Escaping The Closet, Fighting The Stigma

Four LGBTQ+ students at the University of Mississippi open up about dating in the South

We are living in a world of struggle and uncertainty at the moment. Many of us are wondering what will come next. What does the future hold? With the day to day ups and downs of politics, healthcare, safety, and simply struggling to survive, I believe that dating and one’s love life takes a back seat to everything else we are taking on. These are hard times to face with the people we love, much less alone. That doesn’t mean we don’t crave the need to be loved and accepted. When the world turned upside down amid this global pandemic, I’m sure the effect it would have on people’s dating lives was not our first thought. However, it is still important for many to find love no matter your age, race, sexuality, religious background, etc. Love is love. That did not change the day that Covid19 entered the world. Dating has progressively gotten harder and harder over time. We face new obstacles every day when it comes to meeting someone, making a connection, and establishing a relationship. What I have learned recently is that it is even more difficult for the LGBTQ+ community. I can’t imagine finding my person and facing acceptance from others for loving them, on top of all the other things that we take on day in and day out. Dating is hard at any age. To be quite honest, it sucks. The reality is that it can be harder for some than others. 

Growing up in South Mississippi, I knew little to nothing about the LGBTQ+ community. I knew very few people who were gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans, or queer. I honestly did not know what meant what. My knowledge about their obstacles was very very limited. It was unheard of to be gay in my hometown and if you were anything outside of the status quo you were not accepted. People were mean and judgmental of things they did not understand, and I think that still takes place today. I have two cousins that came out when I was younger, and I remember that they stopped coming to family Christmas and any other time we would all get together. I don’t think my cousins felt accepted and I also don’t believe my family understood how to handle it. There were just so many things that we did not know because we have never been exposed to anything different from what we always knew. I think there was such a stigma around being gay. There still is. There is so much I still do not understand about the gay community. I am sure there are people right there with me with questions. When I came to the University of Mississippi, I saw a completely different way people lived their lives but there was so much I did not understand. It was a new normal and one that has taken me time to adjust to. Four of the best friends I have ever made in college are gay men, but I didn’t know what I could ask and what I could not ask. What is offensive and what is not? I always want to take their feelings into consideration, but I needed to know more.  I had questions and I wanted answers, so I sat down with four gay students at the University of Mississippi to discuss their lives and the struggles of dating in the south as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Nick Foerstel is a Freshman at Ole Miss majoring in Integrated Marketing and Communications with a specialization in Design

Nick Foerstel is an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Mississippi from St. Louis, Missouri. Nick has not come out to his family at home, however, all of his close friends at home and at Ole Miss know about his sexuality. Nick thinks that his family would be excepting of his sexuality but finds it difficult to even say the words “I’m gay” to his friends. He also finds it difficult to come out to his family because of his Christian upbringing. Since Nick waited to explore his sexuality and come out to people in college, he is still unfamiliar with aspects of gay culture, especially that culture in the south. What he has learned is that regardless of where you are there will always be people who are afraid and avoid people who are different. Nick personally hasn’t experienced any beneficial or harmful gestures because of being open about his sexuality, however, he has noticed the way people have treated his friends and other people who don’t fit into the typical heteronormative social construct. As far as knowing about his sexual preferences Nick said that he really became of his preference at the beginning of middle school but didn’t acknowledge it until his junior year in high school and then came out to his close friend at the beginning of his senior year. Coming to the University of Mississippi, to his surprise, has made Nick feel more comfortable about who he is because of the people and friends he’s made his first semester. Nick claims that he’s never been a part of a group so welcoming and inviting before that loves him for who he is. When it comes to dating, Nick’s experience at Ole Miss has not gone quite as smoothly. Laughingly he said,

“It’s hard. It’s not fun. I wouldn’t recommend. Stay out of the south if you like men.”

Although Nick said these words with humor, there is frustration behind them. He has struggled with dating here much as he has at home because not only do few people know, including his family, Nick says it is hard meeting people here. Many gay men in the south are scared to be open and honest about their sexuality out of fear of being accepted by their family, friends, and others.

Sabyius Boggan is a first-year graduate student at Ole Miss pursuing a masters degree in Integrated Marketing and Communications

Sabyius Boggan is a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Mississippi from Philadelphia, MS. He has been aware of his sexuality for as long as he can remember. Growing up gay in the south has been very difficult for him because he comes from a very religious background. His family raised him to believe that it was a sin to be gay, so he hid who he was for most of his life. His family would not have accepted that he was gay, so he lived a very secretive life from a young age. Not having anyone to talk to about his feelings really changed his relationships with his loved ones. Not being able to talk to his family about how he was feeling altered his relationship with his parents, causing them to drift farther and farther apart over the years. The rift between Sabyius and his loved ones was so wide at a time when he was scared to be who he was. That all changed when he got to college. After coming to Ole Miss and meeting other gay students like him, he began to understand that the world was not what he always imagined after all. Being accepted was the most important thing for him. Sabyius feared people not accepting him for who he was, which is now something he isn’t concerned about. He has learned to love who he is while surrounding himself with people who love him for that. Dating for Sabyius has had its hurdles.

“Dating in the south is different. I feel like dating as a gay man is difficult in general.. especially in the south, men are limited. The supply doesn’t match the demand.” 

Sabyius says he also struggles with dating and being an African American. He says that there is a standard in the gay community that you have to meet. From his perspective, people expect you to reach all these requirements in the gay community, and a lot of the time he feels that he doesn’t fit that mold, especially here in the south at Ole Miss.

Gavin Wolfe is a Junior at Ole Miss double majoring in French and Computer Science

Gavin Wolfe’s story is different. Gavin always knew that he was gay from a very young age and so did his family. At a young age, Gavin embraced who he was with courage and commitment. Even though he was young, Gavin knew who he was and what he wanted. This is a characteristic that Gavin still embodies to this day. Gavin was raised in Richmond, Virginia where being gay was much more accepted by others. He was able to be who he wanted, and it not be seen as wrong because he was raised in a more diverse area. After coming to Ole Miss, Gavin’s mindset rubbed off on others and he was a huge support system for his friends. Gavin is very passionate about this big part of him and he stands for gay pride He fights and urges people to educate themselves on the ins and outs of the LGBTQ+ community. He wants people to know that the gay community is here, and they will not back down from receiving equal treatment for himself and others. Gavin says that one of the hardest things about going to college in the south is the dating scene. 

“Dating here is nonexistent for me. There are not a lot of gay men here in general. Gay southerners are very different from where I come from. You know we are in the bible belt. It’s very religious and a lot of people interpret religion to be anti LGBTQ+. When you mix that with a person like a gay man, it can lead to a lot of pinned up anger.. They aren’t used to being in a community where they are accepted. They don’t really know who they are. They’ve been suppressed their whole lives. They have self-hatred that they project on to you.” 

Adam Smith is a Sophomore at Ole Miss majoring in Mechanical Engineering

Adam Smith is a 20-year-old sophomore from Phoenix, AZ. Adams also realized at a young age that he was gay. From the time he was little, Adam knew that he was different from his other friends. His family does not know that he is gay, but he has a feeling that his mom has to know.

“I am sure that my mom knows, but I just don’t want to have that awkward conversation. I know she will accept me; it is just the fact of saying the words out loud to her.” 

Coming to the south from the west coast was a huge scenery change for Adam, especially the dating pool of men. Dating in the south has not been the easiest thing to do for Adam. It was a bit of a culture shock. Being gay on the west coast isn’t seen as abnormal or taboo. It is common and widely accepted. The south has been a much different experience for him during his time at Ole Miss. 

“The dating pool is very shallow here. It is a very shallow puddle, so it is definitely hard pickings. Most of the people here, I don’t find myself to be attracted to so it’s kind of difficult. I feel like there is more of a stigma around being gay in the south then there is back home on the west coast. A lot of people down here are closeted, or they are just not really comfortable with themselves yet and so obviously they are out and ready to date someone like that so yeah nothing really too spectacular.”

Love and acceptance are two of the most important things many of us search for in this life and it is much easier for some to find than others. People throughout history have always feared what they do not understand. That is still the case today. We have to work harder to educate ourselves, be aware of the feelings of others, and always take them into consideration. With all of the hate and animosity in the world, we should fight to spread more kindness and love. The LGBTQ+ community wants that just as much as anyone else. What I have learned is they do not want you to be afraid of them or scared to approach them with questions. They want to answer your questions. They want you to know that they are here. They have a voice.

“There are a lot of questions people have and they don’t know what to ask or who to ask much less how. We’re here, we’re queer. We just want to coexist in a very peaceful and civil environment. We want to be expressive with who we are.” – Gavin Wolfe

It is 2020. We are constantly making improvements in technology, medicine, and so much more. We need to make just as many advancements in the treatment of others. Everyone wants life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t matter whether you are black, white, straight, gay, rich, poor, etc. We are all going to be different and we can love each other for it instead of fear what is not considered normal. What is normal anyway? Normal is boring. 

Throughout this experience, I have heard four wonderful stories about love, family, friends, acceptance, fear, laughter, and tears. They have hopes, dreams, and aspirations just like anyone else. We all face things in this life but not being accepted for who we love should not be something we face in a negative way. The LGBTQ+ community is here. They are our neighbors. They are our classmates. They are our friends. Let’s ask the hard questions and learn more about the people around us so can we continue to move forward.

The Long Haul

By Maggie Bushway

“You’re elated that you survived it because so many have died from this, and then it keeps continuing and you know, it can get a bit depressing because you just want to return to normal.” -Gena Ellis

Writer and filmmaker, Gena Ellis, tested positive for COVID-19 July 10th, 2020, and is still, four months later, experiencing fatigue, body aches, brain fog, shortness of breath, and scarring in her lungs.

She developed pneumonia a week later. At the four week mark she went to the ER and they told her she had bronchitis.

“I’ve had bronchitis before,” she said. This does not feel like bronchitis.”

Ellis went to Urgent Care 5 times, the emergency room, multiple doctors, and didn’t get any answers. Four months later they’re still doing tests and recently found scarring in her lungs.

She also still struggles frequently with extreme fatigue. She used to walk 2-4 miles every day and currently struggles to walk up the driveway.

“It does still seem like if I physically exert myself and that maybe that night or the next day, I’m knocked back down with fatigue and the heaviness in the chest feeling,” Ellis said.

She also reports having insomnia, joint swelling, and brain fog.

Ellis is not alone. In fact, according to Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, experts have found that around 20-30% of all COVID-19 survivors experience what’s become known as Post-Covid Syndrome. Patients suffering with this are often referred to as “Long-Haulers.”

At the AIDS Society Covid-19 press conference, Dr Fauci addressed this.

“You can see people who’ve recovered who really do not get back to normal that they have things that are highly suggestive of myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome,” he said.

A group of patients experiencing post-Covid syndrome but not getting any answers, took the research into their own hands. They conducted a survey of Covid-19 survivors who were dealing still dealing with symptoms 2-8 weeks after technically recovering.   

According to the 8-week study, 68% of respondents, like Ellis, were moderately or very active before getting the virus and 70% reported being mostly to fully sedentary afterwards.

Graph from An Analysis of the Prolonged COVID-19 Symptoms Survey

It notes that neurological symptoms such as brain fog, trouble concentrating, memory loss, and insomnia were reported for at least 8 weeks.

A consistent finding was that the majority of respondents had a false negative test result. 76% of them were female. And most were between the ages of 30-49 years old.

Most of them had a mild to moderate case but were able to ride it out at home. They found that the first 2 weeks were more mild than the weeks too come. 89% reported a fluctuation of symptoms that appeared at different times and at different intensities. Over the course of the 8 week study, these symptoms often came back in cycles.

What this study showed was that post-covid syndrome may not be talked about much, but it’s certainly not rare.  

In July 2020, a blog called Long Covid SOS wrote an open letter to the UK leaders on behalf of Long-Haulers. They requested several things of the government:

“1. The establishment of a working group to investigate long-term Covid-19, headed up by a designated medical professional who will be responsible for implementing the following strategies:

2. The commissioning of urgent research into long-term Covid-19 disease in order to investigate its causes and identify a range of interventions to treat patients

3. The development of protocols and care pathways to ensure that all practitioners are empowered to treat long-term Covid-19 patients appropriately

4. The creation of multi-disciplinary clinics in all parts of the UK for the assessment, testing, diagnosis and care of long-term Covid-19 patients

5. Consideration of the economic implications, including making provision for long-term sick leave, financial support and taking steps to ensure employers are made fully aware of this situation.”

They went on to say, “This situation cannot be allowed to persist; should the UK suffer a second wave of infections the numbers in this cohort will grow considerably. The impact of continuing inaction could be catastrophic.”

The UK went on to open Post-Covid clinics, and the US followed their lead in major cities. These clinics have specialists in many of the possible specialties needed to care for these patients.

Dr. Bob Stewart, pulmonologist at the Tupelo Hospital, cares for COVID patients every day. He has hope for patients still in the long haul.  

“I think the main encouragement is that in all likelihood, those symptoms are going to dissipate, you know, over the coming weeks to months,” he said. “Although we’ve not had COVID before, we’ve had other viral illnesses that have long-term lingering effects. And in most cases, those types of symptoms will eventually get better. So I think we do have that ground to go on.”

24-year-old Nataly Najarro tested positive June 27th and had a moderate case that went downhill fast at the end of her third week. She started falling and couldn’t get up by herself, so she went to the ER, where they did X-rays and CT scans that all came back clear. They told her that she was just deconditioned from COVID.

The next day she began shaking all over, and soon was unable to walk. After pleading with her doctors to do neurological tests, they also came back clear. She found that her shaking and other symptoms are associated with fatigue.

“My shaking just happens whenever I get very active and I start hitting that wall of fatigue and it’s like my body telling me to stop. So that’s kind of what we’re learning. And then it’s interesting that with my shaking, if I use too much of my core or my legs in certain ways, it will trigger it,” she said.

Over the course of 6 months, Najarro has made slow but steady progress in her recovery. As of November 20th, she shared a large milestone on Instagram of her walking up the stairs by herself.

“I had to be carried up the stairs, now look at me doing it on my own. I’m so happy,” she wrote.

The pandemic brings international students new challenges

The coronavirus pandemic affected the lives of lots of students, many of whom had to switch to online classes and found their campus deserted in the Fall. But there is one category of students who suffered from the pandemic even more than the rest: international students. They are stuck either in the U.S. or in their home country, having to take classes online in different time zones, unable to go back to their family, or simply struggling with loneliness during these times of social distancing. I went talking to those for whom the pandemic is an even bigger challenge. This is their story. 

Liandong is still not able to go back home

Liandong Yang is a PhD student from China who ended up being stuck in the U.S. during the Summer, unable to go to China.

He explains the conditions in which he would be able to go back home: people entering the Chinese territory have to quarantine for two weeks in hotels assigned by the government. They are only allowed to go home if they still test negative after this period of isolation. 

“The plane tickets are very expensive. The Chinese government made some restrictions on the numbers of commercial flights. The single trip to China could be ten thousand dollars,” says Liandong.

Liandong would fly to China during the Winter break if there was not a pandemic, but with the current second wave, the government is imposing stricter policies on international flights. It is thus too difficult for him to go back. He decided to wait until next summer to see his family again.

Not being able to go home is not the only trouble Covid-19 brought to Liandong. He deplores its effects on work, school, and social life.

“The most important impact of the pandemic is I can’t maintain efficiency when I work at home. Also for graduate students, the communications with classmates and professors are important. Though we can talk online, it’s not very frequent.  Also some sports activities were stopped in the first half year. This also caused some problems to me,” explains Liandong.

Thomas could not come to the U.S.

Thomas Cilloni is Italian. He was supposed to start his program at The University of Mississippi in the Fall. However, administrative processing with the visa was delayed to the point that he could not make it on time for the beginning of classes. Fortunately, he was able to take online classes in order not to lose a whole semester.

However, being stuck at home is not necessarily less stressful than being in the U.S., far from family: Europe is knowing a spike in coronavirus cases and countries are implementing stricter measures to fight the spread of the virus.

“I’m in my home country now, Italy, and the situation is escalating quickly. Today [Nov. 10] my region was placed under lockdown and soon the whole country will be so too. I don’t see a quick way out of this situation as it is now,” says Thomas.

Before this school year, the pandemic had already affected Thomas’s life: he is one of the many students who had to switch to online classes and go back to his parents’ house. When he returned to his family for the holidays last January, the pandemic prevented him to go back to his own place. He thus spent the whole year 2020 studying online. He says the worst thing is he did not have the chance to say goodbye to many friends from his old university. And the first months in his new school were not helping with that.

“On top of missing many friends, I have not managed to make new ones because of online classes, so I still don’t know anyone in the University. On the bright side though, because we must be looking at that now more than ever, after many years away from home I got to spend a long and happy time with my family, and everyone is safe and in health,” continues Thomas.

Despite being optimistic and believing that next semester will be better, some fears remain in Thomas’s mind. He is supposed to fly to America in January to join the Oxford community, but he fears that if the pandemic situation in Europe keeps worsening, flight restrictions could prevent him from coming to Ole Miss.

Thomas insists on staying positive and tries to do his part to help stop the spread, for he believes that if everyone puts in some effort, we will overcome this.

“I am a big promoter of safety, safety, safety! If everyone wears a mask, washes hands and doesn’t touch the face, cases will go down, contact tracing will be more effective and everyone will benefit! It’s little things that can have a great impact altogether, small sacrifices (if sacrifices they can be called!) for a better living for all, hopefully sooner than later,” concludes Thomas.

Hyerim’s imminent graduation brings up some new interrogations

Hyerim Park is a PhD student from South Korea in her last year of studies. She will be graduating in May 2021. Covid-19 brought a few fears regarding graduation and finding a job.

“Since there are not many job openings this year, it is obviously hard to get a job this year. Especially job openings for teaching schools or lower-level of research schools are very few,” says Hyerim.

She explains that is she is able to find a job both in the U.S. and in Korea, then she will have the opportunity to choose where she wants to live, but if she is only able to find a position in of the two countries, then she will have to take that offer.

“It is out of my control, so there is not much I can do. Even though it will be better next year, finding a job would be competitive, because of accumulated Ph.D. candidates,” argues Hyerim.

The Office of International Programs of the university deplores a loss of students

Jean Robinson is a director of international programs at the University of Mississippi. This year, she saw a huge decrease in the number of students who were able to come to Oxford.

“Our figures for new students include all levels of students and all visa types. It also includes people who are starting new programs such as those who finished a Bachelor’s degree here in May and started a Master’s in August. In Fall 2019, we had 282 new international students. In Fall 2020, there were 114. The vast majority of these are people who were already in the U.S. I think there were only about 16 or so new students on our list who were arriving from outside the U.S.,” says Robinson.

She explains that some students were able to enroll from abroad but had to face challenges such as time differences, technology,  tax rules, and limits on things like being able to perform the duties of an assistantship. As for students who managed to travel throughout the summer, the journey was not any easier.

“For those who were outside of the U.S., getting a visa was a huge barrier since you can only apply for a student visa 120 days before the start of the semester, and U.S. consulates closed for all routine visa applications on March 18th. On July 14th it was announced that some would open but getting an appointment in time was not possible for some and many of the consulates are still not open for student visa applications. In addition, travel bans and the uncertainty of future bans and format of their programs made it difficult for students to make plans,” continues Robinson.

According to her, the university is suffering from the loss of international students, especially on a cultural level. International students bring American students other perspectives, and they are also often involved in research or teaching for the school.

“Fewer students does have a financial impact but the loss is greater than that. The university wants its students to have a global experience. Student mobility and the opportunities it creates for cross cultural experiences and enhancement of the learning experience for all students is one aspect of achieving that goal.  Fewer graduate international students also affects research and teaching since many are involved in the university’s research projects and/or serve as teaching assistants,” concludes Robinson.

What about homesickness and loneliness?

Being an international student is leaving friends, family, and everything familiar back home. It is landing in a brand new culture, new school, new city, new friends. If it can be hard to adjust at first, it may be challenging in the long term too: homesickness can happen at any time, pandemic or no pandemic. Therefore, during these times when connecting with people is made harder by social distancing, and going back to one’s family is not always an option, foreign students easily suffer from loneliness and homesickness. In digging into the matter, I found a home where international students can have a place to gather and connect with each other, to fight loneliness together.

A huge thanks to the international community of Oxford for their help with this project, and for welcoming me to their family.

Connecting Stories that Matter

As you speed down Interstate 55, you might just miss McComb, Mississippi. For many — well, for most — it is just another dot on the map somewhere between Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana. Once a city boasting a colorful downtown, and even more colorful residents, it has now become another victim of brain drain in small town, U.S.A.

Driving through the downtown, you see shuttered businesses, broken sidewalks and even a partially burned building no one has ever bothered to fix. It is a depressing caricature of what we have allowed our American small towns to become. And ever since the big box stores came to town, everything has moved toward the interstate — ready to snag the next person willing to take exit 18 on I-55. 

McComb, Miss. once was a hub for rail maintenance. Now, trains still pass through, but the once vibrant downtown and rail yards are tired and worn. [Image Credit: Lacy Nelson]

Every few months, the local community sees another family-owned local business close its doors. One day it’s a local eatery, the next a home appliance store and the list drags on and on. It almost seems as if nothing can last — and honestly, not much does. 

A storefront in the Kramertown district of McComb, Miss. [Image credit: Lacy Nelson]

There is one local business, though, that has defied the odds — the McComb newspaper, the Enterprise Journal.

Jack Ryan is the managing editor of the Enterprise Journal. He has been in McComb for over thirty years. A native of New Orleans, he left the Big Easy to attend college at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. After graduation, much to the dismay of his parents, he moved to McComb to write for the Enterprise Journal — founded by Oliver Emmerich when he bought and merged the McComb Enterprise with another local paper in the 1920s.

Ryan never left. 

Despite McComb’s small size, Ryan has a big job. The citizens of McComb rely on Ryan and his staff for the most up to date coverage of what is happening in their community. For some, the most important coverage might be high school sports or business updates, while others might subscribe to have access to the obituaries — which Ryan notes are one of the most important and personal parts of the Enterprise Journal’s role in the community. 

Laketto Carr, a resident of McComb since 1988, admits she and her husband no longer subscribe to the Enterprise Journal, but when they did, it was because they were most interested in the coverage of high school sports and other local news they were not able to get from larger outlets such as the Clarion Ledgerin Jackson. Now, she gets most of her news via social media or word of mouth. 

Laketto Carr stands outside McComb Electric Supply Company on a bright day in McComb, Miss. [Image Credit: Lacy Nelson]

While on the surface it might not seem like much of a problem, relying on social media for news can contribute to the further spread of misinformation and disinformation. Local journalists serve as the eyes and ears of our towns — ready to stop false information in its tracks and serve as watchdogs. But if more and more people continue to follow the trends Carr does, then it will become imperative for local news outlets to figure out solutions to not only meet their readers where they are, but also keep the integrity of their paper and profession. 

However, there are still plenty of people in the McComb and Pike County community who engage with the Enterprise Journal. Michael Guttuso, a local chef, has lived in the area for 40 years and says the paper has always been a great source of information — and one he still relies on. 

“I think that people have learned to rely on Jack and his paper as something they can depend on, even though they may have reduced readership,” says Guttuso. “I think the continuity has always been there. In fact, the paper today is still an Emmerich paper and I think their standards were always so high. I remember Oliver Emmerich, on the newspaper heading, had something along the lines of ‘McComb is the most important place in the world to us.’ People knew the great amount of care that went into reporting and making sure that news was disseminated.”

Guttuso was not far off — today, the Enterprise Journal still prides itself as being “the one newspaper in the world most interested in this community.”

What is fascinating about the Enterprise Journal’s story, though, is it is replicated all across the United States — and not just in small towns. No matter where you go —from the deep South to New England to the west coast — you will see outlets seeking new means to engage readers and keep a thumb on the pulse of their community. 

Over 1,000 miles away from McComb is the nation’s capital — Washington, D.C. With almost 700,000 people living in just under 70 square miles, it seems a city packed to the rim would have little to nothing in common with a small town in the South boasting just 13,000 residents. 

But you would be wrong. 

While McComb might not lay claim to the Capitol, multi-million-dollar lobbying firms or even a university, it does have the Enterprise Journal. Washington, D.C. has its own version of a local newspaper — and no, this is not a reference to the Washington Post. It is PoPville, an online blog turned catch-all for anything and everything related to local happenings inside the District. 

PoPville was started in 2006 by Dan Silverman, a local D.C. resident who wanted to chronicle life in District neighborhoods with an emphasis on street-by-street coverage. Using the alias Prince of Petworth (PoP) and a healthy heaping of citizen journalism, Silverman quickly became the ultimate D.C. neighborhood source. Today, folks across the District rely on PoPville to provide coverage on transit, crime, restaurants, real estate — well, you name it. 

A snowy neighborhood in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. [Image Credit: Lacy Nelson]

So, in reality, there might be more connecting our small town, U.S.A. communities and cities like Washington, D.C. than what meets the eye. 

There is hope for our local papers. Local news is not necessarily dying — it is changing. As we shift toward an increasingly digital landscape, it is imperative outlets and journalists are willing to meet readers where they are. Maybe this means having a formal presence on social media, creating a more user-friendly website or blog, or even coming up with new and engaging ideas to draw people to your outlet like Ryan did with the Enterprise Journal’s “cutest pet” and “first day of school” photo contests.

Regardless of where we are, change is a constant in our lives. As stewards of our communities, we need to foster change and be willing to adapt, as well as recognize changes do not come without hurdles. But we can overcome these hurdles with sparks of creativity — a willingness to leap outside of the box of what constitutes as “traditional journalism.”

When we lose our local papers, we start to lose sight of ourselves. The accountability our local journalists provide help guide us toward the north star of ethical and moral living. Without local news, who would we turn to for coverage on the latest city hall meeting, or who would be there to investigate inconsistencies in the school district’s budget? 

So, no longer is it just about who won the homecoming football game, what new restaurant opened or where the latest real estate development is going in — though those things are important. It is imperative we recognize the role local journalism plays in keeping American communities afloat and free of corruption. 

Mental Health: Advice from Student-Athlete

Student-Athletes are known for their high level of play on the field or court, looking like they have it all together. What people do not keep in mind is that there is a lot of stress and responsibility that goes along with that. I had the opportunity to interview Doug Nikhazy, a student-athlete here at the University of Mississippi on the baseball team. He took me through a typical day as a student-athlete and the multitude of tasks he must accomplish. Between class, studying, practice, weight lifting, tutoring and many more things, there is little time to yourself as a student-athlete, making them a perfect resource for mental health advice and how they handle stress. Nikhazy expressed how important it is to map out your day, and understand that your mental health is not something to take for granted. Throughout the interview, Nikhazy gives tips and tricks that he has learned along the way, as well as how these tactics can transition into everyday life, not only on the field. 

“We have some really good resources throughout the baseball team, we have a mental health coach inside of our study hall area that we can access at any time, he is always available to us. He can get you through some tough times which is awesome, but it is awesome that on campus they also have some of the same things to most students. I do think that it is super duper important that people aren’t afraid of (counselling), aren’t scared of it because a lot of people think they don’t need it, but even if you don’t (need it), talking to somebody and getting something off your chest can eradicate a problem before it happens “ said Nikhazy.

According to, 75% of students who suffer from depression do not seek help for their mental health problems. This is something that Nikhazy finds to be very important in order to keep a level head throughout the day. Breathing exercises are very beneficial for Nikhazy on and off the field, and he thinks that this technique is something that everyone should be doing when they feel themselves getting overwhelmed. Nikhazy and the baseball team relate the different stages of stress as their signal lights, which allows them to check in on themselves throughout the day and get them back to normal if they feel themselves unraveling. 

“We call them our signal lights, so recognizing when you are at a red light, recognizing when you are at a yellow light. Yellow light you can still do your normal phrases, breath and get back to a green light, which is go and you are not thinking about the pressure, you are using it to your advantage. And then a red light is just that you are out of control, so you have to do the proper steps to get back to a green light. So recognizing that is applicable for all different types of situations” said Nikhazy.

It is extremely easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless when things are not going as planned in life, but your character is defined by the ways in which you handle difficult situations. Oftentimes, people choose to isolate themselves when times get tough, and not take the steps necessary to attacking the problem at hand. At the University of Mississippi, there are resources that you can access if you are feeling overwhelmed such as the University Counseling Center. This is a free service offered to all students, and is located in Lester Hall on the 3rd floor. They are open from 8am- 5pm, Monday through Friday. I urge anyone who is dealing with any problem big or small to reach out and seek help. Also, if you know of anyone who is in need of assistance, please direct them to the counseling center. These are important steps that can change you or someone you love forever, and get them back to a green light as the baseball team would say.

  Nikhazy’s favorite advice he received from his head coach Mike Bianco is to be yourself and never try to be something you are not. This is transferable to all aspects of life. When we get in sticky situations it is easy to try to run away and hide from adversity, but in order to keep your conscience clean you should try your best to handle internal battles in real time.

Student-Athletes have to juggle many things, and oftentimes it gets difficult, but the most important thing that they are taught is to be self aware of how they are feeling. These are tips that translate into everyday life, especially with college students who feel anxiety daily. This topic is something that should never be shamed, or pushed to the side, in fact it should be celebrated. Creating a healthy mental lifestyle for yourself is the first act of self care throughout the day. Write in a journal, speak to a friend or counselor, and most importantly check in on yourself. We can all take a few notes from student-athletes and grow our ability to handle issues throughout the day. Please watch the video linked in this post for more information and content regarding Doug Nikhazy’s interview


Lauren’s Light

            Lauren Voss looks like any normal 20 year old girl. She talks and walks normally with no visible problems. Her red hair and contagious smile may stand out to some. However, when she shows her stomach, a different story emerges.

Voss grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. She always has had the support of her family. Originally, Voss had one older brother but when her parents divorced and remarried, she gained two step siblings. 

Voss was a normal child growing up. She laughed, played, and did all the things children do when they are young. When she turned three years old, things became not so easy as she was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type 1, also known as NF1. 

“I do not remember a lot because I was so young,” said Voss. “What I do remember is being in and out of hospitals. All I knew was that I was sick and needed doctors to help me get better.” 

According to Mayo Clinic, NF1 is a genetic malformation that causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on nerve tissue. Complications can include anything from hearing loss, learning impairment, heart and blood vessel problems, and more. 

There are three different types of Neurofibromatosis: Neurofibromatosis Type 1, Neurofibromatosis Type 2, and Schwannomatosis. Voss was diagnosed with NF Type 1. 

Voss had her first surgery when she was only age four. She underwent surgery on her kidneys due to the lack of blood flow they were receiving. Two years later, Voss was back in the hospital. 

A non-benign tumor had developed on her aorta and was causing complications with her heart. The tumor was resulting in a blockage of blood flow from her heart to her kidneys. After the doctors removed the tumor, they also had to reconstruct her iliac vein on her legs as her legs were not getting the correct amount of blood flow needed to function healthily. 

Voss explained that “as a six year old, all I wanted to do was run around and play with my siblings and other kids. I could not do that because I was recovering from surgery and that made me upset all the time.” 

For a while, things were calm in the Voss household. She struggled with having scars and mild discomfort from her surgeries but she stayed out of the hospital. 

It was not until she was 11 that she went back under the knife. The doctors presented a new procedure called a Teflon Tube Pulmonary Bypass. They drilled a hole into her aorta and inserted a tube that connected to one of her kidneys. Next, they connected the aorta to her other kidney. This resulted in each kidney having its own outflow of blood. 

The Teflon Tube Pulmonary Bypass fixed the internal health problems Voss was having. However, with three major surgeries, she was left with an excessive amount of scar tissue. 

“When I was 14, I went back into the hospital for scar reconstructive surgery and they removed six pounds of scar tissue,” said Voss. “This surgery was pretty much just cosmetic but it still was another surgery that made me miss things in my life.” 

Voss is now a 20 year old studying at the University of Mississippi. She is working to get her degree in Business Management with a minor in Entrepreneurship. 

She explained that she still has to deal with NF everyday, despite not having anymore surgeries. Her main health concern is that she has to take her blood pressure and take medication to regulate it. Additionally, Voss has to watch her sodium intake because of her fragile kidneys. 

Blood pressure and sodium intake are not the only thing that Voss has to be mindful of. Due to the intensive nature of the surgeries, she has developed back problems. In result, Voss has to wear a back brace on occasion and do daily stretching exercises to keep her back from hurting. 

There is also the external struggle as well. Despite having scar reconstruction surgery, Voss still has concerns with her appearance. She has four major scars on her stomach that stretch across her belly button and around the side to her back. She severely struggled with having them all throughout her childhood, teenage years and still into her twenties. 

“When I was little, other kids would think it was gross because I had these things on my stomach,” says Voss. “I tried to not let it get to me but I cried about it a lot and I never wanted to show my stomach. When I put on bathing suits, I wore one-pieces for the longest time because it was easier to cover them up than have to explain what my scars were.” 

Along with living with her scars, Voss has to make some large decisions down the road. These decisions will impact whether or not she wants to have children. 

According to March of Dimes, NF is a genetic disorder and has a 50% chance of being carried down to the offspring of the carrier. This means that if she has children, she runs the risk of carrying NF over to them.

“I want a big family because I grew up in one but I do worry about having kids in the future. I do not want my child to go through all the surgeries and missing out on life because of their disorder,” said Voss. “I do consider adoption or a surrogate but I know that is so far ahead in the future.” 

For the near future, Voss has plans to start a non-profit organization called Lauren’s Light. It is still in the beginning stages but she hopes to have it running in a few years. 

“I want people with NF to know that they are not alone. I think there is so much more research that can be done with genetics that could eventually annihilate NF all together” explained Voss. “At the very least, I can raise awareness and money to help with research.” 

As for now, Lauren Voss continues to live her life to the best of her abilities. She hopes to become a voice for those with NF. 

2020 Hurricane Season with Hurricane Zeta Aftermath

By Cameron Breland

The 2020 hurricane season has been active with 30 storms so far through the middle of November, and almost half of the storm systems have been hurricanes. The most storms in a single season was 28 set in 2005, and 15 storms were considered hurricanes including Katrina. There have been so many storms that the Greek alphabet had to be used to name tropical storms. It is the second time in hurricane season history meteorologists had to rely on the Greek naming system, and this season is the furthest the World Meteorologist Organization has gone into the naming list.

Activity in the Atlantic is still constant as the 2020 season continues to shatter previous records. Hurricane Iota was the most recent storm to make landfall. The category five hurricane recently struck Central America, leaving massive amounts of destruction in its path. The official end of hurricane season is November 30th, but there are chances activity will continue in the Atlantic through the first two weeks of December.

On October 28th, Hurricane Zeta made landfall in Cocodrie, Louisiana, a town located on the Gulf of Mexico just west of Grand Isle. The storm system continued through to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The storm continued its path through the southeast and weakened more as it moved inland through Atlanta to central Virginia. At landfall, Zeta was a high category two. In some areas on the Mississippi coast, winds reached 110 mph, only one mph from a category three. Hurricane Zeta stayed strong inland with 50 mph winds reported in north Georgia.

The maximum storm surge was recorded at nine to ten feet above ground level in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. New Orleans received four feet of storm surge near the west side of Lake Pontchartrain. Zeta was the sixth hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the fifth to strike Louisiana this hurricane season. Both are new records for a single season.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) released damage reports for the state. These data numbers are subject to increase or decrease as MEMA goes through the validation process. In Mississippi, MEMA reported that over 32,000 homes were damaged or affected by Zeta. Of the Mississippi coastal counties, MEMA’s data revealed Harrison County sustained the most damage with almost 27,000 homes being affected. MEMA warns to not burn any dry debris and leave damaged materials on the side of streets to avoid injury. The New York Times reported that at one point over 2 million electricity customers in the south were without power due to Zeta’s strong winds.

Over 180,000 Mississippi residents were without power, and the process to bring electricity back was complicated. Power transformers and their fuses can blow due to strong winds, lightning, or damage sustained to power lines. Based on the damage severity, the timeline for electricity to be back on could range from a few hours to days after a storm hits. With Zeta, fallen trees and severe winds damaged multiple power poles causing many streets to be littered with downed power lines.

Numerous South Mississippians did not have electricity for days, and many power company customers did not see power until almost a week after Hurricane Zeta made landfall. This was partially due to power crews preoccupied with other natural disasters like the winter storm in Oklahoma City. More than 40,000 Oklahoma residents were without power for more than ten days.

Many people did not expect Zeta to produce large amounts of damage, and some business owners were not prepared for days without power. On the Mississippi coast, businesses remained closed for almost up to a week as towns did not gain electricity back. Hurricane Zeta made landfall on a Wednesday, and some residents did not have power until the following Monday.

Crews working on downed power lines in Bay St. Louis, MS. Photo was taken on November 9th, 2020

In Hancock and Harrison county, downed trees across multiple streets made it difficult for power company workers to reach and repair downed lines. Pine trees and oak trees were scattered across roads making daily commutes difficult for numerous residents. More than a week after Zeta’s landfall, trees were still down on the side of roads, and they may remain there for a while. Debris from the strong winds was piled high in front of houses down nearly every street in Bay St. Louis. Giant old trees were uprooted and other trees were broken in half.

The Mississippi Coast seemed to encounter tornado-like damage to trees and buildings, but reports show no tornadoes touched down in the coastal counties. Hurricane Zeta was a fast-moving storm system. Across south Mississippi, Zeta was still moving at 30 mph since its landfall in Louisiana. There was little time for the storm to weaken as it was moving so fast, which explains how buildings and trees accumulated so much damage without any tornadoes touching down.

The Gulf Coast also stayed on the right side of the storm with winds blowing in the same direction as Zeta’s movement. Tropical storm winds were recorded around 140 miles away from the storm’s eye, and a storm that wide can disband slower over inland areas. The Coast was struck with wind gusts comparable to almost an EF-1 tornado. On the Fujita scale, an F-1 tornado is between 70 to 112 mph, and the damage is moderate if the winds are constantly in the F-1 range. All of these elements combine to produce a powerful storm that caught coastal residents by surprise.

Harbors in the coastal counties held mandatory evacuation orders, but some boat owners were either unable to move their boats or did not listen to the mandate. Sailboats and motor yachts were thrown around HWY 90 like toy boats. In the Bay St. Louis Harbor, three boats were sunk in their dock, and others received minor wind damage. Pass Christian marina had multiple boats stuck on land, and the docks were severely damaged by high water levels. One boat made it into the McDonald’s drive-thru in Long Beach, and another was resting next to a local restaurant. The HWY was covered in debris from the storm surge, and sand was piled high until cleanup crews could clear the roads. Almost two weeks later, there is little improvement with the cleanup effort.

Boat left on land after flood levels receded. Photo was taken November, 8th 2020

The boats were moved to the side of roads, but they are still hazards like debris from damaged buildings lining the streets. Some residents were hauling wood and other construction materials on tractor-trailers. Cleanup crews were not actively seen when visiting the coast, and there is no set date on when the removals will be concluded.

The casinos on the coast received water and wind damage, but most resumed normal operations within two weeks after the storm. Mississippi’s casinos have been damaged economically in the last year, and the more active hurricane season combined with the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in more losses for the industry.

Before Hurricane Zeta, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was active with lighter COVID regulations. The annual Cruisin’ the Coast event saw a great turnout. Each year, coast cities host different activities for classic car owners, and the turnout was strong even with safety regulations in place. 2o21 will be the 25th anniversary of the car show.

The 2020 Hurricane is almost concluded, and it will not be missed. For more information on developing activity, click here.

Turning SEARCH Into Success

Cameron Stubbs is the head of business development at the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services. Originally from central Mississippi, Stubbs came to Ole Miss for school and like many others, he fell in love with being a Rebel. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Stubbs made his way back home before deciding he couldn’t stay away from his one true love. He returned to Ole Miss in 2013 to further his academia by earning his master’s degree in Higher Education. Although Stubbs’ love for the University and its Rebels is common among the passionate alumni community, his story is not.

As a senior in college, Stubbs was doing what most second semester seniors do. Soaking up the last of the good ole days before reality hits and spending time with his friends who would soon part ways and grow apart. It was the best week of the spring semester where students can put their worries aside and let loose with their favorite people; it was spring break. This is where Stubbs’ real story begins.

After a long day on a Bahamian beach, the sun set, the moon rose, and all the friends headed up to the pool. In a moment, Stubbs’ life changed. He stood tall at six-foot-five and dove into the three-foot deep pool. The damage to his spinal cord left him a C7 Quadriplegic, meaning all four limbs are affected by his injury. But that isn’t where his story ends.

Stubbs recovered, finished school, furthered his education, got married and found a job.

“You know, all the responsibilities of an adult,” Stubbs said.

In his current role, Stubbs works with Mississippi’s vocational rehabilitation and support and employment plans to help others with disabilities find employment within their skill set. With the help of various partners, they are teaching this community outsourcing skills, soft skills, punctuality, time management, organization and more. In teaching these skills, the hope is that the person can transfer their skill set to another job with similar duties.

A project that was developed at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center had spread throughout the country and recently found its place in Mississippi. Project SEARCH, founded in 1996 by Erin Riehle, is a research environment, serving those with developmental disabilities, and harnesses visionary thinking and innovation. Riehle, at the time, was the Director of Cincinnati’s Children’s where she felt that it made sense to hire people within the group they were treating. From its starting point, Project SEARCH has grown from an idea to a national project that is federally mandated and constantly growing throughout the country. 

The goal of Project SEARCH is to take these students going through what is called the “transition” phase and run them through various different internship opportunities during their last years of high school. Students in this special education community likely won’t graduate and instead will receive a certificate of completion and usually don’t have a college plan. These internship opportunities are orchestrated to expose the students to different work settings in order to gain hard skills and soft skills that will ultimately make them employable. 

There are three partners needed to make Project SEARCH happen. Those being a vocational rehab, like the one where Stubbs works, an employer, such as FedEx, and a school district. In their last years of high school, the students will go to the employer, prepare, and disperse into their respective internships. But they aren’t just let loose on their own.

“We have some folks in there to help them with the instruction, get them familiarized with the environment and let them understand the lay of the land,” Stubbs said.

The students have the opportunity to rotate through three internship sites, each lasting for 10 weeks, and running on the school district calendar. In teaching these students employable skills, the end goal is to prepare them to work in a mainstream environment. These internships give the student an opportunity to form an impactful relationship with an employer where they can receive a job offer that includes pay rates and benefits that make it possible for them to provide for themselves. And just like in every relationship, there are two sides. On the other side, the employer benefits from this relationship as well. 

“Employers are starting to see that folks with disabilities have been written off long ago as individuals that didn’t have a whole lot to offer to society and now we’re seeing that momentum change because we’re proving it,” Stubbs said. 

These internships are taking students who lack verbal skills and turning them into individuals that can run a department. They are taking students who lack time management and organizational skills and turning them into overachievers who show up on time and pay attention to detail. This is resonating with employers as Project SEARCH continues to grow. Seeing these developments is also good for morale and in turn, encourages the receptiveness of employers.

“Having a variety, a hodgepodge and rainbow of everybody from different settings or different capabilities really does strengthen and empower your workforce,” Stubbs said.

The demographic Project SEARCH serves has a history of working in fields such as fast food, janitorial, custodial and more limited industries. They haven’t always had the opportunity to put themselves out there in society as someone who can learn and work in a productive role. 

Stubbs spoke to one of the recurring themes they see in parents worrying and wanting to know what is going to happen to their child when they are no longer there to provide for them.

“We are preparing them for independence, to live on their own. Our students get empowered and confident and that leads them to productive outcomes. A lot of the time we will see students get their driver’s license and things like that,” Stubbs said.

There are students right here in Mississippi that have found employment from this project and have now bought vehicles, drive themselves to work and pay their own bills. Testimonies show that parents with children in Project SEARCH don’t have the concern they once did and trust in their child’s developed abilities to be independent.

It will be 18 years in March that Stubbs has been living with his injury, so he knows a little bit about the barriers a disability causes on a daily basis. He understands that there is no way to learn something like first-hand experience and is now paying that forward with employers, individuals and their families.

“Sometimes folks have what they think is an idea, but they don’t realize that life comes at your fast and time is fairly short,” Stubbs said.

He believes that you don’t know what you’re made of until your back against the wall and is working to encourage the community with disabilities to put themselves out there and let their potential shine. 

Project SEARCH is continuing to grow and serve in every state in the country. The project gives individuals the pride and confidence they need to become working, productive citizens with a purpose in society. The project gives employers access to a demographic that has the ability to move their business forward in an inclusive, innovative way. And the project gives Stubbs’ the chance to inspire other disabled people with his resilience and growth that they too can achieve.

“It is our hope to have every school district in the state partnered with an employer,” Stubbs said.

As it continues to grow, you can read more about Project SEARCH at this link.

Young teachers grapple with challenges presented by COVID-19

COVID-19 has affected us all, but some of those most affected have been those in the education system.

Teachers in public secondary education in Mississippi have had to grapple with forms of virtual teaching with limited resources these last two semesters. Johnathon Huffman is a U.S. History teacher and head baseball coach at Houlka High School in New Houlka, Mississippi. Huffman, a graduate of Mississippi State University, is in his second year in the classroom and had his first year shortened due to the pandemic last spring.

“It’s really been as unexpected as it comes,” Huffman said. “I never thought it was possible to have my first year cut short the way it was, and year two has been insane as well. It’s been hard to stay focused on the content because of all the extra protocols.”

Huffman’s U.S. History class is state tested in the state of Mississippi, giving him extra pressure to perform in the midst of the pandemic challenges.

“Being state tested, I’ve had to double down on making sure I’m getting my standard across,” Huffman said. “The hybrid schedule has really been difficult to work with at times.”

In a bordering county, Sawyer Byars is an assistant baseball coach and teaches another state tested class in Algebra I at Calhoun City High School. Byars also saw difficulties transitioning to a hybrid teaching schedule, one that saw students attend on certain days and participate in online instruction on others. Byars is a second-year teacher and is in his first year at Calhoun City.

“It’s been weird, mostly starting with the hybrid schedule,” Byars said. “That was a big adjustment. Since we’ve gone back to a normal schedule, other than making videos daily, it’s a pretty normal school year, in my opinion.”

One of the difficulties a hybrid schedule presented for Byars is holding his students accountable when they aren’t physically present in the classroom.

“For me, personally, I have ninth and 10th graders pretty much exclusively,” Byars said, “and when they were not at school, they were not doing work. That was tough. So, getting them back in school was a big deal.”

Once the Calhoun County School District, of which Calhoun City High School is a part, came off of the hybrid schedule, Byars had another COVID-related challenge to overcome: a quarantine of his own due to contact tracing.

“It’s difficult just not seeing your kids every day because you get used to it after a while,” Byars said. “It’s kind of like starting a new semester.”

While in quarantine, Byars still had contact with his students and taught them online via Google Classroom, the platform of choice for most online high school instruction in the area during the pandemic.

“For me, I’m a huge proponent of answering questions,” Byars said. “I walk two-to-three miles a day exclusively in my classroom just answering questions. Not being able to give immediate feedback to those students, I know that they have questions sometimes. Sometimes, they don’t like to ask them if they’re not there. A lot of kids in class don’t like to ask questions. The biggest struggle to me is knowing whether or not they’re getting it on an everyday basis.”

Another teacher in a bordering county, Walker Winter of Pontotoc Jr. High, has another hurdle to overcome: he teaches a foreign language, something that can be difficult to grasp in the classroom, much less virtually. Winter, a Spanish teacher, is a first-year instructor and a graduate of the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi.

“For me as a new teacher, I had no norm,” Winter said. “So the COVID changes were not something out of the ordinary for me. For the most part, I have been just trying to roll with the punches: take those temperatures, clean those desks, keep students six feet apart. After a while, I have realized these things aren’t normal, and they are a bit exhausting for all involved.”

Winter’s district, like other surrounding districts, has required certain measures for staff and students to ensure as much safety as possible in the midst of the pandemic.

“My school district has mandated masks, and we check temperatures every morning,” Winter said. “We have established seating arrangements in the cafeteria for lunch so we can track who is within six feet of one another.”

Winter, like Huffman and Byars, has had to grapple at times with teaching virtually as well.

“Teaching virtually has been quite a challenge,” Winter said. “I have never been trained to do this, nor have my students ever taken an online course. We are learning this aspect together.”

Teaching a foreign language remotely like Winter can present challenges unique from other instructors in the state.

“Remotely teaching a foreign language has been a challenge,” Winter said. “It’s like trying to talk to someone under water: they don’t understand the words coming out of my mouth, while, at the same time, we are all trying to hold our breath and keep from drowning.”

Where Winter has the struggle of teaching a foreign language remotely, Huffman and Byars have their own unique challenge: they are coaches. The 2019 baseball season was cut short due to COVID-19, and the 2020 season, like many aspects of life, is up in the air as the situation surrounding the virus progresses.

Last season, Byars was an assistant coach at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, and was not prepared for the season being cut so abruptly.

“The biggest thing last year was that it was over in the blink of an eye,” Byars said. “There was no preparation for the season ending. This year, more of a fear than a concern is us having one kid test positive during the middle of our season and us miss six division games and possibly miss the playoffs with a team that most certainly should not miss the playoffs.”

Huffman, who last year was thrust in the role of head coach in his first year teaching, describes his team as a “rebuilding” program that needs all the game experience it can get moving forward.

“We played four games last year,” Huffman said. “We were showing improvement every game, but then we just stopped. It hurt us as a team and kind of knocked us back to square one of rebuilding. It just really feels like we lost any momentum we may have been developing as a team.”

After the abrupt end to last season, Huffman, perhaps more than other coaches around the state, needs a full season this spring to help build his team for the future.

“The biggest fear is obviously not playing,” Huffman said. “As a program that’s rebuilding, we need to play ball this spring. We got four games in last year in my first season, didn’t have a summer program at all, and haven’t gotten adequate time in the fall either. We don’t have the luxury of having a ton of raw talent, so practice and reps are everything to us.”

Even in the midst of these fears, Huffman knows, ultimately, the season is out of his hands.

“With the way the virus is up and down, you don’t know if you’ll play or how much you’ll play if you do,” Huffman said.

More than just an Athlete

Since August 2016, some American athletes have protested against police brutality. Colin Kaepernick was the first athlete to protest against the injustices by kneeling on one knee during the U.S. National Anthem. 

Since that time, many other professional football players, college athletes, high school athletes, and professional athletes have found ways to speak out against the injustices in the United States. 

Some athletes have joined Kaepernick on kneeling, while some have decided to use social media as a platform, boycott games, wear shirts with messages on them, and some have even created songs that speak out against the injustices. 

A common trend this year has been for college athletes and their coaches to hold protests to raise awareness about the injustices. Over 25 schools participated in marches, protests, and released team statements.  In the state of Mississippi, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss players all showed signs of solidarity for social reform. 

 In Oxford Ms, Ole Miss players marched to the square, with locked arms, and chanted “hands up, don’t shoot” and “no justice, no peace.”

The team put out a statement that read, “Police brutality and other injustices occurring across our nation have to end, and our team stands united to embrace our diversity and promote a culture of peace, equality and understanding.”  

While the team has made it clear that they stand united and want change, one player has gone great lengths to make sure real change is brought, not only in Oxford but the state of Mississippi. 

Ryder Anderson, a senior Ole Miss football player from Katy, Texas said even though he isn’t from Mississippi, it’s become his second home so it’s only right for him to make change.

“I’ve been here for a couple of years now and you know it’s become my second home,” Anderson said. “I’ve come to know a lot of people in the community and I feel like I’m a part of the community now. Racial injustice bothers me regardless of what state it’s in. It’s something I would change up north, south,  and the coast. It’s something I would take a shot at, anywhere I’m at.” 

Anderson is a key player for the Ole Miss Team, some call him a team leader. During Anderson’s 2019 season he finished the season with 14 total tackles. This 2020 season he has become an extremely major force for the Ole Miss Defense. But for Anderson, he doesn’t just want to make a difference on the field, he wants to make a difference off the field too.

Earlier this summer, the athletics department held a Unity March on campus where players were able to speak, along with athletics director Keith Carter, football head coach Lane Kiffin and women’s basketball head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin.  Anderson was one of the players that was very vocal at the march. Not only did he lead the march, but he spoke proudly in front of hundreds about his desire for change. 

On August 28th, Ole Miss football players marched up University Avenue from the Oxford Square back to the University of Mississippi campus instead of attending their morning  practice. The boycott was in the wake of the shooting of Wisconsin man Jacob Blake by a police officer earlier that month. 

Jake Thompson interviewed Anderson about the matter. Anderson stated, “We haven’t talked about it altogether as a team, yet,” Anderson said. “But, we’ve talked amongst ourselves a little bit. What happened was completely inexcusable and that’s why you see everything that’s going on right. That’s why everyone’s so frustrated. Because that stuff’s been happening and continuing to happen. That’s just something we’re going to have to continue to fight against.” 

After participating in several protest; some initiated by student athletes and some by locals in Oxford, Ryder and his teammate Momo Sanogo wanted to take it a step further.  They wanted to join the movement to help change the Mississippi state flag. 

“We wanted to know how we can actually make something happen. We talked to our athletic director Keith Carter and we talked to Chancellor Glen Boyce. From there we got this conversation going for how we can make this stuff happen.”

Anderson spent countless late nights after practice on the phone with Phillip Gun, speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives discussing the process to change the state flag. 

The process started with a bill. 

The bill, House Bill 1796, called for a new design that “shall honor the past while embracing the promise of the future.” It required that the design exclude the Confederate battle emblem and include the phrase “In God We Trust.” The measure also established a nine-person commission selected by the state’s top Republicans and tasked with picking a new design by September. Over the month of August, the commission waded through nearly 3,000 flag design submissions from the public, whittling them down to two options.

On September 2, the commission selected the magnolia flag as the new design voters would consider on the November ballot.

In early November, voters approved the “In God We Trust” magnolia design as the new state flag. 

Anderson was presented the new state flag for his efforts to constantly spread awareness of injustice. The Ole Miss team ran out on the field with the flag when they took on South Carolina.  

“I was surprised, I wasn’t expecting that,” Anderson said. Even when I saw him I didn’t know what exactly it was about. He ended up presenting us with the flag and I was really excited, it made me even more excited for the game this weekend because we get to carry it out.”

When Anderson was asked what his response is for people who say athletes should not speak out on social injustices he stated, “That’s their on prerogative, they can think that if they want to but that’s not going to change, we’re speaking out louder now than we ever have and I don’t see that going away.” 

Anderson said he looks up to professional athletes like Colin Kapernick and Lebron James for utilizing their voice to make a change.

“It’s really just the platform of being an athlete,” Anderson said. “You get to reach more people, I’ve always felt like sports was the common ground that everyone shares and people will always listen to you on that platform. And I feel like it’s important to use that the right way.” 

This is Anderson’s last year in Oxford, but he knows the work isn’t done and hopes people in the community continue to make positive change. 

“The work isn’t really done for anybody,” Anderson said. “As these things continue to present themselves as they have, who’s going to step up to that plate and try to tackle these things head on.” 

There are many players like Anderson around the world who have used their platform in a positive way, without being scared of the backlash they could possibly receive. 

Social justice and sports has continued to collide and has formed a  reciprocal relationship. Athletes have used their platforms to raise awareness about issues of social justice, whether it be because of a personal experience or just simply to speak up on controversial issues. 

Their willingness to speak up has brought positive change and has proved that they are more than just an athlete.