The evolution of Ellen Ann Fentress’ work continues.

A project that originally started as essays about segregation academies in the state of Mississippi has changed names to include stories from public schools. The revamped website, which is called “The Admissions Project: Race and the Possible for Southern Schools,” has been featured recently on The Community Foundation for Mississippi. The foundation is the fiscal agent for the project, a 501c3 nonprofit.

Fentress, a visiting professor in the Mississippi University for Women’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, also has started work on a three-episode podcast of polished audio documentaries in the style of “This American Life,” an American weekly hour-long public radio program. Fentress has taken three reporting trips this summer to the Heidelberg, Mississippi, area to begin work on the podcasts with the support of Robert Anderson and Marshand Boone, project contributors who are lending crucial time and skill to the nonprofit.

“With so much culture wars conversation about writing on race, the project is a vote for the power of hard truth telling,” said Fentress, who is seeking grass-roots support to keep the project operating. A $7,500 grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council that allowed Fentress to launch the project under its original title, “The Academy Stories,” in October 2019 recently expired.

The project is special for Fentress, whose mother graduated from The W and whose grandmother and great grandmother also attended the school, in part because she graduated from Pillow Academy in Greenwood in 1974. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages from Mississippi College in 1978 and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College in 2008.

“No one really wants to tell the stories because it is not a proud story, but they need to be recorded for history,” said Fentress, who first wrote about her experiences at Pillow Academy in an essay in the online publication “The Bitter Southerner.” She said she recently noticed at least one college syllabus (from Trinity College in Connecticut) assigning reading from “The Admissions Project.”

Fentress isn’t The W’s only tie to “The Admissions Project.” Faculty members Paulette Boudreaux and Bridget Smith Pieschel have shared their stories on the website as have MFA students and alumni like Teresa Nicholas (current student) and MFA alums Jackie Clowney and Courtney Clark.

Fentress said Clowney only realized her alma mater had been founded as a way to flee Memphis school integration after she heard her presentation on the history project during our 2020 MFA residency.

Clark’s story was cited in “Southern Beauty,” a southern history study released by University of Georgia Press on Aug. 15. After her site essay appeared, she talked about the experience and about taking part in “The Admissions Project” on Delta Talk by David Dallas, a radio and online interview program. 

Also, MFA alum Kyla Hanington organized and appeared in webcasts about “The Admissions Project” co-sponsored by the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Memorial Library and the county’s Human Relations Commission. Boudreaux talked about her essay as a guest on the April 2021 webcast.

The Mississippi Free Press has partnered with “The Admissions Project” by presenting a portal to the project on its home page. There have also been programs at Delta State University, at the 2022 Southern Literary Festival at The W in April and at the past two years’ McMullan Young Writers Workshop, which brings high school writers together for a week-long residency every July at Millsaps College. 

Fentress said a date hasn’t been set for the release of the podcast. She welcomes financial support to help defray travel and technical expenses and encourages grant makers or grass-roots supporters who find resonance with the project to aid in her efforts to capture pieces of avoided history she feels will enable everyone to take important steps toward a healthier future.

“The story keeps evolving,” Fentress said. “I can’t help but think bringing this conversation into the light instead of continuing to suppress it — because it hasn’t been talked about for 50 years — is going to help. I hope the website is not just a confessional. It is designed to have a constructive conversation and to see where it goes. The first step is to tell these stories.”

Fentress encourages anyone who wants to tell their academy or public-school story to go to:

If you would like to donate to the project, go to:

COLUMBUS, Miss.– The struggles weren’t real to Jazmin Roman.

Jazmin Roman

As one of the top students in her class at Forest High School, Roman didn’t grasp how much some of her English Learner (EL) classmates struggled to complete their work.

It wasn’t until Roman participated in the Spanish Service-Learning Internship at Mississippi University for Women that she realized how hard it was for students who couldn’t speak, read or write in English to keep up with their peers.

“My internship with the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District (SOCSD) really opened my eyes to the challenges many EL students face,” Roman said.

Not only did the internship open Roman’s eyes, but it also helped her take the next steps in her career. After she earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish (minor in Health Education) from The W, Roman took a job as an EL interventionist in the SOCSD. That position paved the way for her to take a job as an English as a Second Language (ESL) and a Spanish teacher at Forest High. Roman said she wouldn’t have been able to return to her roots if it wasn’t for the internship through The W.

“I worked with several students in fifth grade through high school,” said Roman, who was a member of the women’s soccer team at The W and is pursuing her master’s degree at the school. “I mostly went to Starkville High because there were four students who couldn’t read, speak or write in English to complete any of their school work. I helped them complete daily assignments while trying to teach them English.”

She used her Spanish skills to explain the assignments to the students and then helped them translate the answers to English. She said the experience helped her understand how to manage her time and to break schoolwork down into more understandable pieces.

Roman said the internship allowed her to transition easily into her role as EL interventionist. She said that work was a “great experience” and that she learned so much and increased her interest in helping students.

Dr. Reyna Vergara, an assistant professor of Spanish at The W, said the first priority in the Spanish program is to send students abroad because it provides them with full immersion in the language and culture. Given COVID and other hardships or responsibilities some students are encountering, the class needed alternative to the study-abroad experience for the Spanish major and the Spanish Education K-12 Certification requirement. As a result, in the spring of 2020, Vergara started teaching the internship as a special topic to explore the possibility of developing it into a new course. The course features 120 hours divided between theory and practice, and its enrollment has grown each year since inception.

“I have seen the internship evolve in very positive ways,” Vergara said. “This past spring, all three interns had another major. Two of them were double-majors and one was a minor who got accepted in the school of nursing that semester. It gave me great pleasure to see the interest that these interns had not only in serving the communities of Spanish-speaking descent presently, wherever there was a need, but also in their future careers. They wanted to learn terminology and be able to communicate in Spanish in their respective fields.”

Vergara said Roman was a “hands-on intern” who was aware and engaged with her surroundings and who helped co-workers and acquaintances by translating or advocating for them. She said Roman also tutored Spanish-speaking children in Columbus and after graduating worked as a direct supervisor for Sarah Grace Evans, the second intern from The W placed with SOCSD.

“We want our graduates, whether majors or minors, to be competitive in the job market and to provide valuable services to underrepresented members of their respective communities,” Vergara said. “At the end of her internship, Jazmin said one thing that stood out to me. She said she was ‘excited to get more active in the community.’ I know this internship can take some students out of their comfort zone, but as it was in her case, it also can awaken them to a new purpose.”   

Robert Brown, EL student services coordinator for the SOCSD, said all of the feedback about the interns and their work has been unanimously positive. He said all of the students have enjoyed working with the interns and their time together has helped them feel more welcomed and connected to the school.

“The internships are important to the students who are receiving help, but they’re also important to the teachers in the buildings where the interns are placed,” Brown said. “When an EL student has had academic difficulties in a teacher’s class, the teachers have worked with the interns to help these struggling students via more focused, individualized instruction. With the number of EL students nationwide growing every year, it’s difficult for individual districts to provide all the services to these students that we are required to supply. The interns from The W have excelled at helping us meet this ever-growing need.”

Roman plans to keep teaching for as long as she can so she can help as many EL students realize they can have a bright future if they do well in school.

“I would recommend other students to get involved with the internship program because it is an opportunity to grow and learn,” Roman said. “It is an experience that will help them see a different side in education.”

Students with questions about the Spanish Service-Learning Internship or the Spanish program can contact Dr. Vergara at​.

Aug. 23, 2022
Contact: Adam Minichino
(662) 329-1976