Facilitating diversity in the classroom motivates MSU-Meridian Outstanding Undergrad from Purvis to advance career

Contact: Lisa SollieAfrican American woman in pink top in front of bulletin board in classroom

MERIDIAN, Miss.—When Mari Williams of Oak Grove read how less than one-third of Mississippi’s teacher workforce is African American, the Mississippi State University-Meridian student said that statistic was one factor that prompted her to pursue an education career.

The first-grade assistant at Purvis Elementary School has been a participant in the Professional Advancement Network for Teacher Assistants initiative at MSU-Meridian, known as PANTA, which helps assistants or other paraprofessionals—who want to become licensed teachers—complete their elementary education degree. She also was recently selected this spring’s Outstanding Undergraduate Student in the Division of Education at MSU-Meridian.

Williams worked as a community educator after earning a degree in child family studies in 2011, and then spent several years in children’s ministry before joining Purvis Elementary School, first as a tutor and then an assistant. Then the pandemic hit.

“I was just sitting at home, wondering what I needed to do since schools were shut down, and that’s when it hit me,” she said. “I knew the percentage of people of color in classrooms in Mississippi is extremely low, and I felt like there should be more diversity. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and do something about it.”

Williams said PANTA was the only program that would make it possible for her to continue to work as an assistant while earning a degree at the same time. She learned about PANTA from Jeff Leffler, MSU-Meridian assistant clinical professor, and interim graduate coordinator.

“Dr. Leffler suggested I pursue the early childhood concentration due to my previous degree in child family studies. That was the right call for me, as was the PANTA initiative,” she said. “I particularly liked how flexible it was, and that I didn’t have to be out of my classroom a lot. Going through school in a cohort was nice too—we had our classes together, depended on one another and supported each other all the way through.”

Williams’ favorite part of her student internship this past semester was building relationships with the students and watching them grow.

“There is just so much development that happens in the children during spring,” she said. “Not only are they growing physically, but their minds are expanding and learning. I also loved how the students were so supportive of me as I transitioned from the assistant to teacher. They were telling me how excited they were that I was going to be the ‘real teacher,’ and that they would ‘be good’ when my supervisor came to observe me,” she explained.

Although she has not yet accepted a teaching position for this fall, Williams is looking forward to the day she has her own classroom.

“I’m especially interested in jumping into classroom management and figuring out what works for me and the kids,” she said. “I am also looking forward to developing relationships with the other teachers. During my student internship, I was able to sit in on planning meetings and it was fascinating to see the educational benefits collaboration brings to the classroom. I can’t wait to have the same opportunity.”  

MSU-Meridian primarily serves East Mississippi and West Alabama. Learn more at www.meridian.msstate.edu.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.

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