Debra Taylor values strong connections. As executive director of the Columbus Housing Authority, Taylor ensures low-income families have access to safe, decent and sanitary housing in an environment that fosters self-sufficiency and community pride.
Taylor, who is from Starkville, experienced that community pride when she attended Mississippi University for Women from 1989-92. A family and human development major, Taylor also was a scholar-athlete on the women’s basketball team.
The W’s mission to serve the community is keeping its connection to Taylor, the city of Columbus and the Golden Triangle strong. Thanks to the Ina E. Gordy Honors College’s Summer Community Engagement Program, 12 students from The W assisted local nonprofit partners in a five-week program that began in May and ran through June 25.
The students, who are called Nancy Yates Fellows in recognition of W alumna Dr. Nancy Yates, were paired with non-profit partners in Columbus or Starkville and worked 32 hours a week. They also spent one day a week together as a cohort exploring the role of non-profits and engaging in leadership development.
“This program is valuable because having student interns and volunteers on a regular basis enabled the students to gain hands-on work experience, helped them mature and become better equipped and ready to enter the workforce – and ultimately gainfully employed in career-oriented jobs,” Taylor said. “The program also will help students decide if they are preparing for a job they will like. If not, they will know what career path to take.”
Santania Thompson worked with Taylor as a senior citizen activities coordinator. Taylor said Padasia Harden, who is from the family science program, also worked with her as a summer student intern. Thompson and Harden served elderly and youth residents and played valuable roles in her agency.
In addition to Thompson, Karina Garcia and Kaitlyn George (Boys & Girls Club of Columbus), Kaitlyn Lowe (Catch-A-Dream Foundation), Emma Beeler (Columbus Arts Council), Faith Langford (Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation), Shirli Salihaj (Columbus-Lowndes Habitat for Humanity), Kaitlyn Lewis (Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society), Ali Glasgow (Columbus-Lowndes Public Library), Charity James (The Salvation Army of Columbus), Katie Sumner (Sunshine Stables) and Chesne Joyner (YMCA) also participated in the program.
The W President Nora Miller said there are a number of reasons why it is important for The W to be fully engaged with the community.
“College graduates are more likely to vote and more likely to volunteer,” Miller said. “Community engagement opportunities provide our students with a model for future behavior. The Nancy Yates Fellows are able to expand on what they have learned in the classroom by applying this knowledge to real-life experiences. They are able to translate these experiences into relevant job skills that employers are seeking.
It is also important for our community to see the value that the university brings to the area by providing a future workforce, by providing programming and services and by contributing to the cultural enrichment of our community.”
Miller said the financial contribution of the Yates family was instrumental in helping to launch the Summer Community Engagement Program.
She said Nancy Yates has dedicated so much of her life to serving her community and her alma mater that it is fitting the 12 students were recognized as Nancy Yates Fellows.
“I am grateful for the opportunities this program provides for our students and for our community,” Miller said.
Dr. Kim Whitehead, director of the Ina E. Gordy Honors College, proposed the program last summer. She said the Gordy Honors College has long emphasized high-impact experiences outside the classroom and since 2018 has been matching students with local non-profits for community service. Anna Lee Fairley, who graduated from The W in 2019 and completed two terms with AmeriCorps in California, was the program mentor.
“Proposing this summer program was a natural outgrowth of the Honors College’s community engagement courses,” Whitehead said. “We had already seen how transformative these experiences are for our students and how much our students can offer to the community. Receiving the very generous gift to create the Fellowship and the program made it possible for more students to be involved and to have a much greater impact in the Golden Triangle.”
In addition to the work the students did to help build the capacity of their non-profit community partners, on Fridays they studied community issues, explored the value of service and leadership and planned and reflected on their projects with program faculty and mentors. Whitehead said the students had great stories to tell in the first few weeks and that the program was a transformative experience for everyone involved.
“The 12 Fellows were deeply invested in their on-site work with their community partners to the point that they worked weekend events and volunteered more hours than required,” Whitehead said. “They provided more than 1,800 hours of service to 11 community partners. It is clear they learned how vital non-profits are to building strong communities and what a difference they themselves can make.”
Garcia, a second-year nursing major from West Point, was born and raised in Mexico up until she was eight. She then migrated to the United States with her parents and siblings. She has worked with children as a catechist at her local church, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in West Point, and enjoys seeing them grow by her side.
At the Boys & Girls Club of Columbus, Garcia assisted a teacher with her fourth- and fifth-grade class. She learned to be more patient with and understanding of the needs of children, and feels that knowledge will prepare her for working with patients in health care.
“It requires a lot of energy and enthusiasm to actively engage with the children and motivate them to reach their full potential,” Garcia said. “It is extremely rewarding because I get to build strong relationships with students while I support their dreams and goals.”
This was the first time Beeler, who is from Northport, Alabama, worked with a non-profit organization. She also said it was her first experience with a program like the Yates Fellowship, although she had some experience with Arts Councils through other means of student involvement.
Beeler said her pairing with the Columbus Arts Council was a great fit in part because she was involved with everything from the monthly gallery exhibits to the promotion and support of arts education in the Columbus area. She learned about the behind-the-scenes working of staging a gallery, writing grants and planning future exhibits and events.
Beeler said all of those things are in line with her abilities and interests and what she hopes to pursue in future career opportunities.
“I think the program benefits The W, in part, because it gets students involved outside of campus,” Beeler said. “For students like me, who may not be from the Columbus area, this program could create connections and partnerships that will prove beneficial in the long run. My partnership with the Arts Council provided experiences I will draw on after I graduate.”
Taylor said the Ina E. Gordy Honors College’s Summer Community Engagement Program was successful because it was built on mutual agreements that acknowledge and respect the expertise and experience of each community partner. She said she looks forward to strengthening the connection between The W and the community in the future.
“The Columbus Housing Authority and The W are integral parts of the same community,” Taylor said.
“Working together allows for us to share resources and to share in the rewards of the program.”
The 2022 program will be open to rising sophomores, juniors and seniors. Students can propose non-profit areas they are most interested in when they apply. Fellows will be matched with community partners from the program’s roster.
To apply, students must meet academic requirements and write a proposal explaining their goals for their community engagement and the skills they wish to offer and further develop in their placement with a community partner.
In Focus: The W's Strategic Priorities
The University's Priorities:
Pillars of Purpose: Priorities 2021
In Fall 2021, a task force of 25 people from throughout the campus community revised the university's strategic plan, guiding The W for the next five years.
A United Liberal Arts Voice
University Challenges Donors to 'Be The Light'
A Summer of Enrichment
Building a Bridge
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion:
DEI Council Committed to Change
Mise en Place
The full plan can be found at www.muw.edu/priorities.