As the minority student population of Ole Miss grows — 5.4 percent over the last decade, according to enrollment data from the Office of Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Planning — the Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement (CICCE) has expanded its programs and support for students of color on campus.
Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent Conference, also known as MOST, is one of the CICCE’s most successful programs. Since the department adopted the conference in 2015 from administrators in the Division of Student Affairs, nearly 2,000 students of color have gone through this mentoring program.
For three days, hundreds of rising high school seniors participate in leadership activities on campus and receive a peer mentor. Students also receive room and board and experience the Ole Miss campus, free of charge.
Candace Bolden, a sophomore biochemical engineering major, said that MOST and UM CONNECT, another mentorship program offered to freshmen of color, eased the apprehensions she had before attending a university with a strong racial history.
“I thought it was awesome that (MOST and UM CONNECT) targeted some of the fears that I had for the university,” Bolden said. “I had a lot of questions. Some were answered, and some weren’t. Some of them I’m still trying to answer.”
To Bolden, MOST enabled her to become the leader that she wanted to be despite the university’s history of racial turmoil. Along with MOST, Bolden said her mother inspired her to become a trailblazer at Ole Miss.
“We know James Meredith integrated Ole Miss in 1962, but that was one man. It took class after class after class of African-Americans to pave opportunity, perseverance, and it took everything that they had,” she said. “It took several classes of them for me to be able to get the same opportunity (as white students.) (Without MOST,) I wouldn’t have given the university an opportunity to speak to me.”
Bolden said that the conference is not only something that tries to connect minority students with Ole Miss, but it also gives them a support system as they navigate through their college experiences.
“(The CICCE) wants to create something that pulls everyone together,” she said. “They say that someone is going to be there to hold your hand and be there to stand beside you, give you direction, and then send you out. That’s what the Center for Inclusion does.”
After the conference, attendees have the opportunity to mentor the next year’s group and continue connecting with other students of color. Chelsea Harris, a sophomore integrated marketing communications major, said she returned to the MOST Conference as a mentor after her own mentor had helped her transition from high school to college.
“Many black high schoolers feel intimidated by Ole Miss, so it helps to have a mentor that looks like you,” Harris said. “My mentees see me, a black female at Ole Miss, and see that it is a school (where) they can attend and excel.”
Alexandria White, director of the CICCE, said that the department and its programs provide a network to expand the diversity of Ole Miss.
“Through open and ongoing communication, this department connects and engages students for a multicultural society,” White said. “In addition, we aid in the growth and retention of underrepresented students. The MOST conference is a program that helps the University of Mississippi attract Mississippians to this wonderful institution of higher learning.”
In addition to the MOST conference, White said the CICCE has invested in new programs aimed at increasing the retention of African-American men at Ole Miss.
The Brother2Brother Leadership Retreat debuted last year. It aims to provide a forum for men of color on campus to discuss social and academic responsibilities of a four-year university. This year’s retreat will take place Nov. 3 in Bryant Hall.
The introduction of diversity chairs in Ole Miss’ administration has also added to the initiative of encouraging diversity on campus by allowing these administrators to collaborate with the CICCE.
Kirsten Dellinger, associate dean for diversity and inclusion for the College of Liberal Arts, said these positions work to keep Ole Miss a place where minority groups feel safe and supported.
“As human beings, we thrive in spaces that are inclusive and welcoming, where we feel safe and where our ideas are valued and can be debated, discussed and refined,” she said. “And it is the mission of the University of Mississippi to serve the people of the state of Mississippi and beyond. That means all of the people, not just some of the people.”
Dellinger also said that since moving into her position this August, the College of Liberal Arts has paid close attention to the diversity of not just students but of faculty and staff, as well.
“The college’s commitment to this new role is an indication that we are committed to paying attention to all aspects of diversity and inclusion,” Dellinger said. “One of my areas of focus will be on providing support and best practices for chairs and directors in the college who are seeking to expand the diversity of their faculty and to create department climates that are conducive to faculty and student retention and well-being.”