By Jacob Gambrell
Most college students did not grow up in their college town and many don’t even grow up in the state in which they attend college. The college town becomes a temporary home as many know they will more than likely be leaving that home after graduation. But is a temporary home any less valid than a permanent home, and how does that affect the ways in which someone can fully become a member of the community? I spoke with John Chappell, a junior year ΦBK inductee and a student leader at the University of Mississippi, about what home is and activism.
Chappell is an international studies and Arabic major originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was the president of College Dems at UMiss and the deputy director a MS Votes, a non-partisan voting rights organization. In addition, he was also part of a group of students who were instrumental in passing Associated Student Body legislation that called for the removal of the Confederate Monument from its central location in “The Circle” to a more peripheral location in the Confederate Cemetery.
When Chappell first arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, for his freshmen year in 2015, he found himself in a state of culture shock. “I felt less of a culture shock when my family would go on vacation in Mexico than when I first came to Mississippi” he said. As he went through the normal freshmen issues like trying to find his classrooms and figure out how to live on his own for the first time, the campus was thrown into a controversy. The Mississippi state flag still has the Confederate battle flag emblem in the top left corner. After the white supremacist shooting at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, the nation began a conversation about confederate symbolism. That fall, student legislators at UMiss proposed and passed legislation that removed the Mississippi state flag from campus until the Confederate battle flag was removed.
As an out-of-state student, Chappell did not feel like he had much of a stake and felt he should stick it out on the sidelines. Many out of state students at other universities echo this sentiment of feeling like outsiders in their community. However, his sophomore year he took a road trip with some fellow students to Atlanta and had the opportunity to meet President Jimmy Carter. After that trip, he realized he did not understand the South and that he could have a larger role in his community.
In his free time, he started reading about the counter narrative of resistances against injustice. He wondered “why is this not what were celebrating?” Once seeing himself as an outsider, Chappell began to become more involved with the Oxford community and Mississippi politics. He helped found MS Votes as a field director and eventually became deputy director. In this time, he also discovered a Mississippi state senate district’s racial gerrymandering violated the Voting Rights Act and along with other community leaders, filed a federal lawsuit to force its redistricting.
Finally, his senior year during the spring of 2019, Chappell along with five other UMiss students worked to research and then pass legislation in the Associate Student Body to relocate the Confederate Monument from its prominent location on campus. He now felt like he was a stakeholder in this community and he could help empower others. This shift is important. Instead of seeing oneself as the solution, it is important for student activists to seek to ally with and empower the local voices who will still be there after they leave. Even though Chappell is leaving to study at Georgetown University in the fall, because of the relationships he built, Oxford will always be his home. “I may not be from Mississippi, but I fully consider myself of Mississippi.”
Home is not just the place where you were born or grew up, home is the community in which you decide to be intentionally present and fight for what’s right. Out-of-state college students should not be shamed for being active in their community. It is their home as much as it is anyone else’s. Just because you are not “from” somewhere, does not mean you cannot be “of” somewhere.
Jacob Gambrell is a senior at the University of Mississippi majoring in international studies and Spanish. He was inducted into Phi Kappa Beta there in 2018. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.