First Study USA program connects students to the Mississippi Delta

March 30th, 2022

Group of students standing at the base of a statue of Fannie Lou Hamer
Students from Iowa State University and Langston University visited many historical sites in the Mississippi Delta, including the statue of Fannie Lou Hamer, who advocated voting and civil rights in the 1900s.

By Amber Friedrichsen

Exploring a new environment doesn’t necessarily require a passport or a trip overseas. The new Study USA Programs offered by Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences allow undergraduate students to earn academic credit while embarking on domestic travel within the U.S.

The inaugural Study USA program took students to the Mississippi Delta over spring break, and was led by Gail Carpenter, assistant teaching professor of animal science. Carpenter planned the inter-institutional trip with Nick Timmerman, assistant professor of history at Langston University, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in Langston, Oklahoma.

Students from both universities are enrolled in a semester-long course, which prepares them for the trip by studying the agriculture, history, and culture of the Mississippi Delta. On March 12, the two groups became one as they traveled south and spent the next week experiencing first-hand what they had discussed in the classroom.

“We were a culturally diverse group, as well as diverse in terms of students’ backgrounds,” Carpenter said. “It was an immersive trip, and we did service projects, toured farms and museums, and visited historical sites to learn about the region.”

On the first day, the group attended two church services: one at a predominately white Baptist church and another at a predominately Black Baptist church. Timmerman said he planned the church service attendance to be a sociological study that would expose students to different cultures that make up the Mississippi Delta.

The following day, students went to a fourth-generation vegetable farm where they observed sustainable farming practices and helped plant crops like broccoli, purple-hulled peas and collard greens. Gabby Hackley, junior in agronomy, said this time of year is prime planting season in the Mississippi Delta, and she enjoyed being a part of the process.

Group of students kneeling along a row of plants being planted in dirt
During their Study USA trip, the group of students visited a vegetable farm and learned how produce is marketed in the Mississippi Delta. They also volunteered to help plant crops in the farm’s greenhouse.

“It was a neat opportunity to get our hands in the dirt and help out,” Hackley said. “Vegetable production is a good market for some farmers to get into because they might not be able to compete with the main crop markets.”

Cotton, rice, corn and soybeans are major commodities in the Mississippi Delta; however, Hackley said Alcorn State University Extension is working to promote more niche crop production on small-scale operations. They are also finding ways for farmers who grow vegetables to sell their produce to wholesale stores like Kroger and Walmart.

Leah Mosher, senior in agriculture and society, also took part in the program. She said catfish production is another notable aspect of agriculture in the Mississippi Delta, and students met scientists at the Delta Research and Extension Center one day to learn more about the topic.

The Mississippi Delta was home to many events during the modern Civil Rights Movement, and racial and socioeconomical inequality is still a prominent issue today. This contributes to the region’s high rates of poverty and food insecurity.

“When the Mississippi Delta was founded, it was during a time of slavery,” Timmerman said. “Still to this day, the largest land-owners and the largest amounts of generational wealth are in the hands of white individuals. When you look at systemic poverty, there is a continuation of it in the Black community.”

To understand this disparity from a citizen’s perspective, students volunteered at the St. Gabriel Mercy Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and the St. Francis Community Center in Greenwood, Mississippi. At both locations, the group organized donated clothing and prepared food packages for people in need. Mosher said she appreciated the chance to interact with people the group met on their travels.

“Many of our service projects were centered around helping low-income families in the region,” Mosher said. “It felt really good to give back to a community that hosted us, and to folks who do not have as many resources as I do.”

In addition to serving the community, the group also had the chance to tour some historical sites, including the Civil Rights Museum and the courthouse where Emmet Till’s trial was held. Hackley said these stops held some symbolic moments, especially considering the diversity among the Iowa State and Langston students.

“We were all sitting with each other in the room that many years ago when Emmett Till’s trial took place, you would not see white people and Black people sitting together,” Hackley said. “It made me step back a little bit and realize what the trip was all about.”

At the end of the week, students from both universities parted ways and returned to their home campuses. In the second half of the semester, they’ll continue learning about the Mississippi Delta. Carpenter and Timmerman expect the travel portion of the course to be the most impactful.

“I saw a lot of growth in students while we were on the trip,” Carpenter said. “I hope students gained an appreciation for the fact that we aren’t a homogenous nation, and we have different cultures within the U.S. I hope they gained an appreciation for the different agronomic practices we have, too.”

Another Study USA opportunity

Applications are now open for Study USA: Field to Fork on the Prairie, which will take place Aug. 6-17. The deadline to apply is April 12.

Students will travel though parts of South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska to see the production of crops such as sugar beets, sunflowers, lentils and irrigated wheat. They will also visit a lock and dam and grain terminal on the Missouri River, and learn about rangeland management. Overall, the trip will provide insight on Native American culture and the agriculture of the northern Great Plains.

Students interested in this trip can contact program directors Mary Wiedenhoeft, Morrill Professor of agronomy (mwiedenh@iastate.edu), or Mark Licht, assistant professor of agronomy (lichtma@iastate.edu).