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Meet Mandi Atwell – PACS Fall 2023 Outstanding Senior

Mandi Atwell (center) receives her Outstanding Senior award.

Meet Mandi Atwell – PACS Fall 2023 Outstanding Senior

December 4, 2023

by Michael Mahaffey

Mandi Atwell was at work when she learned she had been named Outstanding Senior by the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies for the fall 2023 semester.

“I was utterly shocked whenever I got the phone call that I had been chosen,” said Atwell, a senior in the online Interdisciplinary Studies – Business Administration program. “I stood up and was looking at the other agents in the office, and they could tell something was going on. They made an announcement and just absolutely applauded me.”

It was a humbling moment for Atwell, who lives in the small ranching community of Nuyaka, Oklahoma, and works as a licensed agent for property and casualty, life and health insurance for Oklahoma Farm Bureau.

“It’s such an honor,” she said. “It still makes me cry. In everything I do, I want to do it with excellence because, to me, it’s the best way to honor my son and my parents, to honor how I was brought up. Everything I do is a reflection of someone else, and I want that reflection to be honorable. To be named Outstanding Senior touched my heart in such a way to think I was doing a good job and doing it with excellence that was recognized.”

Atwell had always wanted to earn her degree from the University of Oklahoma. Although she initially took classes at OU in the late 1990s, completing her degree at that time wasn’t in the cards. While she would later go on to earn an associate of science from OSU IT and become certified as a Christian leader at Destiny Leadership Institute through Ecclesia College in Springdale, Arkansas, the desire to earn her bachelor’s degree never left; it was a goal that had receded into the background of a busy life full of career and family until 2021, when her son, Clayton Fisher, suddenly passed away, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

Atwell sitting in the front row alongside other Fall 2023 OU Outstanding Seniors.

As an insurance agent, Atwell said she had spent her professional life helping people protect their assets. It was only with the complications that arose from her son’s untimely passing that she realized there was another side of the equation she had been missing.

“Whenever you pass and your social security information is put in the system, it freezes all accounts associated with that social security number,” she said. “I didn’t know that. Under Oklahoma law, your bank accounts are frozen and used to pay for your funeral expenses. I didn’t realize how much funerals cost. My son had been saving for a house for his family, but that money went to his funeral costs instead.”

The experience of her family having their hands tied by the law taught her important lessons about the need for estate and end-of-life planning. She launched Prairie Fire Consulting with the goal of offering both insurance services and end-of-life and estate planning services to her clients.

“I want to marry those two industries,” she said. “They really go hand-in-hand, as far as covering your current assets and the succession of assets to the next generation once one passes away. It makes sense to have both of those offerings under the same roof.”

To reach this goal, Atwell knew she would need to return to school to complete her education. After a bit of searching online, she learned the degree program she had started all those years ago was no longer offered. Instead, she found that her former college, now PACS, offered an online business administration degree completion program for working adults through OU Online.

“What drew me to it was the flexibility,” she said. “Being an adult learner who works full time, I needed something with flexibility. Being 100 percent online makes it possible. I can’t keep the normal hours of a traditional learner. I have a 4-year-old at home. I have grown children and ten grandchildren. Helping them with their families and operating a small ranch, kicking off a new business, being a wife, being a full-time everything while going to school and still learning how to travel that new journey of grief, learning how to balance all of that was a big challenge to overcome.

“Whenever I’m getting up at 4:45 a.m. to do homework before my 4-year-old wakes up, it gives me time to be able to complete the assignments before they’re due, but not be tied to a schedule I can’t keep. If it wasn’t for that flexibility, there’s no way I’d be able to graduate.”

Atwell was able to transfer 79 of her prior college credits from other schools into her current program.

“My academic advisor made it a super simple process to determine what credits would fill in gaps for my current degree plan and what else was needed for me to graduate in May 2024.”

Once she began taking classes, she quickly remembered how fun it was to expose herself to new ideas and concepts.

Atwell in a field holding a framed photo of her son, Clay.

“There is so much out there culturally that I had missed or was not exposing myself to that going back to school has exposed me to and brought to my attention and has taught me,” Atwell said. “I’ve learned to be a better business-minded person and how to look at things from a business perspective. It’s made me more open-minded and curious.

“I have a tendency to fly by the seat of my pants and come up with a solution immediately, and I think going back to school has taught me to sit back and weigh things more and look more at the long-term effects before jumping in. It’s given me more critical thinking and problem-solving skills that I use not just at work but also on our farm and ranch, where I’m more introspective about how things work.”

Atwell said understanding how to look at things from a business perspective and not allow her emotions to make decisions for her was the first big lesson she learned.

“My professors have been amazing,” Atwell said. “They’ve been so understanding and so open to feedback and to making accommodations where needed as far as timeframe goes or helping me to understand things more clearly.

“Dr. Robin Shaw genuinely wants his students to succeed. He encourages us at every turn. He applauds our personal achievements and our academic achievements. He conscientiously makes an effort to breathe life into his students. He expects that level of excellence that I expect out of myself, and he doesn’t allow you to give yourself an excuse to perform less than what your absolute best is.”

Atwell will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in May with a projected 3.86 GPA. She plans to immediately begin pursuing a master’s degree in law to round out the skillset she’ll need to offer her clients the full range of services she envisions.

“I want to jump straight into law school and keep that ball rolling while it’s rolling right now,” she said. “I’m looking at a law degree concentrating in contracts because, ultimately, what I want to do is write contracts for directives, trusts and wills to help with the paperwork portion of estate planning.

“My ultimate hope is to be a trailblazer in marrying the insurance industry and estate planning industry together. It just makes sense to me if you’re protecting the assets you have now, then shouldn’t we go about figuring out how you’re going to protect those assets in the future when you’re no longer here?  I think that’s really going to be what sets my business, Prairie Fire Consulting, apart. It’s really snowballed into something bigger than what I thought it was going to be.”

It’s a mission that is very personal for Atwell.

“I feel a deep connection with my customers,” she said. “These are people I see in the grocery store whose grandchildren are playing on the same ball field as my children and grandchildren. I genuinely want to protect their families and their livelihoods.

“We learned such hard lessons whenever Clay passed away. If I can use what I’ve learned to spare someone else’s family hurt or heartache or financial risk or personal risk, I want to do that.”

She considers everything she has learned in the online business administration program to be instrumental in making that happen.

“I feel like this program has given me a handle on being a business owner, on what branding looks like and what marketing looks like, so the company I have started in my son’s honor can honor him with excellence,” Atwell said. “Just learning how to promote myself and my company and how to manage and brand my dream. How to put all of that out there and grow that company.”

It's a task she said she wouldn’t have been able to attempt without the support of her family, friends and colleagues.

“If my husband, Clint, hadn’t been supportive of me, there’s no way I could have done it,” she said. “He has absolutely picked up the slack at home and our ranch. He has believed in me since day one. My work family, my kids, my parents, my extended family, everyone has just been so supportive.

“I’ve always wanted to graduate from the University of Oklahoma. I’m a diehard Sooner fan. There’s sooner DNA in our family. Getting to graduate from such a distinguished university is just an honor. I would like to thank Dr. Medina, the president of Sooner Parents, Gregg Garn, the dean of PACS, and President Joseph Harroz, Jr. The way they have set students up for success and allowed me such an opportunity to continue my education at such a prestigious university, I can’t thank them enough.”

To learn more about the online degree completion programs offered by the College of Professional and Continuing Studies through OU Online, visit the OU Online website.