team competed in the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska,” he said.
While his last official day will be June 30, students share their reflections, memories and Paul’s impact on them.
“He taught me the true meaning of Southern Miss spirit,” said Kayla Patak, a senior advertising major. “Seeing an administrator care so much about his students shows he puts his heart and soul into this university.”
Don Holmes, a May 2014 Honors College graduate and former attorney general of the Student Government Association, said Paul told him to believe in his abilities to be successful.
“He was one of the first people to tell me that I could one day return to USM and thrive,” Holmes said. “I worked hard to leave Southern Miss better than I found it, but it was Joe Paul who left USM better by instilling pride, honor and service into every student that he came in contact with.”
Paul has impacted many students in various ways, but for some students, it is his knack for good leadership they will cherish the most.
“He is a true definition of leadership,” said Sarah Beth Selph, a junior communication studies major. “He is the epitome of what it means to be a Golden Eagle, a friendly face and a constant support, qualities all leaders should possess.”
Shawn Gatlin, another former student leader and Southern Style 2011 orientation team leader, said he did not realize how big an influence Paul was to him until he began making a difference for others on campus.
“I found myself in my junior year following these steps at making Southern Miss better than I, Shawn Gatlin, found it,” Gatlin said. “Serving in Southern Style and AASO president, I discovered the abilities to help those that were coming in after me and it was then I knew that I had truly made my difference.”
Kacey Breaux, a junior nursing major, said she will truly miss Paul’s charm and dedication to the university.
“From the moment I watched Southern Style members stroll into my freshman orientation to witnessing him say how well I competed in the Miss USM pageant this past year, I truly respected him as an administrator,” Breaux said.
While retirement ends one phase of life to transition into another, Paul hopes his legacy will be forever seen throughout the “verdant trees and shelt’ring walls.”
“My experience at Southern Miss has been joyful, exciting, fun, deeply rewarding and the ride goes on,” Paul said.