The Delta Scholars Program: A lifechanging trip to the Mississippi Delta

Houses along the Mississippi DeltaPhoto/Thomas Gregory

Front Street skyline along the Yazoo River, considered the southern boundary of the Mississippi Delta.

Through a trip to the Mississippi Delta, Leeza Barstein ’23 and Maya Subramanian ’25 observed the legacy of slavery in the region, connected with the communities still affected, and also discovered steps they could take to bring change to their own backyard.

Barstein, an environmental studies major, and Subramanian, a Health, Science, Society, and Policy and international global studies major, were chosen to embark on the Delta Scholars Program, a two-week fellowship for focusing on demographic research and service learning into the Mississippi Delta, sponsored by The Center for Global Development and Sustainability (GDS) at the Heller School. The nationally competitive program is organized by the Shackouls Honors College of Mississippi State University in collaboration with Harvard and Brandeis and includes undergraduate students from numerous institutions from the greater Mississippi Delta.

The program packed a full itinerary into fourteen days - followed by research briefings at Harvard and Brandeis that occurred November 7 to November 10. The experience in Mississippi is a blend of seminars and visits to local museums, jazz and blues clubs, and meetings with community members, activists, historians, and researchers.

“I’ve never traveled outside the Northeast before,” said Subramanian. “Speaking with local farm owners, church organizations, and members of the general community gave us this cultural immersion and a new perspective on the deep south.”

Subramanian’s most memorable experience of the week was touring a local farm at Alcorn State University. The group met in the field on a hot day, sampling the farm’s vegetables while speaking with the farmers.

“It had to be 105 degrees outside that day, but the farmer giving us the tour had a smile on his face and a cheerful laugh the entire time. It was inspiring to see people who love what they do. They had such grit and dedication.”

The farmer shared the importance of fresh food accessibility and talked about federally funded programs for food insecurity. “We don’t ever stop to think about where our food comes from,” said Subramanian. “This perspective is something I’ll carry with me.”

The program focused on the legacies of slavery in the Delta, covering housing issues, healthcare concerns, education accessibility, and other challenges facing the area. The students also learned the importance of the community and migration patterns arising among the area’s youth as they seek opportunities outside of the Delta.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that the Delta shouldn’t be defined by its challenges,” said Barstein. “There are so many smart, talented young people who have a lot to offer that are migrating out of the area due to lack of job opportunities. They’re benefiting the country as a whole as they move to new communities.”

The students spent the second week developing a research project inspired by their Delta discoveries. Barstein and Subramanian worked as a team on their project, focusing on the Waltham community back at home.

“We loved the idea of doing work to help the Delta, but knew it was infeasible to continue that impact across the country in Massachusetts. This inspired us to focus on challenges in our own backyard,” said Subramanian.

The two decided to develop a relationship with WATCH CDC, Waltham’s community development corporation, an organization that focuses on promoting affordable housing, providing adult education and empowering underrepresented residents through civic engagement.

While Barstein and Subramanian are in the early stages of their efforts, they’re looking to bring more awareness to the organization and form connections with students across campus.

Reflecting on their summer experience in the Delta, the two students have returned to campus with a new perspective.

“I am walking away from this experience as a changed person. Someone who

will do her best to view situations from a standpoint of change, growth, and positivity,” said Subramanian. “It really affirmed my interest in public health. It’s a challenging field to face but with the perspective of hope we can always work towards making a difference.”

While Leeza and Maya discovered the program through professor Laurence Simon’s Introduction to Demography: Social Determinants of Health and Wellbeing course, students across Health, Science, Society and Policy, Environmental Studies and International and Global Studies are encouraged to apply for the next Delta Scholars Program in June 2023. Contact for more information.

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