Virginia Sciolino ’21 has a soft spot for Usdan brunch and Mississippi rainstorms. When she’s not running her new club, Activist South, she can be found hanging with the mock trial team or volunteering for the Hamilton Prison Writing Archive. The Argus Zoomed with Sciolino to chat about all this and more.
The Argus: What are your post-grad plans, if you have them?
Virginia Sciolino: I want to eventually go to law school and become a public interest attorney, but prior to that, I was thinking of taking two years off. So I’ll be applying for Teach For America, which is a program that I have had a lot of conversations about and I think it has not an incredibly good reputation in the sense that it just plugs young teachers into these school environments for a brief period of time, and then they leave. But I’ve been doing a lot of research on it and there are schools where the new teacher turnover rate is actually higher for people who are not in Teach For America. So, I mean, there are so many problems with the educational system that I probably don’t need to list them all right now, but I think that I’ve kind of set my heart on doing that program and then eventually taking the LSAT, which I’m trying not to think about right now.
A: Where do you think you’ll want to teach?
VS: I want to teach in the South. I feel like for me, it’s very important to live there and to continue to work there. A lot of my friends from Mississippi have worked in schools there, like in New Orleans and in the Delta, so I already know a lot about those and I’m thinking of one of the two.
A: One of the things that the nomination mentioned was the Activist South club that you are leading, which I think maybe connects a little bit to this.
VS: Activist South was a club that I started, because first of all, I sort of felt like I was the only Southern person in a lot of my classes, and I was also the only Southern person that I knew. I wanted to create a place where I could talk about the unique struggles of coming to a place like Wesleyan from the South and the culture shock that I felt. Because when I came to Wesleyan, I sort of came to school in the Northeast because I thought that the South was like a scary, oppressive place. But I also think that especially after the protests this past summer and seeing how oppressive state governments could be even in blue states really helped me to open my mind. I guess with that said, there are a lot of challenges of living in a place like Mississippi. And those are really unavoidable, but at the same time, it’s not like they’re unique to Mississippi and a lot of the educational problems—just because that was something I was talking about earlier—for example, school segregation, are happening in blue states as well.
So I wanted there to be a place where we could speak about the South in a more nuanced, understanding way. This year we’ve been able to bring some speakers to campus. We’re having someone talk on Friday. That’s been really nice because I think that people who are actually activists or progressive or agitating for change in the South, don’t really come to campus and their voices are not really heard on this campus. I really think that that’s an awesome thing and I hope that even people who aren’t Southern show up because it’s nice to hear different viewpoints and hear how progressive movements function differently in different cultural spaces.
A: I’ve been hearing a lot recently with the election about, not only the kind of unfair characterization of the South, but also organizers—like Stacey Abrams is an example in Georgia—trying to push for progressive change in the South. Could you speak more about that?
VS: First of all, in the South, there is a really long—I mean, people are now talking a lot about mutual aid and community-based work—but I would say that that’s a cultural feature of the South, in particular the deep South, just simply because of how antagonistic a lot of the state governing structures are to the people who are living there. So like for me when I was growing up in Mississippi, I just didn’t know about a lot of LGBTQ activism. And that was one of the things that really drew me to Wesleyan, but now that I’m here, I’m actually like taking stock and learning about new groups that are doing fantastic things like The Spectrum Center in Hattiesburg where I live. So there are progressive organizations, I think, unfortunately, they’re just funded much, much more poorly than progressive organizations in New York, for example, and that is kind of a problem. As well as just the infrastructure and rurality of a place like Mississippi or Louisiana, it just makes it harder to actually physically organize.
I think that those are some of the reasons that maybe some of that activism isn’t as visible, but it’s always ongoing. Like there’s no doubt about that to me.
A: Could you talk about the volunteering experiences you’ve had?
VS: One of the things that I did that really made me interested in criminal justice reform, for lack of a better phrase, was I interned for a public defender and it really changed the way that I thought about the legal system and a lot of the assumptions that I held about criminalization. Especially because I was working on cases with people who, some of them were certainly guilty and it made me confront the fact that even people who have done things that I perhaps wouldn’t do are people and working with them, on a personal, individual basis, you can see that they struggle and that they’re human. So I think a lot of the media we read about criminalization—you probably don’t need me to explain this to you, because this is Wesleyan—but a lot of the things that we read are designed to completely dehumanize people.
So after that, something I started doing was volunteering for the Hamilton Prison Writing Archive. Basically, you just transcribe letters from people who are incarcerated and I highly recommend it. Anyone can do it. And then all that is used for data research purposes, and I’ve used it for essays and papers in the past too. But it’s really hard because you’re reading about these things and sometimes I’m just sitting in my dorm room realizing there’s nothing I can do. Like there’s nothing I can do about this person, who’s had this experience. That’s something that has really informed my worldview, but it’s a really cool organization.
Also just personally I know people in Mississippi who are working on things like that. And I just try to keep up to date with them and I’ve written some op-eds on Mississippi’s prison system and how Parchman, which is our largest prison, was a plantation. And that is something that is a little too horrific to even wrap your head around. It’s a place in which people are still being just horribly abused, like on a day-to-day basis. I don’t know if you could call that volunteering, but I do just try to kind of keep up to date on that kind of thing, because it is important.
A: Is there any personal reason you are interested in that?
VS: The thing that kind of got me into it was that I’ve always been surrounded by people who are really open about mental health. And growing up, I just personally knew people who went to jail or had confrontations with police officers because of their mental illnesses. And I think that to me, it just kind of hits home. It’s unacceptable that there are people who have mental illnesses who are being funneled into the prison industrial complex rather than being effectively treated.
From there, I sort of realized that there were all these other issues that were locked up within that. I guess for me, that’s probably where that comes from. Just the idea that you can be born with a mental illness, or be in an area where you can’t get treatment or be a person who treatment is being systemically prevented from, and then that can basically put you in the most traumatic position a person can be in, which is a confrontation with a police officer or jail.
A: Can you talk about mock trial a little bit?
VS: I’m the training director for mock trial right now and I’ve done it for, I guess the past seven years. I started when I was a sophomore in high school. I started because my high school did not have a theater department so I was like, Oh, okay, I’ll do mock trial. Then I came to college and I kept doing it and then sort of separately, I had the realization that I wanted to go into law. I feel like mock trial can be a really good pre-law group or club, although it kind of doesn’t always touch on the reasons that I want to go into the law, because I feel like public interest law is colored by people’s financial status. It’s colored by race and gender and sexuality, people’s experience of the law and their need to uphold their human rights is totally colored by political and social context, and that’s not something you have in mock trial obviously, because it’s sort of a performance activity. So I guess that’s kind of an important distinction, but it’s been really nice to train people and to work on a team and to just do a bunch of writing. It has created this like community and these friendships at Wesleyan that I feel like I probably could not function without.
A: What’s the Venn diagram of theatre kids vs. mock trial kids?
VS: I think pretty interconnected. I feel like mock trial attracts debate kids and theater kids. That’s what I would say. And I unfortunately was both in high school, so that’s how I got to be this annoying.
A: What do you think is a quintessential Wesleyan meal that you’re going to miss after graduation?
VS: This has been a hot take in my senior house, but I love brunch at Usdan and my housemates do not. So, I really am actually going to miss that. I also love how when I go there, it just reminds me of being a first-year student in the best way. It’s like a really positive association that I have with my first year here. I love the French toast. I can’t lie.
A: What’s your favorite part about living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi?
VS: My favorite part about living in Hattiesburg and my favorite memories are all about the weather, which is something a lot of my friends don’t understand. I love hot weather and I love when it just pours rain. So I will sit in my backyard and just watch the rain. That’s my favorite thing about being home.
A: What do you think you’ll miss most about Wesleyan?
VS: I really will miss getting to be in an environment where I can take these types of classes and really engage. I think I will probably never be in another environment in my life where I have this much freedom to ask all the questions that I want to ask about all the different subjects that I have questions about.
A: Is there one class that you would recommend to everyone?
VS: Professor Rushdie taught a class called The Black Sixties from Civil Rights to Black Power. And one of the reasons I took it was because it was like the first class I’d ever seen where a huge portion of the course material focused on Mississippi. Taking the class just completely dismantled a lot of my pre-existing notions about criminality, it made me think about protest in a new way. I took that before, you know, like several semesters ago. So then over this past summer, it kind of informed the ways that I understood, like what was happening in America and the sort of inappropriate rhetoric that was used to talk about protesters. But I was able to take what I had learned in that class and then actually reach out to people from my high school and have conversations with them and see them learning for the first time—upsettingly—about some of the things that had happened in our state that were exactly the same things happening again, over the course of the summer. That was an amazing experience and Professor Rushdy was such a great facilitator and forced us to ask questions that were really uncomfortable and challenging about what level of civil disobedience, so to speak, is appropriate. And why is a certain reaction to oppression not appropriate? Being able to go back and talk about that with people from my high school—who I know for a fact didn’t learn about that in high school, because I did not—and being able to have a dialogue with them about what that means in our hometown and what can we do was even better. That class has just had an incredible influence over me and my life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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