From Piney Woods to JSU, an enduring educational pipeline

Michael Yitna might not know it, but he’s traveling a path paved by hundreds of other students over the decades. The route stretches from a 2,000-acre boarding school in unincorporated Rankin County to Mississippi’s largest historically black university.

Michael Yitna

Michael Yitna

Piney Woods’ staff and faculty have long groomed students to become successful graduates of Jackson State University. After all, the two institutions share a similar mission of community service and education.

At Piney Woods, Yitna worked on an instructional farm, lived in a dorm with roommates, made it to class on time and maintained good study habits – all without his parents’ constant supervision.

“That really made me responsible. I was 16. That prepared me to see how to live independently. I had to do my own laundry and make sure everything was washed and pressed. That gave me discipline,” says Yitna, a 19-year-old from Addis Abba, Ethiopia. “I didn’t know at the time that my experience at Piney Woods was shaping me for Jackson State University.”

Yitna’s story mirrors that of others who have traversed the educational bridge from Piney Woods to JSU. However, the connection between the two institutions goes back to at least the 1930s. That’s when Piney Woods’ founder, Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, was among a number of individuals who urged then-Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson to save Jackson College, a struggling, private Baptist school at the time.

“They persuaded Gov. Johnson to bring it on as a state school. Then, Jones encouraged Piney Woods students to attend JSU. He also would bring students to programs on campus,” said Angela Stewart, an archivist for the Margaret Walker Center at JSU and a former archivist for Piney Woods.

The state assumed control of Jackson College in 1940. It was renamed to Jackson State College in 1956.

Piney Woods was founded in 1909. It’s one of only four historically black boarding schools in the country, and is ranked as one of America’s Top 10 boarding schools  by U.S. News & World Report.

“I run into Piney Woods grads all the time here at Jackson State. There’s especially a strong Ethiopian contingent of students who come to Jackson State,” says Stewart.

Most Piney Woods-JSU students have successful post-graduate stories, including  Ezana Demisse. He graduated summa cum laude with a chemistry degree from JSU in 2011 and is now working toward his Ph.D. in immunology at Harvard Medical School.

The school’s current interim president is also a graduate.

Kibreyesus Berhaneselassie-Sumner earned his M.B.A. at JSU. His sister Bezawit Berhaneselassie-Sumner is working on her master's degree in biology.

Kibreyesus Berhaneselassie-Sumner earned his MBA at JSU. His sister Bezawit Berhaneselassie-Sumner is studying at JSU toward a master’s degree in biology. Both are graduates of the Piney Woods school and JSU.

“The Piney Woods School gave me the opportunity to be mentored by caring faculty and staff, but to also value the importance of a good education. I was able to gain real life experiences through the many activities held on and off campus. I was able to develop meaningful relationships that I will continue to nurture throughout my career,” said Interim President Willie L. Crossley.

Bezawit Berhaneselassie-Sumner, 22,  and her brother, Kibreyesus Berhaneselassie-Sumner, 25, are Ethiopians who graduated from both Piney Woods and JSU. He received his MBA from JSU in December 2012. She is still on campus, pursuing her master’s degree in biology.

The siblings said they found a supportive environment at both institutions, along with a sense of family.

“The staff we encounter really do play such a major role. They’re the people you talk to about any major issues that you have. The teachers touch your lives in such a way that will transform you for the better,” Bezawit  Brhaneselassie-Sumner said.

Yitna’s first encounter with JSU’s campus left an indelible impression. He was attending the annual Science and Engineering Fair and was given a tour of JSU’s Engineering Department.

“That’s how I ended up choosing engineering as my major at Jackson State,” Yitna said. “I was impressed by what I saw. I knew I wanted to come here.”