Taking a Different Path

UM students spend spring break serving and learning in the Mississippi Delta

Students from Ole Miss and West Tallahatchie work side-by-side during alternative Spring Break.

Students from Ole Miss and West Tallahatchie work side-by-side during alternative Spring Break.

OXFORD, Miss. – Rather than packing a cooler and heading to sandy beaches, the University of Mississippi’s McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement organized a week full of learning and giving back in the Mississippi Delta during spring break.

Nine students and three AmeriCorps VISTA participants participated in educational tours and a variety of community service projects that benefitted them and communities throughout the region.

The trip was meant to both bring classroom learning to life and provide a way for students to leave a lasting, positive footprint in the community, said Ryan Parsons, trip organizer and program coordinator for the McLean Institute.

“In class, these students focus on issues of poverty and education, and the relationship between the two,” Parsons said. “This trip allows them to see those things firsthand. The trip is also meant to let them give back through service in a way that will benefit them. We aim to create a reciprocal experience for the students so that they leave the week as impacted as the communities they are working in.”

From cleaning up around the historic town of Mound Bayou to painting maps at West Tallahatchie High School, UM students connected with communities on several levels. While in Mound Bayou, they met with the mayor, who discussed the town’s rich history and founding by former slaves. They were also joined by local children, who rode up on their bikes to learn more about the visitors.

High school students, including several student-athletes, from West Tallahatchie gave their time and talent to help paint two different maps in the school. With extra paint on hand, Ole Miss students took it upon themselves to touch up outside areas of the school so children would find a brighter, more inviting environment when they return to class.

For junior public policy major Joseph Duffy of Gautier, spending spring break in an environment that gave him an opportunity to conduct community service and learn more about the Delta region was rewarding.

“I’m interested in the issues that persist in the Mississippi Delta, particularly education, and when I learned about this opportunity, I jumped at it,” Duffy said. “While I’m aware of the data and the problems, being here has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding, and it has fired me up as an advocate and has me thinking of pursuing a career – either through a nonprofit, as a public school administrator or via government – that could help.”

The spring break trip also included a civil rights tour through the Delta, a visit to the Delta Blues Museum and B.B. King Museum, and a tour of the Cutrer Manion in Clarksdale, an Italian Renaissance residence built in 1916 that served as inspiration to playwright Tennessee Williams and is a centerpiece of the Coahoma Higher Education Center, an artistic and educational conference center for classes and cultural events for Coahoma Community College and Delta State University.

Additional service activities included working with the Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture and visiting with the Sunflower County Freedom project.

Christopher Furdge, principal of West Tallahatchie High School was grateful for the time the students spent in the region and their efforts to improve the school facility.

“I’m so delighted to have students who are willing to give of themselves and give of their personal time to help the school,” Furdge said. “Our students are going to be excited to see the maps, which will inspire curiosity and more learning.

“The school is really the heartbeat of any community. When the community and the students have a chance to come in and see that we are adding to the school, it will make the environment even better.”