Harvard? Northwestern? Brown? Millsaps? Pomona?
Those are just a few of the colleges that will soon have students from South Mississippi on their steps. The Sun Herald sat down with six of them to talk about where they come from, and where they’re going.
Marie Konopacki of Hancock High School and Caroline Ko of Pascagoula High will be going to Harvard University in the fall; James “Finn” Hewes of Gulfport High will head to Northwestern University in Chicago; Daniel Garcia of Gulfport High will go to Pomona College in Los Angeles; and Vincent Almerico of St. Stanislaus College is headed to Brown University in Rhode Island. Madonna Fontenot of Bay High School will remain in Mississippi and attend Millsaps College in Jackson.
The six high-achieving Coast students have a wide array of options available to them. But all said they’re aware the world often has negative stereotypes of Mississippi. Precisely because of that, they said, they consider themselves state ambassadors.
Ko said during a recent visit to Harvard other students asked her thoughts about the Mississippi flag.
“That’s the first thing the other students brought up, the very first thing they wanted to know,” she said.
Almerico said he’s seen that reaction from people. “It’s definitely something people look to us to have an answer on. I think the flag is supposed to be something that people have a great source of pride on. But I also believe that if anyone in the state feels uncomfortable flying it in their front yard, I think there’s definitely a problem,” he said.
Konopacki said she’s also attuned to negative perceptions of Mississippi, especially given the recent controversy over the flag and Confederate symbolism and monuments.
“I would say mostly the stereotypes associated with the state aren’t really applicable where we live,” she said of the Coast. “I think that’s one thing to address, especially with people who aren’t from the South. What it’s really like, what it is. They have these notions despite the fact they’ve never come visited.”
“The one thing I really like about the Coast it that it doesn’t really fit into the Mississippi stereotype,” he said. “There are definitely some kind of aspects that aren’t ideal. But I think as far as Mississippi goes, the Coast is probably the most diverse in the state.”
He said he plans to pursue economics and Spanish in college. His goal is to play a role in helping Latin American countries be more environmentally friendly.
Garcia, although he visited Princeton and Stanford, said he was sold on Ponoma College, a private institution.
If he’s asked about Mississippi, he said, he’d be as honest as possible.
“I’d say I’m from Mississippi and it’s far from without fault,” he said. “It definitely has a lot of issues, racially, socially, culturally and politically.
“But if people focus only on its problems and not what it has to offer — such as its culture, its people, its music, its food, its arts, its industries — it’ll always be viewed as only a bad place. In reality, it’s changing. It’s not a static being.”
Will they come back?
Hewes said he’s fine with moving out of state. But returning isn’t at the top of his to-do list.
“I want to travel first. Maybe when I get older and settle down, but not right now.”
Garcia also said if he did return to the South after graduation, it would likely be to a more-urban setting such as New Orleans, where he feels more comfortable.
“I’ve always lived in other places that I’ve felt more comfortable in. Mississippi is not an option for me, really.”
Fontenot plans to major in philosophy at Millsaps and go into law.
She said she doesn’t have a firm fix on where she will be after graduation, but staying in the state wasn’t any more of a priority than leaving.
Ko and Konopacki said they plan to return to the Coast. Ko said she’d like to work in the public policy realm, possibly in environmental sciences.
Konopacki said she’s interested in politics, where she plans to focus on education.
All six said they did a lot of legwork in applying to schools and finding scholarships.
Services such as College Transitions cost more than other options but give one-on-one counseling and help with interviews and school selection.
Cappex is a free service that allows students to connect with colleges and see if the information they provide would meet the colleges’ requirements. It also has lists of scholarships.
“I’d also suggest looking into websites like College Confidential — a forum website where prospective and current students ask the important questions about admissions and beyond at elite schools,” Garcia said. And “Kiplinger, Unigo and CollegeXpress are all college-research websites that are great too.”