Story and Photos By Ann-Marie Herod
PINEY WOODS, Mississippi — Lemi Eba is a popular senior at Piney Woods Country Life School in Rankin County. Eba, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says the slow-paced country life at school helped him adjust to being more than 8,000 miles away from home.
Eba is one of dozens of students from Ethiopia who came to Mississippi to study at Piney Woods, one of the few historically black boarding schools in the United States. If Eba could sum up his experience during the past two years in just one word, it would be: “stretch.”
“The experience here is rewarding for me,” Eba said. “I’ve become independent, but also it has required me to stretch. I have to be responsible for myself and my parents are trusting me to make wise decisions.”
Eba’s parents encouraged him to attend the Mississippi school because they felt it would better prepare him for college in the United States, which, Eba says, he has always aspired to attend.
Just like Americans have preconceived ideas of how things will be when going abroad, Eba had his own ideas about America. He had watched American films — action movies, thrillers and romantic comedies — to learn the language.
“I got to know the American culture a little bit better. It was not what I expected or what I saw in movies. Neither of that,” Eba said. “It was pretty different yet similar to Ethiopian culture. And that was essential for me to learn that, how the different interactions are, before I go to college.”
Piney Woods offers a liberal arts education as well as agricultural and Christian instruction. The school has incorporated cultural experiences to make international students feel more at home, said Willie Crossley Jr., president of Piney Woods.
“Last semester, to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year, we actually served Ethiopian food in our dining hall and the students gave me a traditional outfit so I wore that,” Crossley said. “It was something I think all of our students enjoyed.”
Some Ethiopian youth are attracted to Piney Woods just for the new experience. For others, it is a way to prepare for top colleges in the United States. Nearly all of Piney Woods’ graduates attend college, including some of the most prestigious universities in the nation.
“Little Professor of Piney Woods”
Piney Woods sits on 2,000 acres in rural Rankin County, about 23 miles south of Jackson. Tuition is $23,000 a year, with scholarships available for U.S. and international students. Most of the 150 students come from need-based homes so scholarships are essential.
When you first step on campus, you see a mixture of historic and contemporary buildings, along with a lake, basketball court, soccer field, a few houses and even a graveyard — the final resting place of founder Laurence C. Jones, his family and alumni who wanted to be buried at Piney Woods. The campus includes a post office, museum and the original log cabin where Jones lived while at Piney Woods.
Jones was born in Missouri, attended high school in Iowa and earned his college degree from the University of Iowa. In 1909, Jones founded Piney Woods Country Life School to educate rural African-American youth, some of whom were the children and grandchildren of former slaves and freedmen. His teaching started as a humble beginning at a simple log stump.
Jones wanted all his students to have the experience of working with livestock and growing crops. He believed this would be good for students’ character development.
As the school grew, Jones traveled the country raising funds for the boarding school and recruiting students from other states. In 1955, Beth Day published “The Little Professor of Piney Woods: The Story of Professor Laurence Jones.” She called Jones the Booker T. Washington of his time.
In the 1960s, Jones started traveling internationally to recruit students from the Caribbean islands, Ethiopia and other nations.
Many students hear about the school from people in their Ethiopian hometowns who attended Piney Woods. Others have family members – siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins – who graduated from Piney Woods and encouraged their relatives to enroll.
Yohannes Negash, a senior from Ethiopia, knew about Piney Woods from his older brother and sister, who attended the Rankin County school. He waited until his junior year to enroll.
“In my case, it was because I would have gotten homesick,” Negash said. “I needed more time to mature. My brother, who was more mature than I was, came his sophomore year.”
While most Ethiopian students rarely get to go home because of the cost of plane fares, many visit relatives in other parts of the United States. Negash has the best of both worlds: He gets to spend time with family in the U.S. and make trips back to Ethiopia.
“I’m fortunate to go home every break. My dad is a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines so I get two free tickets every year,” Negash said. “Within my two years at Piney Woods I’ve been home three times. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Crossley, the current president of Piney Woods, also is an alumnus of the school.
“I first came here some 29 years ago from Chicago, Illinois,” Crossley said. “It was my first time really spending time in the Deep South. It was also my first extended time here in Mississippi, and I stayed here through high school and did well. Piney Woods created opportunities for me that I am convinced I would not have had I remained on the South Side of Chicago.”
Through his experience at Piney Woods, Crossley gained his love for education and wants others to have that same opportunity. Crossley has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. After practicing law for a few years, he worked on the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and served as chief counsel to the Democratic National Committee. He was awarded a presidential appointment with the U.S. Department of Education, but he stayed in that position for only a year because his heart was drawn in another direction.
“There was a need here that outweighed my position there,” Crossley said. “The work I was doing in D.C., there is no doubt in my mind that tomorrow a hundred other people could do it. Yet this school was in such a place that tomorrow truly wasn’t promised.”
Even as Piney Woods continues to make help its international students feel comfortable, some students still struggle to adjust.
Sophomore Nethan Abebaw is reserved in a room with strangers, yet boisterous with friends. He was born and raised in Addis Ababa.
“I’m not well familiar with the food here and I still miss the food from back home,” Abebaw said.
When students travel home, they return with food to share with other Ethiopians on campus. Some nights, they all gather in one room and feast on traditional fare, such as injera, minchet and key wat.
Being so far from home has helped Abebaw mature and become more responsible.
“Growing up in Addis is good because it helped me differentiate the good things from the bad things. For example, your parents will help you by choosing friends so that you will be good in school and behavior. You will know about culture and you will also be good in social activities. There are a lot of social activities in Ethiopia. You will meet up with all your family members at least twice a month, but here work will make you busy so you will not be able to meet up with your family.”
Another big adjustment for Abebaw has been the structure of the curriculum at Piney Woods.
“In Ethiopia, we take all subjects in a specific grade,” Abebaw said. “For example, if we take chemistry in 9th grade we will take it until 12th grade, but in Piney Woods, we don’t repeat subjects. The teaching curriculum is totally different. In Ethiopia, we have specific classes (where we) have the same classmates, but here we have different classmates.”
Many Ethiopian students at Piney Woods are attracted to colleges like Jackson State University because they have had other family members attend there. Because JSU is a historically black institution like Piney Woods, it is an easy adjustment. Others leave Mississippi for college to see more of America.
The Ethiopian students say they sometimes have a difficult transition when they return to their home country.
“Little things, like when you are about to eat and if a person you are with hasn’t eaten, it’s customary to say shall we eat, but here you just chow down,” Eba said.
School of Tomorrow
One of the schools in Ethiopia that sends students to Piney Woods is School of Tomorrow, a private K-12 school in the capital city of Addis Ababa. School of Tomorrow attracts high achievers.
“Every year, 100 percent of our students pass national examinations. One hundred percent,” said Samuel Woldekidan, director of School of Tomorrow, who was interviewed in Addis Ababa. “About 25 of our students get scholarships from all over the world. Once our students come here we guide them to wherever they desire. Another thing is that we make sure that our students not only learn here in Ethiopia after they graduate but they are able to pass international exams.”
Classes are taught in English and Amharic, the Ethiopian national language.
Woldekidan said he looks forward to traveling to Piney Woods to tour the campus and meet its students. He feels that it will strengthen the relationship between the two schools, and help him be able to reassure Ethiopian parents who are uncertain about whether to send their children abroad for high school.
Fithawi Weldegebriel is one of the students who attended School of Tomorrow, then transferred to Piney Woods during his freshman year of high school. He is now a junior at Piney Woods.
He said School of Tomorrow — with more than 1,500 students and 250 teachers and staff, on four campuses in Addis Ababa — prepared him for school abroad.
“”(School of Tomorrow) is very diverse,” Weldegebriel said. “I attended it up until my eighth grade year. It’s where I first learned English. Now that I am here, my English has gotten better, even my voice deeper. Both of these schools have helped me be better than I was yesterday.”