This week we took the kids on a six-day trip to ole miss. It was mentally and physically exhausting for both the leaders and the students, but it was a crucial culmination to the summer. Many Freedom Project students had never been to a college campus. Visiting a college campus is something I personally take for granted. Stanford was my stomping ground as a child; I attended a plethora of sporting events, explored the campus, even found physics tutors in Stanford students. This contributed to my idea that college was a normal and necessary post high school step. My students have none of that. Most college age students here are already kids. Delta students go straight from childhood to adulthood, with no middle ground that is dorm rooms and dining services.
Suffice to say, the week at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, allowed students a peek into a different world. They were thrilled to stay in tiny dorm rooms and attend classes in real college classrooms. Moreover, they saw real college students doing those exact same things—living in cramped suites and rising early to make it to lectures.
However, the week at Ole Miss also provided a wake up call for many of the students and staff about the realities of our racially divided world. One night, a group of students and another teacher was walking with a group of kids, and a truck slowed to a crawl next to them. The window rolled down and a bunch of rowdy guys screamed a series of racial epithets and expletives. The kids, as well as the teacher, were shocked. Ole Miss was supposed to be a bastion of the educated and the path to a better future away from Mississippi’s disturbing past. And I had really believed that. The other freedom project teachers who were college students from Ole Miss were some of the most socially open-minded, thoughtful and considerate people I had met. The professors hosting us had again, seemed thoughtful, open-minded, and least of all, racist. It was easy to forget the torrid history of this state when meeting a select population. And yet, for these kids, and everyone working to overcome that past, this incident is a constant reminder of how unequal things remain. The way out for many of my students in the delta is a degree from Ole Miss, the best in-state university and often-cheapest option, and yet in order to graduate, black students must attend a school with a segregated Greek system and vastly different social circles for blacks and whites. No matter how hard we emphasize a collegiate future for these kids, we must confront what going to college would mean in Mississippi.
Finally, the way we ran the week gave me insight into a small and stretched budget of a non-profit. The university allowed us to stay in the dorms, but in an effort to pressure us into buying university meals at ten dollars a person, did not allow us access to kitchen. So we bought plastic bowls and ate cereal and milk every morning that someone had run to Wal-Mart to buy so it hadn’t gone bad without a fridge. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch on the cheapest bread, that our students took in bag lunches to class. This frugal lifestyle was definitely more challenging than encouraging our students to head to the dining hall, but allowed us to take over forty students to visit the campus. Running a non-profit is incredible; I had never realized exactly how far you could stretch a dollar.
This picture shows me and Mr. Washington at Ole Miss