A Middle Tennessee State University graduate program that ultimately has impacted thousands of students across the nation turns 50 this year.
To celebrate its founding — and its founder — the MTSU School Psychology Program hosted an open house earlier this month to honor Professor Emeritus James “Jim” O. Rust, who spent 48 years at the helm before retiring in 2021.
“We focus mostly on special-needs kids, but we try to help everybody in the school building,” explained Rust, who took the helm of the newly minted School Psychology graduate program in 1973 and built the program from the ground up.
Jim Rust’s wife of 53 years, Jane Rust, overflows with pride for her husband’s accomplishments that has watched and supported every step of the way.
“I am so proud of him for spearheading this program and watching it grow,” she said. “His part in the lives of students and the children they serve is tremendous.”
The three-year accredited graduate degree offers a combined Master of Arts and Ed.S. specialist degree that leads to licensure as a nationally certified school psychologist who works in collaboration with families, schools, and community to meet behavioral, social and academic needs of students. About 10 students are accepted annually.
“The first two years they are with us on campus and the third year they are on an internship,” said Seth Marshall, associate professor in the School Psychology Program. “Students launch across the state and nation to provide services to youth, families, schools and communities.”
Over the past 50 years, the program has graduated nearly 350 students.
“If you think about the impact that’s had on communities, it’s a big one,” Marshall said.
The early years
Jim Rust knew early on he wanted to teach.
“When I was a ninth grader, I was already helping some of my classmates,” he said, “and I enjoyed being a camp counselor and working with kids.”
But it was working with special-needs students in a school setting that drew his attention.
And Rust came to MTSU at a time when special education and disabilities were in the spotlight after the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was signed into law, giving those with disabilities the right to an education and employment without discrimination. This opened doors for school psychologists and the program.
“Before then, kids could be turned away (from an educational setting),” Rust explained.
Jane Rust had a crucial part to play in her husband’s career, supporting him from beginning to end. Once he earned his Ph.D. and began seeking employment, she typed up more than 70 job applications — on a manual typewriter — and sent his resume to schools and universities across the country.
While typing the applications, she was wishing to move to a place with mild winters, Jane Rust joked. She had family in East Tennessee, so she was already somewhat familiar with the state.
Unbeknownst to her husband, he had ties not only to Tennessee, but to the university itself. The chimney for the campus boiler room was built by none other than his grandfather in 1929. When the aging facility was torn down for a more modern version, Jim Rust was able to keep the incinerator “clean-out” door that is tucked away on a spot near their house.
While other MTSU professors were moving to Murfreesboro, the Rusts decided to take a more rural approach and bought a farm in Readyville, Tennessee, located about 10 minutes from the Murfreesboro city limits. The separation of work and home was a benefit to the Rusts as well as the students and staff of the School Psychology Program.
In the fall of the academic year, the Rusts would sometimes host students at the farm for fun and fellowship. It was a favorite for everyone involved in the program, Marshall said.
“Sometimes he’d get out the tractor and have hayrides,” Marshall said. “There’s also a long-standing Thanksgiving football game that families and faculty members have enjoyed.”
Beyond the classroom
Not only did Rust build the program, his contributions reach beyond campus. For 18 years, Rust served on the board of the Tennessee Association for School Psychologists and has been an active member of the National Association for School Psychologists as a member of the trainer’s association and a reviewer of Nationally Certified School Psychologist portfolios. He regularly presented research with thesis students at the two associations.
He also served on child abuse prevention boards for eight years and currently serves on the board of SAVE, a family violence shelter in Woodbury, Tennessee.
Although school psychology’s role and methodologies have changed over the past half-century, Rust’s dedication to students and the community has remained constant. He and his wife also created the James O. Rust Scholarship in 2004 that is awarded to two MTSU School Psychology students annually.
“It’s still running strong and a lot of it goes back to Jim’s good leadership and guiding the program over the years,” Marshall said.
Rust is humble about his contributions to his students’ success.
“They come into this program as sharp as can be and their Mama had so much to do with why they are here,” he said. “I’m glad to help them along the way, but I can’t take credit.”
Some of those students still stay in touch with the Rusts. There are Christmas cards and wedding invites. “I love to hear from them,” Rust said.
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)