By Ansley Stephenson
Oxford is the perfect college town. Each fall, nearly 20,000 students from around the world descend upon the small town. Ole Miss attracts students from as near as Senatobia and as far as Pakistan. This makes finding the “average” of all perceptions difficult.
The diversity of the University of Mississippi’s student body mirrors that of the state itself. People come to Mississippi to teach, learn, play, visit, or live for countless reasons.
Many have traveled to Mississippi to earn a college degree or seek opportunities previously unavailable to them. Others are searching for a stronger sense of community or tradition.
Reasons aside, out-of-state interest in Mississippi colleges and universities has increased, and so have perspectives influenced by the state’s reputation. Mississippi may be slow-paced, but it is fast-changing, and it deserves to be understood before being judged or forgotten.
For 18 years, my only connection to Mississippi was with its catchy spelling: “MISS-ISS-IPPI.” I had my first Mississippi experience the winter of my 12th grade year. A college tour conveniently provided me with an excuse to visit my best friend, Sophie, two years older and a UM freshmen. I had been in her tiny dorm room for less than five minutes when I realized the Mississippi state slogan rang true: “The South’s warmest welcome.”
It was. I had never made more friends more quickly or easily in my entire life. Everyone wanted to show me their room, offer me a snack, or include me in their plans for the evening.
The next three days were filled with fun, friends, Austin Taxi rides, and Big Bad Breakfasts. Mississippi was beautiful. Ole Miss felt like home, and I left convinced that Oxford was the Promised Land.
It may have been love at first sight, but it was not until I finally moved to Oxford to attend college that my perception of Mississippi began to deepen. I quickly discovered how much more complex this place was than I had originally understood. I did my best to scratch below the surface, as it had become clear Oxford offered more to those actively looking.
The history and culture of the Deep South is too often understood in simple terms and represented accordingly. I believe this unfair and often inaccurate approach is the result of laziness.
I was directly influenced by this approach while visiting and applying to UM. My family simply could not understand how a state whose education system was the subject of jokes could possibly be the location of a university that’s out-of-state tuition is upwards of $20,000 annually. My family was even more confused when I told them it was a university I was desperate to attend.
My closest friends and family have since adjusted their attitudes, but Mississippi’s negative reputation has shaped my expectations and experiences since my first week of classes. Something has to change. Individuals who have never visited Mississippi ask me some variation of the same question: “Is it really as [remote, rural, poor, racist, backwards] as people say?”
My short answer is “no.” My best answer is to remind them not to judge a book by its cover. It is often true that what you find is what you came looking for, whether good or bad. This prevents the individual from seeing all a place has to offer. It is like saying that you hate oatmeal before you have ever tried it simply because you dislike the way it looks.
Mississippi is just one of countless communities that are misunderstood or misrepresented by those who pass judgment before ever bothering to visit.
In one of my classes freshman year, I met a girl named Lindsay, who I later learned had never been outside of Mississippi. I was at first surprised, then almost ashamed I had automatically assumed all my classmates had traveled outside the state where they were born.
By getting to know Lindsey inside and outside of the classroom, I gained a new perspective unique from my own. Our friendship contributed tremendously to my understanding of Mississippi and its people.
Lindsay had learned to sail, gone camping, stood on the field at a college football game, walked in a fashion show, and enjoyed food I had never even heard of. She had grown up, graduated high school, and begun college, all without ever leaving her beloved Mississippi.
Everyone who has had the privilege of meeting Lindsay or others like her would agree that if they could package and distribute the memories, attitude, and enthusiasm of a proud Mississippian, you would produce the strongest possible marketing campaign for this great state. And that is exactly what I aim to accomplish with a campaign called My Mississippi.
A few main ideas inspired my campaign. First, Lindsay inspired me to increase awareness of all Mississippi has to offer by setting an example of how full, fun, and fabulous a life here can be.
By the end of my first year in Oxford, I had an incredible group of friends of both native Mississippians and out-of-state Rebels like myself. In the years that followed, I learned that everyone’s time and experience here is unique.
I now realize I have friends who seem to go out every night and others who take 20+ hours and seem to live inside the library. This particular realization inspired me to interview my community members to further understand Mississippi and its people.
Natives shared their reasons for remaining, and new arrivals explained their decision to relocate here. I asked them all to tell me what Mississippi meant to them. My question was met with a wide range of responses, and it soon became clear that while Virginia may be “for lovers,” Mississippi can and should be for everyone.
The My Mississippi campaign will be executed on multiple platforms for people both near and far to share their experiences with the hashtag #MyMississippi. Social media outlets, including Twitter and Facebook will make sharing what you love about Mississippi an interactive, social experience.
News stories and press releases will also be utilized. Further reports on the growth and change occurring in cities like Oxford are needed to increase awareness and interest among those who have not yet considered Mississippi.
Press releases will supplement these reports by informing the general public of significant occurrences, special events, new businesses, upcoming developments, and more. Immersive media presentations in the form of videos or live streams will serve as additional ways to introduce Mississippi’s diversity of culture and opportunity.
Those already involved or who choose to volunteer for the My Mississippi initiative will speak to freshman classes and orientation groups that focus on encouraging students of all ages to expand their horizons beyond their own communities while digging deeper within those communities.
Field trips and pen pals remind Mississippians the sky is the limit, while volunteering locally and studying Mississippi’s rich history will strengthen the sense of interconnectivity Southern states are famous for. Finally, a My Mississippi website will combine all of these initiatives to form a page that supports the campaign’s overall goal.
The morning our final project was introduced, the class was asked to answer a seemingly simple question: “What does Mississippi mean to you?” I may not have known at the time, but answering this question myself and listening to the answers given by my classmates would inform my entire approach to this marketing campaign.
I have since shared My Mississippi with others outside of class and have asked them to answer the same question. I did not meet a single person who presented a singularly negative view of Mississippi. Each encounter supported my belief that anyone who comes here (no matter who, no matter when, no matter why) with an open mind and a determination to seek new experiences will not leave disappointed.
The inspiration for My Mississippi began with the impact of just one voice. Believing in the power and importance of one voice is essential to understanding the beauty of “a place like Mississippi.”
Preconceived notions limit our ability to form our own opinions; not all Floridians live in retirement homes, and not every Californian is a dirty hippie.
We must explore, discover and interpret for ourselves, because one visit, one click, one view, or one voice can make a world of difference. Lindsay’s did.