By David Ramsey
First-year public policy leadership students sit in wheelchairs, wiping their crusty eyes as they nervously wait for their first college class. Rushing into class, Dr. Jody Holland begins her day, and the rest of her four years, with a simple line: Welcome to college.
Holland is a professor of public policy leadership who is widely hailed by students as a must. His vibrant personality, piercing wit, and tendency to play devil’s advocate always give freshmen and upperclassmen insight into what they believe, which is one of the main reasons Holland loves leave the instructions vague.
“You have to work in high levels of ambiguity,” Holland says.
According to him, individuals must understand how to handle stressful situations with ambiguous directions to be effective in their future careers. It remains vague but offers just enough teaching and education for students to understand the “why” of the world.
The Trent Lott Institute for Leadership in Public Policy is designed to take likeable, successful young men and women and turn them into global leaders in a short time. Holland’s charisma and knowledge help make him a role model for PPL students.
Holland’s engaging teaching style and interesting life have many students wondering how the professor got to this point. What are its roots? How did he navigate the path to a doctorate, working on federal research grants and traveling the world?
“I was born in Grenada, Mississippi. From there, my family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, then to a cattle farm in Holcomb, Mississippi, and I lived there until I was 18,” says Holland.
“When I was younger, I never thought about going to university. Everyone around me didn’t seem worried. All I knew was that I wanted to play ball.
Holland played football, but not beyond high school, and the move helped solidify a career in academia.
“I never thought I would ever teach,” Holland admits. “After college I started working at Wells Fargo until the real estate crisis of 2008. Because of the sales and the pressure I didn’t like the job so I got my evening masters and I finally got a doctorate. program in the state of Mississippi. From there, I started working with nonprofits, then working on federal research grants before taking a visiting position here at Ole Miss.
Holland’s hard-working attitude gave him fundamental knowledge that was a perfect match for his talent for networking. “That’s what I love about the state of Mississippi,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the fault of white privilege or higher education privilege, but I’ve been able to network very well and things can be done very easily that way.”
Mississippi is the Dutch brand. Working as a teacher, in nonprofits, and in grant writing, Holland has seen high-achieving young people 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 to seek great opportunities. Holland experienced the mindset of many young Mississippians: “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 the political leadership and the economic opportunity for many high-achieving undergraduates to want to stay here.
“Nashville has something that we don’t have in Mississippi. It’s funny. A hundred people move to Nashville every day because their odd jobs pay better, they have fun, and they’re single.
Is Pleasure Mississippi’s Problem? The short answer is maybe. Mississippi doesn’t have the booming economy of many other states, and the mindset of many Mississippians seems to inhibit progress.
“Progress can be made, and it can be made easily. It has to come from the outside though,” says Holland. The “outsiders” he refers to include companies based elsewhere but who could expand their branches to the Mississippi borders.
A cluster economy is developing in the Canton-Madison region thanks to Nissan. All it takes is for businesses to take advantage of Mississippi’s low cost of living. The cost of living is a serious perk offered by the state, but many Mississippi residents seem to balk at outside influences.
“We brought a Harvard graduate to Mississippi and help our government, but within a year he was fired,” Holland said.
Mississippi leaders would rather learn to solve problems on their own, he says, but many problems can be solved with a different lens of truth.
These remnants of Mississippi’s ignorance destroy 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.
“There are times when I wish I could get out of here and live in Europe for a few years, or try my hand at research in DC, but I’m happy to live here and I’m glad my kids are grown here.