Most students at the University of Southern Mississippi have gone on a unique path to reach college. Fewer students have charted a path to thriving in college. Maegan Williams, a biochemistry student from Jamaica, fulfills both categories.
Williams was initially born in Kingston, Jamaica. She lived in Richmond Park, a part of town where many faced a lack of financial resources and interest in education. The youngest of two siblings, Williams remembered the expectations she had to live up to not only from her brother, but from her mother.
“My mom, she was raised in a very strict household,” Williams said. “And school was very important to her and her mom, and so she just instilled that in me.”
Going into high school, this emphasis on education helped her succeed. Williams scored high marks on her entrance exam and got into Campion College, one of the highest ranked high schools in Jamaica.
During her time at Campion, she did a variety of extracurricular activities, including a stint on the swim team, a community service club and a women’s healthcare club.
Williams with friends in Jamaica, fourth from left. Courtesy: Maegan Williams
Williams initially thought she would stay in the Caribbean to pursue her higher education, but ended up finding out about Southern Miss at an SAT prep center. The person who told her about the university was Petra Marlin, the Director of International Recruitment at Southern Miss.
Williams remembers the conversation she had with Marlin well.
“I was like, ‘Alright, is it warm?’ She said, ‘Yes, it’s warm.’ ‘Is it cheap?’ ‘Yes, it’s cheap.’ I was like, ‘Great, sign me up,’” Williams said. “That’s pretty much how the decision went.”
Williams arrived at Southern Miss on Jan. 9, 2020, for the spring semester. The transition was difficult at first. William’s accent told everyone she wasn’t from Mississippi, which meant lots and lots of questions.
“I would have to have the conversation about Jamaica and then they would tell me about their honeymoon in Jamaica, or they told me about that one cruise that they went on and I had that conversation like 100 times,” Williams said. “I swear, I’ve probably had it about 100 times already.”
Some interactions were less annoying, but more threatening. Williams remembers an encounter with her former roommate very well.
“The only person that ever told me to go back to my country was a black person here. It blew my mind,” Williams said.
Then the pandemic started.
The Spring 2020 semester was trying for many at universities across the world. Most students were forced to leave campus to complete their classes online. However, Williams was among the few that could not return to family back home.
Because of various travel restrictions during the first wave of COVID-19, many international students found traveling back home a logistical impossibility.
Not everything was bad, though. For most students, online classes made it difficult to connect with others. But for Williams and other international students on campus, their friends became family.
“It’s like you only have each other,” Williams said. “You have to — it’s survival. You have to start to form your own tribe.”
Though her on-campus connections helped Williams significantly throughout COVID, there were some things about living on-campus that weren’t as great. One of those things was on-campus dining.
“When you’re going through COVID, when you’re going through isolation and [when] you’re missing your family, not to mention being worried about the COVID situation back home with your family, all you have is food. And then the food sucks?” Williams said.
After the Spring 2020 Semester, Williams and most of her COVID tribe decided to live off campus. This included her current roommate, Eunice Oladeji.
Oladeji is a medical doctor from Nigeria currently working on her master’s in Public Health with an emphasis on Health Promotion and Health Behavior. She met Williams at an event with the African Caribbean Society at Southern Miss.
A community member encouraged Williams and Oladeji to become roommates, and they moved in together this past June. Even though Oladeji initially did not know Williams very well, a close friendship soon blossomed.
“I’m not sure exactly when it went beyond just ‘someone who I found a place to rent with to my roommate’ to ‘a very good friend’ to… I don’t even know where we are right now,” Oladeji said. “But I think it’s a really good place.”
Williams with her roommate Eunice Oladeji. Courtesy: Maegan Williams
Williams also grew close to Luba Sishuba, a psychology major and soccer player. They first met in the cafeteria last year, and also grew close really fast.
“Maegan is a really sweet person,” Sishuba said. “As I got to know her, I just realized that she’s like a friend that became a sister to me.”
And in big sister fashion, Sishuba and her friends even taught Williams a few things, like how to ride a bike.
“It’s really funny because we usually make fun of her, but now she knows how to ride a bike,” Sishuba said.
Luba Sishuba, friend of Williams
That community member who set up Eunice Oladeji and Maegan Williams as roommates was Kathy Pope. She oversees iFriends, a Facebook group that serves as a resource for incoming, current and former international students at Southern Miss. This Facebook group is also where Pope first interacted with Williams, and they bonded throughout the Spring 2020 semester.
Though Williams has relied a lot on Pope throughout her transition, Pope said Williams has also been a helpful resource and presence for other students.
“If she finds out someone needs something, she’s always connecting them to what they need on iFriends,” Pope said. “I’ll see her tagging people.”
Jennifer Lewis is part of the legal counsel of Southern Miss and is the Associate Director of Compliance and Ethics. She became close with Williams through volunteer work. They picked and cleaned food together, which helped international students get fresh produce.
“She knows a lot about what it is to be an international student here and all the barriers there are,” Lewis told the Printz. “So I mean, I can see her starting like a nonprofit where she’s providing and meeting some of these gaps that you’re seeing.”
Oladeji and Sishuba agree with Lewis.“I’d say it’s reassuring knowing that there’s someone who is my friend, not because I did anything in particular, not because she’s expecting anything from me, but just because that’s the kind of person she is,” Oladeji said.