English Kids in America by Lower Than Atlantis was on repeat on my iPod during the flight to Atlanta and then to Memphis also…along with some pop punk music by State Champs and The Story So Far. With some Mamas and Papas to finish off, I was ready for the year of my life!
My main reasons for choosing the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and what I’ve experienced so far revolve around history, food, travel opportunities and sport!
So without further ado, the location of the university; in a town called Oxford (no resemblance to the one back in England), is very rural and after much exploration so far I would definitely describe it as smalltown America, raw America. With the freedom to travel anywhere; the vast, open, wide roads (although I’m still not used to being a passenger in a vehicle that travels in the right-hand lane), the wacky signs and the southern hospitality that I have been a victim to, it is just what I hoped to experience this year. For example, on my first day at college I had no idea where I was going for orientation. I had a map but my skills at map reading have never been any good–scouts and cubs was only fun when we had to locate something!–a random woman approached me, asked me if I needed any help and proceeded to show me the way. Also, random people often say ‘hi’ and ‘hey’ to me. This was less of a culture shock and more of a culture surprise. Southern hospitality really makes you feel immediately like a part of the surroundings, like you have lived in Oxford, Mississippi for years.
The fundamental reason for choosing Ole Miss though, was the history factor. On campus there is a statue to commemorate James Meredith; the first African-American to enter the University back in 1962, despite outcries from segregationists. President John F. Kennedy even got involved, calling for the university to admit Meredith. Built back in 1848, the university therefore, has a rich history.
The American College football scene was also a big draw. The university favours the sport hugely and the Ole Miss Rebels attract massive crowds – with an average of at least fifty thousand! Obviously this means the Tailgating experience was one I could not turn down. When there is a home game many tents gather around, offering free food this delivers an amazing atmosphere – Katy Perry even made an appearance last season! I actually experienced my first American football game on Saturday 5th September with Ole Miss playing UT Martin. It was a blistering hot day, reaching roughly thirty-five degrees…but that didn’t stop me from staying the whole game. The Grove at Ole Miss is where the Tailgating happens, basically a green area full of trees, is transformed into a jungle full of tents where people sell their own food and drink. The final score was 76-3, an absolute demolition of the opposition from Ole Miss! The whole atmosphere was amazing and I love how seriously college football is taken. I can’t even begin to count the many times I heard the Hotty Totty chant ““ARE YOU READY? HELL YEAH! DAMN RIGHT! HOTTY TODDY! GOSH ALMIGHTY, WHO THE HELL ARE WE, HEY! FLIM FLAM BIM BAM, OLE MISS, BY DAMN!”
The next reason has to be the food. There are many places that I don’t have the chance to experience back in the UK such as Chick Fil-A and Taco Bell. Root beer is also a new experience for me. I’m certain that my jeans are shrinking…that’s what I keep telling myself anyway! The Square in Oxford is also full of bars and restaurants that I’ve only experienced at night so far. Back to food though, ‘Ajax’ on campus serves everything southern and I just had to try it. Fried catfish with cornbread is one example of the local delicacies on offer and officially my favourite Southern dish – despite many contenders! Many of the bars also show sports on TV, allowing me to keep up with the ‘Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball team and ‘Jacksonville Jaguars’ NFL team. A nearby American version of Asda, Walmart, is chocked full of yummy food items to buy too. I have developed a craving for Twinkies, a soft spongy candy bar filled with cream. Yes, the sugar rating is somewhat quite high but I do highly recommend it, very addictive! I’ve also bought a big box of frozen catfish nuggets. Rubbed in flour, breadcrumbs and fried, not forgetting some Louisiana hot sauce and some jalapenos…it was extremely spicy.
Following on with this food theme, one night some of us went into the Square and tried a place called ‘The Blind Pig’. After getting our menus I saw the most expensive sandwich, a New York Reuben. Comprising of layers of corned beef, swiss cheese, lettuce (suppose you’ve got to be healthy) with some sauerkraut, the sandwich never seemed to get any smaller when I attempted to eat it! It felt a bit like I was a contender on Man v Food, with Adam Richmond about to appear any second. After reaching the three quarters mark though, I had to wave the white flag and save some for tomorrow; at least lunch was sorted the next day.
Moving on from my stomach…the amount of wildlife just outside my room at the university trails is incredible. Ranging from a Groundhog, a beaver-type rodent which appears often to investigate what’s going on, Blue Jays and Cardinals have also perched close to my window; the vivid colours of these birds make them even more fascinating to look at.
Studying at Ole Miss also means I can travel the South. Recently I was lucky enough to make it to New Orleans, the city was absolutely stunning! We stayed at the Westin Hotel within the French Quarter with an unbelievable view. Arriving at the hotel around 11pm we headed out into Bourbon Street. It was in one word, mental! We walked past loads of bars, clubs, souvenir and clothes shops and were bombarded with sights of people in costumes, blaring music, and street performers. The next evening was even more hectic as fans from both Florida Gators and Louisiana State Tigers (LSU) came to Bourbon Street, but LSU had bragging rights from the win. As we made our way onto the Street, Mardi Gras beads were thrown from balconies and the costumes were back. Neon lights from each bar and club also helped light the night…it’s fair to say night-life in New Orleans is pretty top notch.
During the day we went to have breakfast at a place called ‘River’s Edge.’ I chose the shrimp omelette with grits (I promised myself I would try Southern grits, basically corn porridge) and after indulging ourselves, we went to the World War Two Museum…supposedly one of the best in the world. A short film about the fighting within WWII narrated by Tom Hanks called ‘Beyond all Boundaries’ was my first experience at seeing a film in 4D. During the movie on some occasions the chairs started to shake as explosions happened and a piece of a plane was even lowered and attached to the screen to demonstrate the aerial battles between the Americans and the Japanese! After the film we saw a number of WWII weapons, planes, tanks, artefacts and documents. New Orleans was basically everything rolled into one place…I would love to go back there again.
A week after returning from Nola (New Orleans) there was a debate over the universities flag. This consisted of whether or not to remove it from campus as the flag (also the state flag) contains the symbol of the Confederacy. This is certainly a move by the student union that will go down in history, along with the removal of the Ole Miss plantation owner mascot a few years earlier, demonstrating the universities intent to modernise.
Unless you were in any doubt, my decision to study abroad in Mississippi has been the best choice I have ever made. If you want the traditional college experience, Ole Miss really is just a representation of the stereotypical American college life that you see in the movies…really big on their Greek Life for example! I can’t wait to see what else this unbelievable place has to offer as this amazing experience just keeps on giving!
Cameron Sparkhall, AMA (BA American Studies)