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Grisham Fellows Find UM Family During Visits

Michaela Cooper (right), M Partner VISTA in the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at UM, instructs Grisham fellows from Newton High School on how to work with residents at the State Veterans Home. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

As a student at the University of Mississippi, Bruce Ware took Sociology 101 under professor Vaughn Grisham. From that classroom experience, Ware and Grisham developed an enduring friendship that inspired Ware to incorporate an ethic of service into his studies and career path.

The Newton High School graduate wanted to both honor Grisham and his wife, Sandy, and to expose other students from his high school alma mater to the university as a college option. In 2016, Ware and his wife, Rhondalynne, inaugurated the Newton High School Grisham Fellows program.

Three years and two cohorts later, the third group from Newton High School visited the university last week to explore academic opportunities and engage in community service.

Ware worked with the Newton Municipal School District, the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, and his longtime mentor and friend, First Baptist Newton minister Randy Cuchens, to create the competitive program for NHS students. The impact has been “incredible,” he said.

“With the 58th student from Newton High in this cohort, I believe the Grisham Fellows program is making a real impact,” he said. “We never would have been able to offer this without the McLean Institute for Community Engagement and Public Service.”

Fifteen students spent a full day (Feb. 12) on campus learning about programs and initiatives designed to promote college access and success. As the Grisham Fellows program seeks to instill a college-going mentality in each student, the fellows were challenged to articulate their academic goals and commit to a plan that will propel them along that path.

Another integral component of the Grisham Fellows program is community service. For their project this year, the group spent their second day (Feb. 13) leading art activities with residents at the State Veterans Home in Oxford before returning home.

The McLean Institute co-sponsored the program with the Grishams.

“It has been extraordinary to watch students from the first cohort enroll here at UM and thrive in their college careers,” said Laura Martin, associate director of the McLean Institute. “We are excited by the prospect of more students beginning their path to higher education through this experience.”

Among inaugural Grisham fellows who enrolled at UM through their contact with Ware are Mister Clemmones, a sophomore chemistry major who is minoring in Chinese, and Paris Payne, a junior broadcast journalism major. Both students have, in turn, recruited other underclassmen who are in the cohort of Grisham fellows.

“I had not visited Ole Miss before becoming a Grisham fellow, but it was that and subsequent visits that led to my decision to attend here,” Clemmones said. “Each time I came, I fell more in love with this place than the time before.

“Making connections and networking with Ole Miss faculty, staff and students made me feel like I’d found my family away from home.”

Payne also said her life has been deeply influenced by the UM community.

“I was all set to attend another university, but the people I met here completely changed my mind,” she said. “Once I became a part of the Ole Miss family, I shared my experiences with my classmates and underclassmen at Newton. Three of them are in this cohort, and I hope that they will decide to attend Ole Miss like I did.”

The high school scholars’ itinerary also included a stay at The Inn at Ole Miss, as well as tours of campus, the Innovation Hub at Insight Park and Luckyday Residential College. They also attended a concert at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

An annual tradition is a closing lunch at Phillips Grocery, during which the students share reflections from their two-day experience.

A highlight of the visit presented virtual reality as a bridge connecting academics with community and economic development.

“Virtual reality has taken Mississippi by storm,” said J.R. Love, project manager for the McLean Institute. “As a learning tool, it has the power to engage students who thrive in an immersive and experiential environment.

“VR also has promising job creation potential, as this growing field will need many coders and developers who can be trained and employed right here in Mississippi.”

“This is my very first visit here, and all I can say is it has been a mind-blowing experience,” said Sundra King, Newton High School guidance counselor and a chaperone for the visit. “More than just information about academics, I’ve seen that the professors, staff and students here really take an interest in our students and let them know that they would matter at this institution.

“They’ve shown them that help is available to them if they only ask for it.”

Senior Trynica Wash agreed.

“I’ve been on campus three times before,” said Wash, who was encouraged in her junior year to apply to the program by Clemmones. “I am a senior now, and this is my second time coming as a Grisham fellow.

“Ole Miss has felt more and more like family each time I have come here. Plus, the two fields I want to major in – nursing and African American studies – are not offered at the other institution I was considering attending after graduation, but are offered here. After this, my second Grisham Fellows experience, I really feel like I’m supposed to be here at Ole Miss.”

Named in honor of Grisham, professor emeritus of sociology and founder of the McLean Institute, and his wife, a retired educator, who both have remained active in community development work, the program encourages young leaders to pursue higher education and challenges them to better their communities through a lasting commitment to community service.

Since its inception in 2016, the program has facilitated visits to the university for nearly 60 students, many of whom were or will become the first in their families to attend college. The Newton High School Grisham Fellows Program is funded by the Annette Ware Fund at the UM Foundation as well as the McLean Institute.

The McLean Institute works to create programs through which the university cultivates mutually beneficial partnerships that enhance the quality of life for all Mississippians and instill a commitment to community and civic engagement in all members of the Ole Miss community.

By Edwin B. Smith

Adam Brown
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