Reflecting on SYI’19

2019 Cohort

Written by Amara Johnson, SYI’19 Mentor

In 2019, I returned to Millsaps College, not as a student but as a mentor for the Summer Youth Institute. I was a fresh graduate–not even a month had passed since I walked across the stage–and my return to campus felt like coming home. 

I arrived at the mentorship training, held two days before the students came to campus, to check in and meet the other mentors (there were nine of us in total). We sat in a circle, and instead of the lecture I was expecting, we had a conversation. 

One at a time, we discussed our expectations for the week, and reviewed guideposts for supporting the students once they arrived. By the end of our training, I felt like I was part of a team, and was excited about the days ahead. 

Amara (far right, back row) poses with the other SYI mentors at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden.

Once the students arrived, I quickly realized just how much community and conversation centered everything we did. Each day, after breakfast, we’d meet in a circle to check in, review the day, and give space for both students and mentors to share their thoughts. We repeated the same practice at the end of the day, just before the students turned in for the night. The discussion circle, and the time and space it signified, became more and more important as the program went on.

Over the course of the program, we guided students through team-building exercises, visited museums, and toured across the state visiting historical sites in Neshoba County and the Mississippi Delta. At every point we practiced our ability to hold space for open dialogue, vulnerability, and trust. 

SYI showed me that discussions really are where lessons are learned—especially when talking about Mississippi’s history. Visiting some historical sites, such as the place in Philadelphia, MS, where the Freedom Summer murders occurred, definitely inspired feelings of outrage and sadness that needed to be discussed. 

The discussion circles, and the guideposts, helped that happen. Helped students (and mentors) really acknowledge their feelings in a way that didn’t prevent them from seeing how the lessons from the past can be used to build a better future. SYI taught me that while Mississippi’s history is difficult, and painful at times, we should not avoid engaging with it. I also learned that leaders and mentors come in all forms. 

As a self-declared introvert, I understood all too well the fear that comes with raising questions or starting conversations. Being a mentor not only helped me push past those hesitations, but also helped me show students how to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and see the importance and value of using their voice. 

At the end of the program, after each student presented their community plan and left campus, we met in a circle, just like on the first day. This time, we were in the Academic Complex (the “A.C.” for my fellow Millsapians), in the lecture hall, where I had spent many days as a student. We had a conversation — about the past ten days, about what we learned, and where we’d go from here. 

I felt sad knowing that another chapter in my life was closing, but hopeful at the same time. I had already learned so much. And anyway, it was only the second week of June. It was only my first month post-graduation. The summer, and my life as an adult, were just beginning. 

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