Going South: A Foreign Exchange Student Living in the Deep South

Our intern Magdalena Diehl discusses her experiences and impressions as an exchange student at Mississippi College.

By Magdalena Diehl 

As a student of American Studies at the University of Mainz, I have had an eye on the direct exchange program of the Obama Institute since my first semester of college. When I reached my fourth semester, I thought I should try my luck and apply for the program. Naturally, applicants have to pick one of the many US partner universities to be an exchange student for two semesters. The numerous partner colleges on the East Coast are an attractive destination among applicants, however, I had already lived in New Jersey for a year after graduating from high school, which is why I wanted to get to know and experience a different region in the US. In 2016, I already had the opportunity to travel through the South as a tourist, so I decided to apply to Mississippi College (which is the only Southern partner university in the undergraduate direct exchange program) in Clinton, near the capital Jackson, MS. I was excited to experience the South not only as a tourist but as a temporary resident and to meet locals, simply getting an impression of the Southern way of life.

By many people I was asked: “Why, out of all the 50 states, would you go to Mississippi?” It is the poorest state in the US, a very rural area, it has a dark history, the first in everything bad and the last in everything good, and still today Mississippi has a difficult time regarding race relations. And yet, I wanted to experience exactly that, wanted to compare it to experiences I gathered in other regions of the USA. During my studies in Mainz, the history part of American Studies has always been what interested me the most, in particular Southern and African American history. Another reason why I chose Mississippi College, was that I wanted to study Southern history on the spot, in the center of where it had all occurred, in the Deep South. Eventually, I registered for history classes like The Old South, The New South, and Mississippi History. To be honest, a part of me was afraid that some of the history professors in the South might still cling to outdated perspectives, for instance, claiming that the Civil War was about states’ rights. Fortunately, that was not the case; I got to be taught by very competent historians that conveyed new knowledge and opened new understandings of Southern history to me. Even though the work load of these classes was much heavier than what I was used to in Mainz, I enjoyed them a lot. The Old South, in-depth study of antebellum life in the South, was a personal favorite of mine, and Mississippi History was another interesting class, since I got to learn about what I had not studied before, for example the Choctaw Indians.

Even though it is well-known that to some extend the old South is still alive, Southerners holding on to their “heritage,” it was another matter to actually see it in person: the Mississippi flag which is the only state flag that still has the Confederate flag incorporated, Ole Miss calling her athletic teams “rebels”, or the numerous Confederate statues and memorials throughout the South. Certain names appalled me as well, for example a reservoir close to our campus named after segregationist Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, or the Hernando-De-Soto Bridge in Memphis, named after the Spanish explorer whose violent expedition claimed the lives of many Native Americans. Nevertheless, I am glad I had the opportunity to live in Mississippi for almost a year; I made friends, enjoyed Southern food, culture, and hospitality, traveled locally, and visited local sites like Medgar Evers’s home in Jackson, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, or the historic city of Natchez. However, it needs to be acknowledged that I am a privileged white woman that has lived in a “bubble” called Mississippi College, living among nice Christian people on a campus that seems like a town on its own. Thus, I was not able to completely experience life like other Southerners do off‑campus. Many people also asked me, after having lived in two very different regions in the US, which one I liked better living in. Although I love Mississippi College and very much enjoyed Southern culture and its landscapes, and the people I met, if I had to choose, I would pick New Jersey as a place to live, because the urban and liberal aspects of the East Coast appeal more to me than the South’s conservative and rural character.