College of Liberal Arts

- University of Mississippi

Two Students Pursue Dream Projects in Senegal and U.S.

Two University of Mississippi students have been selected to travel to Senegal and around the United States this summer to pursue their dreams.

Jillian Cowart.  Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

Jillian Cowart

Jillian Cowart of Birmingham, Ala., and Megan Smith of Corinth, both juniors in the UM Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, are the 2014 winners of the annual Barksdale Awards.

The $5,000 award supports creative, courageous projects developed by students who are willing to take risks with their time and efforts and who propose ambitious, independent programs of study, research or humanitarian work. The Barksdale Awards were established in 2005 to encourage students to test themselves in environments that don’t have the built-in safeties of a classroom, teaching lab or library.

Megan Smith

Megan Smith and University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones.

Cowart and Smith, the 15th and 16th students to win Barksdale Awards, will evaluate solutions for conservation and rural development, said Douglass Sullivan-González, dean of the Honors College.

“Megan and Jillian are going into the field to ask hard questions and to learn perhaps harder truths,” Sullivan-González said. “Their projects remind us that effective policy or practice must be grounded in what real people think and how they live their everyday lives. Jillian and Megan are going out as ‘scouts’ to find the reality behind theory.

“The University of Mississippi has provided them with the academic context for the questions, but only their own vision directs the adventures they propose as a means of finding the answers. They are certainly citizen-scholars of an extraordinary stripe.”

Cowart plans to interview farmers in Senegal to learn what effect local farming has on the local economy. In the fall, she will expand her exploration to the Mississippi Delta, resulting in a comparative study between farmers’ markets in Sokone, Senegal, and Cleveland.

As co-director of Ole Miss Food Action Rebels and a student intern with the Green Grove Game Day Recycling program, Cowart is preparing for a career in rural development, with special interest in agriculture and food systems.

“I’ve worked in the Delta with the Center for Population Studies and with the School of Law’s Transactional Clinic,” said Cowart, a double-major in international studies and public policy leadership. “This trip sparked my interest in learning about the Delta, and I wanted to combine this with my international studies major.”

Cowart said the Barksdale Award research will be the backbone of her honors thesis on the role of local food systems in rural development.

“My hypothesis is that the Senegalese population in local food systems might provide a model that could be used in the Mississippi Delta,” Cowart said. “The country’s pursuit of food security and lack of a global food system will make for an interesting case study. Local food systems can be used to significantly develop rural economies.”

Smith, a double-major in biology and English with a minor in Spanish, plans to visit various locations in Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Wisconsin, Kansas and Oklahoma to talk with landowners who participate in Payments for Ecosystem Services, a program providing financial incentives for landowners who manage land in ways that help support or repair the ecosystem. She hopes to conduct honest, open conversations and gain insights that will help determine the long-term effectiveness of PES. Smith will focus on hunting leasing, the Conservation Reserve Program and small-scale programs aimed at the conservation of one or a few species, such as the bobwhite quail initiative.

Among a small group of students who traveled to Belize last winter to study sustainability in Mesoamerica, Smith is an active researcher in the labs of both Brice Noonan and Rich Buchholz, assistant and associate professors of biology, respectively.
“I’ve always been interested in questions of conservation, and efforts to include landowners in the processes of conservation and restoration are particularly interesting to me,” said Smith, who has taken courses in conservation and restoration ecology and worked extensively with newspapers as an interviewer and videographer. “Understanding the motivations of these landowners is essential to evaluating the success of PES and determining how to best improve PES.”

Smith said the Barksdale Award gives her an opportunity to see the results of these conservation and restoration efforts.
“I’ll be focusing on the motivations that landowners cite for participating in such projects,” Smith said. “For instance, if motivations are entirely monetary, then the system may be exploited and fail to reach its full potential.”

The two winners were announced Feb. 5, 2014 at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College spring convocation, which featured UM Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Hannah Gay as the keynote speaker.

BY EDWIN SMITH