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Ole Miss student Mary Bryan Barksdale has a legacy at university; passion for teaching

Mary Bryan Barksdale’s family name has become synonymous with education in Oxford and this week she begins her own journey in helping to educate Mississipi’s children.

Barksdale, 24, is pursuing her teaching certifications and Masters in Teaching through the Mississippi Teacher Corps program held at the University of Mississippi.

Moving to Oxford in 2000 with her family when she was in the second grade, she attended Oxford schools until her graduation in 2011 when she headed north to Maine to attend a small liberal arts school, Bowdoin College, where she earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Earth and Oceanographic Science and Gender and Women’s Studies.

“I sometimes regret not coming to Ole Miss because I know I could have received a great education here, but I am thankful for the opportunity to have lived in Maine and for my classes and professors there and of course for those Yankee friends,” she said recently.

She moved back to Oxford in 2015, securing a job at her favorite restaurant, Ajax, and saved up enough money to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for five months, from California to Washington.

Then it was time to pursue another dream — to become a teacher.

“I think I’ve wanted to become a teacher since I was in the first, second or third grade,” she said, giving credit to several of her own first teachers for inspiring her to one day do the same job. “They took teaching seriously … held high expectations for us, and worked hard.”

She also says her parents, Marian and Claiborne Barksdale, encouraged their students to take education seriously and aim to always do their best.

“Because I had support from home and from my schools, and because I put in the work, I always found the learning process rewarding, even if it took me a while to understand a concept that others grasped more quickly,” she said. “I want to try to instill in others that love of learning and the feeling of empowerment that comes from it.”

Exceptional program

The Mississippi Teacher Corps selects exceptional college graduates to teach in high-poverty public schools in Mississippi. MTC provides training, support, certification, and a full scholarship for a Master of Arts degree in teaching from the University of Mississippi.

Participants stay on campus for several weeks during the summer, taking classes and teaching at a summer school program in Holly Springs, under the direction of other teachers. In August, they start working in a Mississippi school as a full-time, paid teacher. During the school year, they attend Saturday classes toward their degree. Those going on to their second year, return to Ole Miss in the summer, this time helping the first-year participants.

Barksdale will be teaching biology in Leland this coming school year.

“I know teaching takes a tremendous amount of work, and I know my first year will be especially hard as I’m overwhelmed by all the responsibilities,” she said. “I have to manage, but I’ve always loved a challenge and the opportunity to work hard.”

Love for Ole Miss

The Barksdales not only share a love of education but of Ole Miss. Five out of the six Barksdale sons attended Ole Miss. Mary Bryan’s uncle, Jim Barksdale graduated with an undergraduate degree in business from Ole Miss and later was able to fund the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College — named for his late wife, as well create the Barksdale Reading Institute, which works to improve literacy rates in under-performing public schools around the state.

Her cousin, Russell Barksdale, also taught with MTC for two years in West Tallahatchie in the early 2000s.

“I’m excited to earn a degree from Ole Miss and to follow in their footsteps in that way,” she said. “I’ve been hearing about the MS Teacher Corps from my dad for years and years, as he would give a talk every year to the teachers in the program about early childhood literacy, his focus during his time at the Barksdale Reading Institute.

“I’ve thought that MTC might be something I want to do for the past two years, and it’s a great deal for people like me who have wanted to teach for a long time but who didn’t study education necessarily in their undergraduate institution.”

Focused on goals

Barksdale said she is keeping her focus on this new two-year journey and the challenges ahead of her in her quest to develop of love for science in her students, emphasizing the importance of science and biology.

“My goals for myself are to improve every day as a teacher, to learn from my students how to effectively facilitate their learning, and to make each day fun,” she said. “I have some hazy long-term goals for long down the road that include disparate jobs like organic farming in Mississippi, educational policy development on a state level, carpentry, beekeeping and backpacking.”