Although he is only 30-years-old, Kenneth Townsend has a resume that would be the envy of most young professionals.
Recently, Townsend added a new title and position - one that meant a return to his home state and his first college alma mater, Millsaps College. In August, Townsend became special assistant to Millsaps President Dr. Robert Pearigen, and assistant professor of political science.
The Kosciusko native was considering a lucrative offer from a Washington, D.C., law firm when Pearigen approached him about a position that would combine teaching and administration. "Once I thought about coming home to Mississippi and to Millsaps, it was hard to think about anything else," he said. "I realized this state and this college are a part of who I am."
As a high school student, Townsend was attracted to Millsaps because of the College's relationship with the United Methodist Church, its founding body, and its reputation for being intellectually open while having a vibrant atmosphere. "I was satisfied more than I could ever imagine," he said. A Truman Scholar and Ford Foundation fellow, he was elected student body president, was a leader in many campus organizations, played four intramural sports, and was co-chair of the Campus Ministry Team.
"Millsaps allowed me to be close to the people and places that made me who I am while also opening up the world and encouraging me to explore new ideas and new opportunities," he said. "From my first day at Millsaps, I loved the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. We were learning not just fact and figures, but how different fields of study were connected. That is what a liberal arts education is all about."
The small classes also provided ample opportunity for one-on-one conversations and mentoring by faculty members. "I had regular conversations with faculty," he said, a practice that he values and is emulating as an assistant professor.
His former professors have welcomed his return to campus. "Kenneth was a very keen and mature student in my social and political philosophy class, so it seems entirely natural and pleases me to no end to have him back as a colleague," said Dr. Steven Smith, professor of philosophy and religious studies at Millsaps.
"Perhaps no one was more thrilled at the prospect of Kenneth returning to Millsaps than I was," said Dr. Iren Omo-Bare, chair of the Political Science Department. "Kenneth was a Ford Fellow teaching associate in my American Government courses. I was quite impressed with his ability to communicate with and command the attention of the class. Kenneth's successes after Millsaps suggest to students that they have made the correct choice in coming here."
Along with teaching constitutional law and political theory, Townsend serves on the College's cabinet and executive staff in his role as special assistant to the president. He represents the president, when requested, on and off campus, helps to oversee the development and implementation of the College's strategic plan, and is the College's liaison and advocate in church and community relations.
"Millsaps is committed to connecting with the people closest to us as well as expanding international learning opportunities for our students," he said. "The theme of our strategic plan - 'Across the Street and Around the Globe' - reflects that goal. We want to provide every student an opportunity to participate in intercultural experiences globally and locally."
Already, he has organized visits to the campus by several statewide elected officials. On January 8, 2013, the Jackson City Council will conduct a meeting at Millsaps. The College is extending a special invitation to students and community to be a part of this meeting - the first time that the Jackson City Council has conducted a business meeting away from the City Hall. "We are reaching out to the broader community while bringing the community to us," Townsend explained.
As a participant in the 2012-2013 Leadership Greater Jackson Program and the Jackson Young Lawyers Association, he is looking forward to enhancing partnerships between Millsaps and local service organizations. "Millsaps students are a lot more engaged in the community than even just a few years ago when I was a student in the early 2000s," he said. "I'm excited about these developments and look forward to playing a part in future efforts." His wife, Ann Phelps, whom he met at Yale Divinity School, oversees and manages the College's community engagement projects through the 1 Campus, 1 Community initiative.
Townsend also knows firsthand the value of international study. As the most recent of Millsaps' five Rhodes Scholars, he earned a master's degree in political theory at Oxford University in England. "For a young man who grew up at the end of a dirt road and had never been out of the country, traveling in Europe was a fantastic experience," he said. "To attend an internationally recognized university that has been in existence since the 1100s was even more incredible. I was surrounded by so many smart people from around the world."
The Oxford experience also provided him with an unexpected opportunity to develop his leadership skills in a new arena - the basketball court. A member of the men's basketball team, he volunteered to help with coaching the women's team when their coach left after the season started. "Initially I was asked to help, but I ended up coaching the women's team most of my two years at Oxford," he said.
Although not a major sport in England, basketball is popular at Oxford because Americans represent the largest number of international students there. "The competition was similar to what Millsaps' teams experience in Division III," Townsend said. The men's and women's teams had winning seasons both years, with the women's team compiling a 16-0 regular season record during his second year.
"Basketball was a big part of my international experience at Oxford. The women's team that I coached had 11 nationalities represented on the 14-person roster, and the men's team was about half American and half European," Townsend said. "Basketball showed me more quickly and clearly than just about anything else that people from different parts of the world frequently have similar goals even if they have different methods of achieving those goals."
Townsend's four-page, full resume reflects what can only be described as mountaintop experiences. For example, he was student editor of the Yale Law and Policy Review, while also planning, organizing and moderating debates as co-founder of the Debating Law and Religion Series at Yale.
Twice he traveled to South Africa for the University of Mississippi. In 2007, he represented the university in an exchange course that focused on racial reconciliation and global leadership. Two years later he returned to deliver a series of five lectures at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University on the history of liberal political thought and contemporary critiques of liberalism. He was tapped for the board of directors of Alliance Africa and taught undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Mississippi that brought together students from Ole Miss and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
"I have been a student on some of the top campuses in the world, but I can tell you that Millsaps nurtures more than the mind. Millsaps looks at the whole person and tries to integrate the mind, the heart, the intellect, and the spirit," Townsend said. "It is important for high school students to know that there is not another college or university in the state that can provide such a rich and holistic educational experience."