By JB Clark
University of Mississippi
A group of South Delta High School students got a taste of the college experience earlier this spring as part of the Grisham Fellows program during a weekend visit to the University of Mississippi.
The 32 students from Rolling Fork spent time hearing from current UM students, faculty and administrators with whom they would interact if they decided to enroll at the university.
The program helped educate the students on the opportunities and resources available at the university, said Karrye Tynes, assistant director for access and recruiting initiatives at the UM Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement.
“The students were highly engaged and interested in the activities and speakers that were a part of their two-day, one-night visit to the university,” she said. “They asked detailed questions that provided insight on resources, academic support and scholarship opportunities available through the university.
“They were even exposed to several pre-college programs, such as MOST, to take advantage of before becoming a student at UM. The students expressed their appreciation of the experience, and each student was able to share at least one memorable part of their visit.”
The Grisham Fellows program was created in 2016 as a partnership between the UM McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, Newton High School and the university. It is a passion project of Bruce and Rhondalynne Ware that offers students from rural and underserved communities an up-close introduction to the university and all it has to offer.
The Wares established the Grisham Fellows Program in honor of Vaughn Grisham, professor emeritus of sociology and Ware’s longtime mentor and friend.
An executive at DaVita Kidney Care, Ware earned his bachelor’s degree in banking and finance from Ole Miss. Following what he calls a remarkable and transformative undergraduate experience at UM, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
When he graduated from Newton High School in 1994, he became the first Black male from his rural high school to attend UM. Over the years, he has worked diligently to recruit high school students to the university from across the country, but especially from rural Mississippi communities.
In 2016, the Wares formalized their effort to expose Mississippi students to UM through the Grisham Fellows Program.
“As I look back, I think about the number of talented people – leaders, aspiring doctors, lawyers, bankers, business people, educators etc.– that we missed out on because of a lot of stigma,” Ware said. “I think about all of the young people that we missed out on that are underrepresented minorities or from small rural towns.
“I have a deep conviction that talent exists everywhere, and that we need to make special efforts to go to rural communities to create an awareness of how exceptional the University of Mississippi is and how transformative it can be to a young person’s life. And we are seeing a lot of success through this work.
“We are seeing students from rural communities earn Taylor Medals, be inducted to Phi Beta Kappa, obtain admission into highly regarded graduate schools and land good jobs.”
The program is a critical link to students who may not have thought that attending a major university was possible for them, Tynes said.
“It is important for students to witness the everchanging/evolving progress that the university is striving to make in order to provide opportunities for all of our students and communities,” she said. “Flagship scholars programs, like Grisham Fellows, allow students to begin building their community and supportive network before ever stepping foot on campus as students.”
When Ware learned from his friend Andy Anderson, also a UM alumnus, that a group of students from the Delta wanted to see the Ole Miss women’s basketball team, he said, “Let’s make it a whole college visit experience.”
Jaliyah Shorter, a senior at South Delta High School, said UM hadn’t been on her list of potential colleges until this trip.
“Hearing what my peers thought helped me move Ole Miss up the list of colleges I want to go to,” she said. “They’ve talked about how they’ve felt welcomed by the people. Because most of the people who we were around this weekend were people of my color.”
Ware created the program to help expose students to the many concrete ways the university has worked to make campus more inclusive and equitable.
“That’s a group who – of course, not every student is coming to the University of Mississippi, but for those that do – will have the opportunity to come as a group and come with friends and have peers, professors and administrators they already know from the visit,” Ware said. “We think that gives them a little thrust to get here and hit the ground running.”
The program also makes it easier logistically for students to experience the campus in-person.
“For an under-resourced family, getting a kid to Oxford for a tour of what we really believe is the flagship university is not a reasonable expectation,” Ware said. “But if we can take a systems approach, host a group of students and chaperones from rural communities, they can all see how the university can be a special part of their learning journey.
“And the chaperones are important, too, because they want to know that their students are going to be well taken care of and have a support group when they get here.”
The visit seems to have accomplished its goals, Tynes said.
“It was eye-opening and reassuring to hear some of the students make statements like, ‘Man, I didn’t know Ole Miss was like this/had this,’ or ‘I know I’m coming to Ole Miss when I graduate,'” she said. “It let me know that programs and initiatives such as this are serving the right purpose.”
Tynes hopes to expand the efforts to include more schools and types of experiences for high school students.
“Our partnership with Grisham Fellows is just the beginning for flagship scholars programs and initiatives,” she said. “We are eager to host more student groups soon.
“We’re also making it a priority to not only bring the students to campus, but also go into the communities to meet with students and parents about the opportunities and programs available at UM.”
The program is funded by the Annette Ware Fund, established by Bruce and Rhondalynne Ware, to honor her legacy and belief that hard work and big dreams always outweigh less than favorable odds.
Tynes thanked everyone who contributed to the effort.
“We are also grateful to our partners, Bruce and Rhondalynne Ware, as well as our sponsors – the Bank of Anguilla, Office of Admissions, Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement and McLean Institute – for their contributions to making this an unforgettable experience for the students.”