Contact: Lisa Sollie
MERIDIAN, Miss.—Two outstanding graduates at Mississippi State University hope their stories of perseverance and resilience inspire others who live on the eight reservations of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Jade Willis of Bogue Chitto and Edward Routh of Choctaw recently were honored as the spring semester’s outstanding undergraduate student and outstanding graduate student, respectively, for MSU-Meridian’s Division of Education.
Despite losing several family members over the past few years, Willis has been determined to rise above her circumstances and complete her elementary education degree. She becomes one of a handful of Native American educators on the Bogue Chitto reservation.
For the past two decades, Routh has used his influence as assistant football coach at Choctaw Central High School to encourage players to go to college and better themselves.
“For years I’ve pushed young men to go get a degree, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking how hypocritical I sounded,” said Routh, who withdrew from East Central Community College in 2001 to join the Army.
“Alaric Keams, principal of Choctaw Central High School, is one of those young men I invested in,” Routh added. “He’s now my boss and is one of the driving forces behind my push to finish. He said to me, ‘you told me to do it—now you need to step up.’”
Routh spent seven years serving his country and several more in law enforcement on the reservation before he returned to ECCC in 2018 to complete his associate degree. Eager to finish strong, he transferred to MSU-Meridian where he earned an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies, and last month the 53-year-old veteran completed a Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary Education. He also was promoted to head football coach—and this fall will be a physical education teacher at his alma mater as well.
“It’s no longer just words, you know; I can tell those young men, without hesitation, they need to pursue their dreams and it will happen if they educate themselves,” he said. “With many Native Americans on the reservation, college was never even discussed—you were expected to work or go into the military. While I’ve been trying to change that narrative with my players, I’ve also changed it for my own family. My daughter was recently accepted into dental school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and my wife earned her MBA.”
Willis’s dream as a young girl was to be a teacher. Her mom encouraged her by printing out worksheets for her teddy bears and helping her “grade” their papers. When her mom died during Willis’s senior year of high school, she thought her dream had too.
Instead of pursing an elementary education degree, Willis began her educational journey as a business major, attending MSU-Meridian to live at home and help her sister care for their grandmother. Then her sister died from COVID, bringing Willis to the realization she truly needed to follow her dream.
“Teaching is my passion. And every time I’ve walked down the hallways of Bogue Chitto Elementary this past year—first as a teacher assistant through MSU-Meridian’s Professional Advancement Network for Teachers and Administrators initiative, and this past semester as a student intern—my mind has been flooded with memories,” said Willis. “This is the school I attended all the way through the eighth grade, and although I had great teachers, I realized I didn’t see a lot that looked like me—only teacher assistants.”
Willis wants to change that.
“I’m trying to make these young kids more aware of the value of an education and the importance of their heritage as well. Right now, they may think I’m just another Choctaw kid living on the reservation, but when they see me as an actual teacher in my own classroom this fall, that’s huge,” she explained. “I’ve told my students all year—we can always be more than we think we are. I want their eyes open to the opportunities and possibilities that are out there, and maybe one day they will be inspired to return to the reservation and be an educator too.”
Although the road to success for both Willis and Routh may have been arduous at times, they are grateful for all the help and support they’ve received along the way.
“My wife and daughter have been great, as well as everyone at Choctaw Central High School, and the G.V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans at Mississippi State was amazing,” said Routh. “Any time I needed assistance they were there, and the same goes for the faculty and instructors at MSU-Meridian,” he added. “And if that wasn’t enough, I didn’t incur any debt thanks to the Tribal Scholarship Program and the G.I. Bill. It’s truly been an amazing journey.”
After she had already lost, over time, her mother, two uncles and her sister, Willis was broken when her last uncle died during finals in the summer of 2021.
“It was overwhelming. I had been his sole caretaker as well as my grandmother’s, and since he was the last of her children, it was left to me to plan his funeral,” Willis said. “And all while trying to study and prepare for my exams and concerned how my grandmother was holding up—I just couldn’t handle it all.”
Her faculty advisor, Ksenia Zhbanova, urged the then 21-year-old not to give up, but encouraged her to sit out the fall semester—using that time to regroup and heal. While doing so, in September 2021, Willis’s grandmother also died. But in spring 2022, Willis was readmitted into MSU-Meridian’s elementary education program.
“Many of the students I had this past year have life experiences like my own. I understand where they are coming from and what they are going through,” Willis said. “And because I do, I believe that knowledge will help me be more effective in my own classroom. That’s why I want to stay with Choctaw Tribal School System for my entire teaching career so I can inspire the next generation and give back to my community. My family always knew I could do it—this diploma is proof they were right.”
For more about MSU-Meridian, visit www.meridian.msstate.edu
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