Three Mississippi State–Meridian students with a common heritage as members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians also share a bond in their desire to serve others.
Rodgrick Anderson and Danita C. Willis, who each earned a criminology degree at Mississippi State’s Meridian campus in 2012 and 2015 respectively, want to help their fellow Native Americans touched by alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Breanna “Bree” Vaughn, who is currently a criminology major at the university, is interested in learning “why people do what they do.” All three are passionate about encouraging younger tribal members to use education as a way to better themselves and to make better life choices.
A father of three, 30-year-old Anderson joined the military after high school graduation and is a member of the Mississippi Air National Guard 186th Air Refueling Wing unit based in Meridian. A police officer for four years on the Pearl River reservation, he began working with Wildlife and Fisheries in September of 2014 and is now a sergeant with the agency. Willis, also 30 years old, recently began working as a new youth probation officer for the Choctaw Justice Court system after serving as a process server for more than five years. The mother of four, she grew up on the Bogue Chitto reservation in one of eight communities where approximately 10,000 members of the tribe live.
At 24 years of age and the youngest of the student group, Vaughn not only balances school work and a full-time job, but she is also a member of the 185th Aviation Brigade, Company B, 1-111th Aviation Army National Guard unit in Meridian.
Lead by example
Anderson always knew he wanted to enter law enforcement; but had no idea the winding journey he would take.
After returning home from basic training, he became a case worker for Children and Family Services on the Neshoba County reservation. He also graduated from East Central Community College and applied to the tribal police department, but was not selected.
Then, upon his return from deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Anderson was accepted into the tribal police department and began training at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Academy. After graduating from the academy and working as an officer for the Choctaw tribe, he began thinking about going back to college. He felt earning a bachelor’s degree would help him in his career, in the military and in life. When he learned from his wife that MSU-Meridian offered a criminology degree, he immediately enrolled in the university knowing he could still work and commute from home.
“I watched my wife work full time and earn her degree while our first two children were young,” said Anderson, “so I knew she would be supportive and understanding when I went back.”
Anderson acknowledges his mother also played an important role in his decision to go back to school.
Like many young people growing up on the reservation, his family was touched by domestic violence and alcohol abuse – two social issues he called “troubling” among some in the Choctaw nation.
“It wasn’t easy for my mom with my dad out of the picture,” said Anderson. “She was very young when she had my brother and me, so she worked full time to support us and also put herself through nursing school. I admire how much she accomplished. Looking back, I know it wasn’t easy.”
Raised primarily by his grandparents while his mother worked and went to school, Anderson said he especially looked up to his grandfather.
“He really was my role model and the one who taught me to be a man,” he said.
Knowing firsthand the effects of alcohol and domestic violence in the home, and being inspired by his grandfather and some uncles who stepped in along the way, Anderson said he became determined not to make the same mistakes in his own life.
“I really think it was the issues I saw around me growing up that led me into the law enforcement field,” he said. “I feel I can make a difference, first and foremost with my own children, and ultimately with others around the reservation.”
For Willis, part of her job as a youth probation officer on the Pearl River reservation means understanding the struggles of young people she deals with each day.
“I can relate because I’ve been in their shoes,” she said. “I know where many of them are coming from, and I want to use my experiences and where I am now to encourage them to rise above the challenges they face.”
Raised in a broken home amid alcohol abuse, Willis said she sought counseling to help her cope with the difficulties she faced as a young person, but at 18 and fresh out of high school, she left home to venture out on her own. Although uncertain of what she wanted to do with her life, she knew she wanted to go to college.
“My grandma was one of the few in my family to encourage me,” said Willis. “Before she passed away in 2010, our conversations were always about God and school. One statement she made always stuck with me: ‘with changes to come in the future, a college degree will help you succeed in life.’” After her Meridian Community College graduation, she continued working as a valet at Pearl River Resort, uninterested in furthering her education until she decided on a career field. With the birth of her son a year later, Willis started a second job, private process serving, to earn more money.
Then, in the spring of 2012, she began working as a process server for the tribal court. After a year of learning about the different court systems, Willis said she knew it was time to finish her degree.
“I thought about studying criminal justice like my cousin Moses Earl Thompson Sr., who was like a brother to me,” said Willis. “He became a police officer with the Choctaw Police Department, but passed away in 2011.”
Willis instead found MSU-Meridian’s criminology degree program, and she decided to enroll because the campus was nearby and she could commute.
The first in her immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree, Willis fulfilled her promise to her grandmother, but she’s not stopping there.
Recently promoted to youth probation officer for the Choctaw Justice Court system, she hopes to honor her late cousin in her new position.
“I like being able to give back to my community and help the future generation understand that they don’t have to let their past or even their present define them,” said Willis. “They can defeat the odds. I’m living proof.”
Legacy of service
Vaughn’s interest in the field of criminal justice began as a child when her mother was the first woman appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court for the Choctaw tribe. Her childhood helped instill in her a strong sense of justice and even patriotism, but like many young people, Vaughn didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do after high school. “I joined the military first,” she said, “to fight for my country and to test how mentally and physically strong I was. I also needed direction, and the military provided that for me.” Her mother, who is an alumna of Mississippi State, also encouraged her daughter to go to college and earn a degree while she was young and unencumbered.
“I can remember going on trips when I was young, and mom would often bring her work along,” said Vaughn. “At the time I didn’t understand she was doing school work and trying to juggle that along with work and a family.”
As she continues her studies at MSU-Meridian, Vaughn is exploring career opportunities as either an appeal probation officer or background investigator. No matter what pathway she ultimately pursues, Vaughn desires to not only follow in her mother’s footsteps, but to learn from Anderson’s and Willis’ example of serving and giving back to the Choctaw community.