I have officially been in Mississippi for a week. I arrived last Monday night, exhausted and frightened to be all on my own. 7 days and around 500 miles later, I have discovered that southern hospitality is no joke, that high schoolers are high schoolers no matter where you are, and a red mustang will attract a lot of attention.
I began my trip in Jackson, where I arrived to Jackson Medgar Evers international airport on Monday night. I worried about renting a car the whole flight—because I am under 21, it is technically against the rules. However, when I was making my reservation, after persistently asking questions about the policy, I learned that you only had to have a major credit card. Even so, I went up to the rental car booth, prepared to explain my underage license, and my dire need for a car, but was pleasantly surprised. With a quick glance at my license, she sent me towards a red mustang, saying “hope you don’t mind; it’s the last car left”. Happy to be leaving with a car, I shrugged and exited the parking lot as fast as possible. Only later that night did I realize how much attention I was attracting. Over the course of my 20-minute drive to the hotel, two people pulled down their windows asking me to race, and one honked the horn for about two minutes. Yet, my happiness at not being stranded at the JAN Airport outweighed any embarrassment of the flashiness of the car.
My official content of the trip began the next morning, when I visited Jackson Preparatory high school on Tuesday morning. Since the students were busy taking AP tests, I only spoke with the counselors. They loved hearing about Mac, and passed along the names of some students to add to the Macalester’s mailing list. My day continued with an hour and a half drive to McComb Mississippi. McComb is a small city south of Jackson with a rural feel. During the civil rights movement, McComb high school was a hotbed of activism; nowadays, the students take pride in their Mississippi roots. I arrive at the school excited for my first chance to talk to students about Macalester. At first, no one seems to know I am coming, in spite of my confirmation call that morning. Finally we figure it out, and I approach my spot in the lunchroom to set up. I bother the vice principal on lunch duty to point out some academically motivated students who I then approach. They furrow their brows at me, curious as to why I am interrupting their obviously sacred lunch routine, but I entice them back to an empty classroom (which the AP math teacher had generously let me use) to talk about Macalester. The students talk about getting out of Mississippi, their love of Beyonce, why they are excited to visit a place with a public bus system, and more—I think they were most exited about the prospect of visiting a school in an urban environment They talked about loving computers, their AP English class, and an obsession with history—particularly their schools history. I was thrilled—day one had gone swimmingly. I had found four passionate students interested in Macalester and hoping to head to the extended sampler this fall.
Disappointingly, not all of my days went so well. Wednesday I visited a school in the gulf coast, where the administrators prided themselves on being ranked first in the state. Unlike my visit in McComb, there were no classrooms to spare, so I was confined to the cafeteria. Once again, unlike McComb, the guidance counselors were nowhere to be found. I asked the principal to pick out a few students for me to speak to, but she hesitated, saying she liked to let students choose who they talk to. Frustrated, I realized I had to find a way to talk to academic students who might not know what Macalester is. So I began crashing different lunch groups. I chose the ones closest to me, and moved outwards, Macalester brochure in hand. Some students looked confused, wary of my invasion, others excited. I met three students who ate up my Macalester stories—one sophomore and two juniors. In spite of little support from administrators and teachers at this school, through a little exploration, I found quite a few curious and interested students. Thursday was by far the hardest visit. I was visiting Tupelo High school, up in the north of the state. For those of you unfamiliar with Mississippi geography (so I’m guessing everyone reading this) this means I drove for about 6 hours on Wednesday afternoon. I left the flatlands of Mississippi where shrimp is sold by the road to enter the rolling northern hills. Tupelo is known for its progressive education system and its brand new school building (it was gorgeous). But, when I called to confirm, I was reminded that most students were in AP tests or state tests. After I set up my table, which was in the college counseling building, I slowly realized that the school seemed relatively empty. Upon asking the counselors, I was informed of Tupelo’s policy that once you took your AP test, you didn’t have to come to school anymore. Most students in AP classes would not be at school. I grumbled my way back to my booth, which had gotten little foot traffic. While many students stopped and talked to me, few were interested in Macalester once they found out it was not in Mississippi. After four lunch periods of fun conversations with disinterested students, I packed up my stuff and headed out.
Which brings me to my last visit of the week: Oxford. Oxford, Mississippi is close to tupelo, only about an hour to the west. It is home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss. It was also the first place I had found a family to stay with (My contact at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, the organization I will be working with later this summer, had put me in touch with people across the state once I knew I would be here in May)! I was inundated with southern hospitality from my arrival on Thursday night. The family hosting me was a couple of retired professors at Ole Miss with two fully grown students. They showed me the square, and told me which counselors at Oxford high school (my next day’s destination) were most helpful. Further, they connected me with some students my age at Oxford to show me around—I got a personalized tour of the beautiful Ole Miss campus. My Friday visit at Oxford high school, largely because of my advice from my new friends in oxford, was extremely rewarding. I spoke to some students who passed by my table in the lunchroom, many of whom seemed interested in Macalester. After lunch, I wanted to speak to the counselors about the extended sampler and more about Macalester, so I stopped by their offices. After explaining more about Macalester and the opportunity to visit, the counselors began brainstorming students out loud. I was thrilled. They thought of two I hadn’t talked to, and called them into the office to meet with me. Both the counselors and the students seemed thrilled by the prospect of attending/visiting Mac. I was so happy to have found allies among the administrators, who for the most part, had seemed uninterested in my presence.
The four visits this week have gone well—for the most part. Every visit I have learned more about how to connect to students. It is challenging to enter into conversations with little knowledge about the student. What vocabulary do they have to talk about college? How basic do I have to start? To be on the safe side, I usually begin with a conversation: I ask if they are interested in going out of state for college. Those that say yes, I will then ask about whether they know what a liberal arts school is, what they’re interested in studying and more. I have learned that students love talking to me regardless of whether or not they are interested in mac. This is not because I am particularly cool or fun, but because anyone who pays such individual attention to kids is exciting. Regardless, its hard to talk to students who are extremely motivated, passionate, academic, but have never heard the words liberal arts before. I find people who would be a perfect fit for Mac, as in someone who I would love to live next door to, or work with on a group project, or engage with in a class discussion, who are skeptical of the idea of liberal arts or that Macalester even exists (brochures help me with this, but still). I am not shocked to hear that I am the only person who has come to talk about a college from out of state, but I am surprised about how hard it has been to convince students that the general type of school I am talking about exists, and Macalester is one of many schools looking for students like them.