Saturday, January 28, 2023

How Will You Change Mississippi?

Koi Talk is named for the fish in the Honors College pond.

“Should I stay or should I go?”
It’s a question that weighs heavily on the minds of high school and college students, especially in states like Mississippi, where economic disparity and social issues create divides.
University of Mississippi students at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College have taken the question on as a major topic of discourse this year with a blog.
Three student editors at the honors college started Koi Talk, an online publication named for the fountain and koi pond at the honors college’s entrance. Classroom discussions many times spill over beyond class, ending at the bucolic fountain that’s surrounded by benches and plants.
Neal McMillin is a Koi Talk editor and a senior from Madison, Miss., double-majoring in Southern Studies and economics.
“We want people to think critically about their role in where they live,” McMillin said.
In his “Recruit Me” blog post on Koi Talk, he exhorts the state to leave behind the archaic symbols, rhetoric and stereotypes, to be replaced by a new vision that more closely resembles the world that the state’s ex-pats seek out and embrace.
Many of the progressive issues that McMillin writes about are promoted by the state’s African-American community as ways to leave behind the leftover traditions of Jim Crow times and inequality.
“Any representation of the battle flag should be critically examined,” he said. “With the James Meredith incident, just look at what’s around it, the flagpole and soldiers.” He added that a state-flag referendum is needed in a major election year.
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The Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, at the University of Mississippi.                                                   Photo courtesy of UM Communications.

Logan Wilson, an African-American sophomore in the honors college, is majoring in biochemistry and plans to become an orthopedic surgeon. From Hattiesburg, Miss., Wilson is the first person in his family to attend the university. Like Koi Talk’s editors, Wilson said the college exposed him to different majors and new ideas.
“It opened my mind to a lot of new opportunities and new horizons,” he said. He now plans to declare a minor in religion and complete a thesis in that subject, because of his honors college experiences.
Also like McMillin, Wilson insists that the only way for the state to become a hospitable place for everyone is to leave behind dated, many-times offensive habits and symbols.
“I hope one day we can move past traditions and start our own traditions. We need to get away from doing it just because that’s how we did it in the past,” he said. “Hearts have to be changed.” Wilson said the university has been good to him, but that the experience for white and African-American students is radically different on campus.
Wilson has had run-ins with racists on campus, white students who directed racial slurs at him, and who said “‘don’t forget you’re still in Mississippi.’”
“It sort of fuels me, because I feel like the only way for me to contribute is to overcome a statistic,” he said. “I need to do my job … to open up the path for younger people so they don’t have to go through it as well.”
Wilson only refers to the school as the University of Mississippi and not Ole Miss (a colloquial name slaves used in reference to plantation owners’ wives, according to the ACLU; historians believe the term could also refer to a longing for the antebellum and Confederate periods in the state), but the symbols don’t deter him.
“I love the country and the South,” he said. “I feel that there’s no other place for me. I just love Mississippi.”
The dual topics of responsibility to state and freedom are inherent in the traits among these honors college students, and they’re the two-pronged subject of McMillin’s blog post. For while there are areas for change, there are also great possibilities. One line of his blog lists those traits that all vibrant cities share: “Develop cities with public transport, art scenes, nightlife, walkability, and spunk. Cultivate a progressive ethos.”
He is just one of several students who meet every two weeks to continue the discussion. The two other editors at Koi Talk, Eleanor Anthony, who’s presently on a study abroad trip, and Lizzy Wicks, started brainstorming while on a spring break for the Lazarus Project in Italy. Wicks is triple-majoring in international studies, public policy leadership and biochemistry.
Students meet at area restaurants and coffee shops to discuss their major topic for the semester, and blog posts develop from those discussions. They are free to write their own perspective for each topic.
“I get to broaden my own ideas and feel strong in what I believe through talking to other people,” Wicks said. She explained that Koi Talk has had a positive impact in her life, by “being able to discuss these philosophical issues with students who aren’t necessarily in my major.”
As for racial issues on campus, and the James Meredith statue incident, Wicks said that recent problems give outsiders a poor representation of the campus and state. She believes that image doesn’t correctly represent her Mississippi.
“There’s a lot of room for everyone here in Mississippi,” she said. “It’s a minority that makes the state look bad.”
McMillin said his decision to stay in the state was dependent on the honors college. Several students at the honors college based their decisions on a love for the state and school, but especially on the extra intellectual stimulation.
Debra Young, one of two associate deans at the honors college, advises students on scholarship applications for awards such as the Truman, Rhodes and Fulbright. She said Koi Talk is one of the projects that students have started and led independent of class discussions and professors’ urging.
“We liked it largely because it was a student idea,” she said. “We want to build community by building conversations.”
She said honors college students many times find opportunities elsewhere, but feel an urge to come home. “Sometimes, there’s not an exact reason, it’s just time to come home, as my grandmother told me,” she said.
McMillin is open to leaving the state for graduate school or work, but said that doesn’t mean he won’t return. “I always say that Mississippi is just a flight away,” he said. “Mississippi kids need to know they have the freedom to go.”
The honors college is housed in the former Alpha Delta Pi sorority house, purchased by Jim and Sally Barksdale, and opened up to students in fall 1997. Students admitted to the college many times have ACT scores of 28 or above, and grade-point averages of 3.50 or higher.
Admittance is competitive. The most recent application year saw 1,264 applications and 359 students admitted. Above all else, the college admits high-performing students who are intellectually curious.
Koi Talk will host its first speaker today with a lecture by Jake McGraw, the editor of Rethink Mississippi, a blog that considers the state’s most critical economic and social issues. He will lecture on students’ responsibility to the state. McGraw will speak at 4 p.m. today at Overby Center Auditorium.
Gretchen Stone is HottyToddy.com Associate Editor. Contact her about this story at Gretchen.Stone@HottyToddy.com

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