- by Joe Kerry
When I first arrived in Mississippi, I was struck by the famous ‘Southern Hospitality’ that the state is known for – walking from the hotel, suitcase and guitar in hand, no less than three people stopped by me in their cars and offered me a ride. People are friendly to a fault here. I managed to get a job at the Starbucks in the Ole Miss library, thanks to my J-1 visa. My Yorkshire accent has meant explaining to excitable American customers that, no, I’m not from Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa – I told one poor girl I was French, and she believed me – but I’ve met some great people through working there, and I’ve learned that the people here are genuinely excited to have an international student amongst them.
I live on off-campus accommodation at University Trails. It’s cheaper than living in Selly Oak, and has a free gym and a swimming pool. Most of the international students live with other internationals, but I ended up living with three American law graduates: one from Alabama, the other two from Mississippi. Sometimes, I feel a little like the odd-one-out – they’re graduate students, they’re religious, and we position ourselves at the opposite end of the political spectrum in some respects – but they’re all great guys, and it has been fascinating and eye-opening to talk to and live with people who are so different to me.
The university’s American Football culture is fantastic. For every home game on a Saturday, students and locals alike head to the Grove in their thousands and take part in ‘tail-gating’ – the beautiful, green heart of the campus fills up with colourful tents, and even more colourfully dressed Ole Miss fans, who are more than happy to offer you a beer in a red cup, or a plate of delicious Southern food like fried catfish. I’ve watched the Ole Miss Rebels defeat Central Arkansas and get crushed by the University of Texas, and both times the 60,000-strong crowd has never relented in its chanting of the team’s ‘Hotty Toddy’ rallying cry.
The great thing about being in America, in any of the states, is the prospect of travelling and experiencing new things. Oxford is close to Mississippi’s border with Tennessee: the international students travelled up there to visit Graceland, Elvis’ mancave-come-mansion. Last weekend, we travelled up to Memphis again, stopping on the way to see the mighty Mississippi River, and spending the day exploring Beale Street, the blues Mecca of America: we finished the trip by watching the Memphis Grizzlies extinguish Lebron James‘ Miami Heat. Me and my fellow ACS student, Sophie Hay, will soon be piling into my American friend’s tiny car with two other international students and heading to New Orleans, Louisiana, and then onto Mobile, Alabama for Thanksgiving break. It’s also relatively cheap to fly between states. Last month, I flew out to visit my girlfriend Nula, who is studying at Pitzer College in California. I went from having a coffee in a small town in the South, to walking down Hollywood Boulevard in the space of 3 days!
Oxford is a small college town, so there’s nothing like Gatecrasher (thank God) or Snobs to be found anywhere, but the bar scene is fantastic – the Square comes to life on a weekend. The music scene here is great, too. From indie to alternative, back to country and blues, there’s guaranteed to be live music on the Square on any given night. I regularly play guitar with local musicians at open mic-nights. Mississipi is of course one of the birthplaces of the blues – B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker were all born here – and I’ve even played the blues at a bar on the Square with one of my lecturers, the respected harmonica player and blues scholar, Dr. Adam Gussow.
The University of Mississippi has a real claim to being cemented firmly in American history. Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union, hot on the heels of South Carolina. Its entire student body volunteered to fight for the Confederacy: the University Grays, as they came to be known, had a 100% mortality rate. The Lyceum Building on campus was used as hospital during the War – a hundred years later, the building would feel the bullets of federal troops and angry locals during the infamous riot of 1962, when James Meredith, an African American, was integrated into the university. Early in the semester, I got to see James Meredith speak at a book signing, and I feel lucky to have seen a living, breathing figure of Civil Rights history in the flesh. The university is celebrating the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s integration, but the ghosts of the past still haunt the university. Mississippi is traditionally a Republican stronghold; disappointment and political protest was to be expected from Romney’s supporters after Obama’s re-election. However, some took it too far. There were reports of a small number of students burning Obama-Biden signs, chanting ‘the South will rise again’ and even making racial slurs at students on campus. Media reports of a riot on campus were hugely exaggerated, and there was a candlelit anti-racism vigil outside the Lyceum the next day, where student turned up in their hundreds in response to the ignorance of a few. Still, the shockwaves of America’s dark past are still felt today on the grounds of Ole Miss.
One of the reasons why I chose to study here is that I thought Mississippi would be a whole world away from my second home of Birmingham, and even further away from my native Yorkshire. I was more right than I could possibly imagine. During my time at Mississippi, and in America as a whole, I’ve done and seen things that I’ll never forget. Some things have been new and exciting; others have been enlightening for both good and bad reasons. I may be ready for home right now, but I know that come January, I’ll be eager to get back on a plane out to Mississippi and have another amazing semester.
Joe Kerry is a student reading English Literature and American and Canadian Studies and is studying for his year abroad at the University of Mississippi.