Returning to What Matters Most
One of the more recent traditions of UMMC is the School of Medicine's annual Barksdale Scholars luncheon. Each year in January we invite the current class of scholars to meet members of the Barksdale family, including Donna and Jim Barksdale, who have so generously supported medical student scholarships since they were established in 1999.
The scholarships were created by Jim Barksdale and his late wife, Sally McDonnell Barksdale, in tribute to the physicians in their family. Over the years, these full medical school scholarships have allowed us to keep some of the best and brightest students, and especially many underrepresented minority students, in the state as medical trainees and future practitioners. Since their inception, the scholarships have benefitted 75 recipients and, through a service commitment, have had a profound influence on our ability to retain outstanding young physicians for Mississippi.
It's customary at these luncheons for one of the scholars to offer remarks about his or her background and what the scholarship has meant. At this year's event, that honor fell to Hadley Pearson, a third-year medical student. I'll let Hadley take it from here:
“My first introduction to the Barksdale name was actually my senior year of high school, back in 2010. I grew up in Olive Branch, a town in the northwest corner of Mississippi, and had spent my entire life in the South. Like many seniors, I was trying to decide where to go to college, and the idea of staying close to home at an in-state school was not appealing. I wanted to travel to new and exciting places, meet the best and brightest. I didn't think that Mississippi could give me that. I thought that the state was stagnant and close-minded, mired in the past. I bought into the stereotypes about us. The plan was to apply at Ole Miss as my safety, get accepted somewhere else far, far away from home, and only really come back to Mississippi for the holidays.
“Well, the Barksdales changed all of that. When I went to tour Ole Miss, I fell in love with the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, which promised small classes and an emphasis on service, community, as well as personal growth. Even with acceptances from other colleges outside of the South, I felt drawn to Ole Miss. I'd found a place where brilliant people were gathered together in a supportive environment, and encouraged to discuss and explore ideas. Quite frankly, I didn't know that I could find that in Mississippi. When I was offered the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Scholarship, that cinched it. I decided that the best place for me was actually in-state. Throughout my four years there, the Honors College provided me with incredible classes headed by engaged, caring teachers, friendships and connections with brilliant people, and even funded academic trips to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Mexico. Far more experience and travel than I could ever hope to achieve on my own.
“By the time I decided to go to medical school, my affection for Mississippi had grown immensely. Staying no longer felt like a sacrifice, or a chore. I saw UMMC as an exciting place where I could flourish and get a competitive education. I was so confident that I actually applied early decision here, which means I only applied to UMMC, with a promise to attend if they'd take me. After my acceptance, I was shocked to receive a second letter with a familiar name on it. I'd been offered the Jim and Donna Barksdale Scholarship, which I happily accepted.
“With as much as the Barksdales have given me, I feel like an ungrateful grandchild. They've funded my entire education, and have afforded me the very rare privilege of not being burdened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. Though I had some money set aside for college tuition, it certainly would not have covered all of this schooling. Thanks to the Barksdales, that money is actually now going towards education for my four younger siblings: two Mississippi boys and two adopted Ethiopian children. It's incredible what an impact the Barksdales make; how far-reaching their gifts become. And so far, all that I've done for them is make them cookies once. They were good cookies, but it doesn't really feel like enough…
“In fact, I admire the Barksdales not only for their seemingly limitless generosity to me, but for their remarkable faith in this state. Loving Mississippi is hard. Too frequently we find ourselves with dubious claims to fame in national statistics, and it's frustrating when progress seems so hard-won and plodding. It would be a lot easier for them to throw up their hands, give up, and buy an island. But that's not what they do. They love the state, and the people who live here. They've shown me how much there is to love here, how the people here are good, kind, and smart. Their patronage of Mississippi proves how much we can flourish and grow when we're just given a few more opportunities and resources, like the ones the Barksdales are so dedicated to providing.
“The Barksdales want better for this state, and they know that we can do better. I can't ever repay them monetarily for the opportunities that they've given me, or my family. And I know that they wouldn't want me to. I know that, more than anything else, what would make them happy and proud would be for me to keep faith in Mississippi, and do everything in my power to elevate this state; to serve the people of Mississippi, and make their lives better through my work. They think this state is worth fighting for, and I hope I can make them proud by doing just that.”
One of the benefits of working in higher education is the opportunity it affords us to be around young people who remind us - amid the distractions, disappointments and challenges - what it is that we truly are about. What matters most. What makes it all worthwhile.
I was so moved by what Hadley said that day; it seems to resonate even more today. Over the next few weeks, I'll return to this theme of what matters most - our missions of education, research and patient care, our commitment to diversity and inclusion - and how we will use this core of who we are to propel us toward our goals.
I'm grateful for Hadley and for all our amazing students. For their optimism, their idealism and their passion to make a difference. And I'm grateful for the Barksdale family, our friends Donna and Jim Barksdale, for all they do for UMMC and our state, for leading by example, and for investing in these young people - our tomorrow - and A Healthier Mississippi.