Since 2016, Millsaps students have been helping shape policy in the halls of the Mississippi Capitol.
Each spring, four students are awarded Legislative Fellowships through the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi. The program is made available thanks to the Foundation and the generous support of donors who care deeply about Mississippi and the urgent need to increase the number of young women involved in policy and the political process.
Fellows are partnered with legislators to provide support in several ways, including policy research, attending committee hearings and reviewing legislation. Participation in the fellowship is determined through a competitive process conducted in the fall preceding the legislative session. Applicants must be a junior or senior with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. In addition to the experience gained working with legislators, the fellows also receive a $2,000 stipend for the semester.
This year’s Legislative Fellows are Anne Summerhays, Areial Thomas, Beth Dowdy and Taylor Weintritt. Their experience is slightly different from previous fellows, in that all of their work during the 2021 legislative session is being done remotely.
A senior political science major with a double minor in sociology and American studies, Summerhays is working with Representative Debra Gibbs of Jackson. “Our main focus has been on increasing contact and outreach with constituents during COVID-19, since many in-person events have been put on hold,” Summerhays said. “We have also been working on increasing awareness about bills that Representative Gibbs has been working on during this legislative session.”
Representative Chris Bell of Jackson and the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus have benefited from support provided by Areial Thomas, a junior from Jackson who is pursuing a double major in communications and creative writing. Thomas attends hearings and conducts research on legislation with Representative Bell. “As it relates to the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus,” she said, “I am conducting research on all the bills introduced by its members and evaluating their effectiveness.”
Dowdy is working with Representative Zakiya Summers of Jackson on issues of education, workforce development and public health. Despite working remotely, Dowdy is benefiting from the experience and the mentorship from an elected official. “She has been so easy to communicate with, and she has encouraged me to explore my concerns with climate change in Mississippi,” she said. Dowdy is from Hammond, Louisiana and plans to graduate in the fall of 2021 with a double major in anthropology and government and politics.
Originally from Metairie, Louisiana, Weintritt is working with a first-term legislator, Representative Shanda Yates of Jackson. She has been tracking bills through the Judiciary B and Corrections committees and writing bill summaries. And, in a particularly timely focus, Weintritt has been researching the impact of water crises in other cities, similar to the situation facing the city of Jackson, to determine best practices and proactive steps to move ahead.
“This unique program was created exclusively for Millsaps College students to gain hands-on experience in the legislative process,” said Dr. Nathan Shrader, associate professor of government and politics at Millsaps. “Our program stands out because it provides both an applied politics component as the students spend the week at the Capitol and a classroom component where they have a weekly meeting with faculty to review and reflect on their work.”
Serving as a Legislative Fellow requires a dedication of time, energy and focus to balance the fellowship with the demands of work back on the Millsaps campus. A review of the work being done by each of these students reflects their commitments to their studies and preparation for successful careers.
Thomas, for example, has served as president of the Pan-African Student Alliance for two years. She is on the advisory board for The Lighthouse Black Girl Projects, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a reporter with The Purple and White campus newspaper, a member of the Millsaps Singers and part of the Model United Nations Association. She is also a member of Omicron Delta Kappa Honors Society, an Arts Scholar in creative writing and music and a Kenan Scholar. As a first-year class senator and campus events chair for the Student Body Association, Thomas was elected on “a commitment to bring prosperity, renovation, opportunity, motivation, inclusion, solidarity and excellence.” Looking back, Thomas feels good about her work, stating confidently “I don’t think I’ve failed.” Her long-term goal is to open a school for the arts in the South.
Weintritt is a double-major in business administration and economics, with plans to pursue a master’s degree in finance or possibly attend law school. Coming from a high school with a graduating class of 28 people, she is used to the smaller student-teacher ratio that Millsaps offers and is making the most of the opportunity to connect with both professors and classmates. “I came to Millsaps with no idea of what I wanted to pursue in a career, and Dr. Blakely Fender made me fall in love with economics,” Weintritt said. “She embodies the professionalism and character that I strive to have as I grow up.”
For Summerhays, Millsaps offered her all of the opportunities expected from a college. Coming from Lafayette, Louisiana, she found plenty of opportunities and a large network of alumni with which to connect. In her first year, she recalls, she “discovered that each and every teacher on campus wants students to succeed and will push them to be the best versions of themselves.” Summerhays even credits Dr. Emlee Nicholson, associate professor of mathematics, with pushing her into new areas. “I took a math study abroad course with Dr. Nicholson and had the ability to learn that though I don’t like to admit it, math has a major influence in our daily lives,” she recalled.
And for Dowdy, Millsaps and government run deep in the family. Her grandparents and parents are Millsaps alumni, her brother Wayne graduated from Millsaps in 2020 and her younger twin brothers, Wilkins and Jacks, are in their sophomore year at the college. Her grandfather, Wayne, represented the former fourth district of Mississippi in Congress from 1981 – 1989. Her primary interest is in urban anthropology and working with cities, and she is in the process of applying to graduate schools to pursue further studies in anthropology.