By David Ramsey
Freshman public policy leadership sit in wheelchairs and wipe their caked eyes as they nervously await their first class in college. dr Jody Holland gets into class quickly, starting her day and the rest of her four years with a simple line: Welcome to college.
Holland is a public policy leadership professor widely hailed as a must-see among students. His lively personality, penetrating wit, and tendency to play devil’s advocate always give freshmen and seniors a glimpse of what they believe, which is a key reason Holland loves to keep directions vague.
“You have to work with a lot of ambiguity,” says Holland.
He believes that individuals need to understand how to deal with stressful situations with ambiguous directions in order to be effective in their future careers. It remains vague, but provides just enough guidance and encouragement for students to understand the “why” of the world.
The Trent Lott Institute of Public Policy Leadership was designed to take likeable, successful young men and women and turn them into world leaders in a short space of time. Holland’s charisma and knowledge make him a role model for PPL students.
Holland’s engaging teaching style and interesting life has led many students to wonder how the professor got to where he is. What are its roots? How did he navigate the path to his Ph.D., work on federal research grants, and the world tour?
“I was born in Grenada, Mississippi. From there my family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, then to a cattle ranch in Holcomb, Mississippi, and I lived there until I was 18,” says Holland.
“When I was younger, I never thought about going to college. Everyone around me didn’t seem worried. All I knew was that I wanted to play ball.”
Holland played soccer, but not past high school, and that decision helped him cement a career in science.
“I never thought that one day I would teach,” admits Holland. “After college, I started working at Wells Fargo until the real estate crash of 2008. I didn’t like the job because of the sales and pressure, so I did my master’s at night and eventually got my PhD. program in the state of Mississippi. From there I started working with nonprofits and then worked on federal research grants before accepting a guest position here at Ole Miss.”
Holland’s hard-working attitude provided him with a foundational knowledge that complemented his talent for networking beautifully. “That’s what I love about the state of Mississippi,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because of white privilege or because of higher education privilege, but I’ve been very well connected and it makes things very easy to get done.”
Mississippi is Holland’s brand. Through his work as a professor, in non-profit organizations and writing grants, Holland has met many successful youth and adults.
Mississippi has a big problem that Holland has seen firsthand: brain drain, which is the process by which young people leave a state in search of big opportunities. Holland experienced the mindset that many young Mississippians have: “When I was younger, I wanted to get away from this state, but because of my family, I had to stay here.”
Mississippi, he says, lacks both political leadership and economic opportunities for many high-performing students to stay here.
“Nashville has something that we don’t have in Mississippi. It is fun. A hundred people move to Nashville every day because their entry-level jobs pay better, they have fun, and they’re single.”
Is fun Mississippi’s problem? The short answer is maybe. Mississippi doesn’t have the busy economy that many other states do, and the mindset of many Mississippians seems to prohibit progress.
“Progress is possible, and easy. But it has to be done by outsiders,” says Holland. The “outsiders” he refers to include companies that are located elsewhere but could expand their operations to the Mississippi borders.
A cluster economy is growing in the Canton-Madison region because of Nissan. All it takes are businesses that take advantage of Mississippi’s low cost of living. The cost of living is a serious benefit offered by the state, but many Mississippians seem hesitant to outside influences.
“We had a Harvard grad who came to Mississippi and helped our government, but within a year he was fired,” says Holland.
Mississippi leaders would rather learn to solve problems themselves, he says, but many problems can be solved with a different perspective on the truth.
These remnants of Mississippi’s ignorance kill any chance of immediate positive improvement. “I think Mississippi can get out of this rut because I’m an optimist,” says Holland, who holds his head high on everything.
“Sometimes I wish I’d gotten out of here and lived in Europe for a few years or tried my hand at research in DC, but I’m glad I live here and I’m glad my kids grew up here.” “