Brian Foster, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, knows exactly what “home” looks like.  For him, it’s rooted in familial connections immediate and extended.

His hometown of Shannon, Mississippi, is close-knit, familiar and safe. Like most small, rural towns in Mississippi, football and religion reign supreme.

“You talking 2,500 people, maybe,” Foster said. “One of those archetypical towns with one high school, one grocery store, one stop light.” Foster graduated from high school in 2007. The following semester, he left his beloved hometown to further his education at Mcalester College in Minnesota.

During his sophomore year, Foster played college football. Sadly, it wasn’t long before disaster took its toll. A traumatic injury forced Foster to relinquish his football career. And as if that wasn’t enough, his father passed away soon after.

“I had some of the best times of my life—some of the most fun of my life—while at Ole Miss, but I think I was still figuring out who I was and what I wanted my life to be. My dad’s death set all that in motion,” Foster said.

Everything around him had drastically changed within such a short period of time. Foster then transferred to the University of Mississippi to be closer to his family and his home.  Now was the time to rebuild in a new place. But this place just didn’t feel as close-knit as that rural Mississippi town with one stop light. Oxford wasn’t Shannon.

The campus of the University of Mississippi is symbolic of the “The Lost Cause,” an era during the late 19th and early 20th century that romanticized the history and the horror of the American south.

Even the university’s beloved nickname, “Ole Miss,” holds a connection to this dark history. The name was once used by slaves as a term of endearment for a slave master’s wife.

For my final project for one of my classes, I had the privilege of telling the story of so many people from the perspective of an amazing professor, Brian Foster. I hope you all enjoy it, relate to it, become more conscious from it, and hopefully have the knowledge to improve someone else’s experience.

Posted by Terrence Juvonne Johnson on Saturday, December 9, 2017

“I don’t remember if I distinctly thought about the statues and the symbolism during my undergraduate years, but I knew it felt like this place wasn’t for people who look like me,” Foster said.

For Foster, life at Ole Miss was something he had heard of but had yet to experience.

Desperate for a niche, he actively searched for a sense of community through classes, student organizations and more, submerging himself in finding those traces of “home.”

When Foster joined Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., he not only officially introduced himself to the university, but more importantly, a family.
Much like Foster, many students of color go through a similar transitional phase at predominantly white institutions, a phase of questioning whether or not their presence at an institution that glorifies a controversial past is needed.

These students often wonder if they made the right decision by placing themselves in such an environment.

As one all too familiar with how these deeply embedded emotions possess the potential to manifest in negative ways, Brian works diligently to foster purposeful and intentional relationships with students.

He describes it as something that reaches beyond the four walls of a classroom, something that means more than a grade point average or a PowerPoint.

One of Foster’s current students, Ukwuoma Ukairo, says that, “Having someone who is so passionate about his research but also about his imprint on the Ole Miss community is something to be grateful for. With a school subjected to so much adversity, it is nice have an example of overcoming obstacles.”

His experiences during his undergraduate years heavily influenced his research, which focuses on post-Soul, or post-1960s, black life in the Mississippi Delta. With this, he continuously pushes to change the inequalities that surround and infiltrate the educational system within the state and nation.  

Former student Brittany Brown said she held the utmost respect for Foster.

“He cares about his studies, and he wants students to get it,” she said. “He wants students to think outside of the box and form a different perspective. I thought that was very refreshing.”

Brown acknowledged how impressed she was that Foster entered a Ph.D. program immediately after obtaining his undergraduate degree.

“Writing a dissertation is not easy stuff, especially when you haven’t gotten a master’s degree or much professional experience,” she said. “I think it just shows his tenacity and passion for education.”

At only 28 years old, this doctor of sociology is able to relate to his students on many levels levels that provide him with the unique ability to truly gauge if their experiences are shaping their lives for better or for worse.

For him, it is about allowing students to the room to simply exist in spaces where they may feel suffocated. It is allowing students to motivate and challenge themselves without the pressure of comparison to their environment or their counterparts.

“That conversation about whether you belong is there’s to have. Let other folks have the conversation about whether you belong because the fact is that you’re here,” Foster said.

“And since you’re here, you may as well make yourself at home.”