Ole Miss Changemaker Cecilia Trotter Says “Yes” to Risks and New Life Experiences

Risk-taking doesn’t come easily to most of us, but University of Mississippi student Cecilia Trotter believes we can’t live full, rich lives without braving the unknown now and then. Her recent experience with the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat, held Oct. 18-20 in Black Mountain, N.C., drove that lesson home for Trotter in a significant way.

“You never really know where life will take you, and this retreat helped me want to say yes to more things in my life and take more risks,” said Trotter, a senior majoring in Public Policy Leadership and minoring in business, journalism and entrepreneurship at Ole Miss, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. “Risks are big for me, too—sometimes I really like to play it safe.”

Related: College students can get hands-on experience with social innovation in Selma, Alabama

Trotter, who hails from Greenville, Miss., was voted Miss Ole Miss by her fellow students this year, so she knows a thing or two about putting herself out there. She designed her campaign platform, called Rebel Heart, “to empower students and create a culture of positivity” while promoting mental health and wellness. Among her many activities on campus, Trotter serves on the Associated Student Body Cabinet and is a past co-director of the ASB’s First Year Experience program. She has also been an Ole Miss orientation leader and a team leader for the Ole Miss Big Event, the largest community service project in the university’s history.

Trotter has attended two Ignite Retreats and traveled to Prague this past summer for a Sullivan-sponsored study-abroad program that focused on leadership and social entrepreneurship. She will also serve as a Sullivan intern at the foundation’s Summer 2020 program, Leading for Social Innovation: Study Abroad in Scotland, which takes place June 4-July 4 in Edinburgh.

The Scotland program, developed in partnership with Arcadia University, features two courses—Leadership by Design and Social Change in Action. The first course emphasizes the practice and tools of leadership, while the second one introduces students to the emerging field of social entrepreneurship and innovation, empowering them to develop their own capacities for solving social problems while learning effective communications and storytelling skills. Students will take part in field trips across Scotland, meeting with social entrepreneurs and helping develop new initiatives to strengthen their ventures.

Related: Sullivan Ambassador Lori Babb aims to use social entrepreneurship and bioethics to change the world

Trotter, who loves to travel, said she “thoroughly enjoyed” her study-abroad adventure in Prague. “I was really excited to travel there as I had never seen any part of Eastern Europe,” she recalled. “I found Prague to be a sweet, little hidden gem. It had its own sense of charm that I have never experienced anywhere else, and I just found myself wanting to explore more every day.”

this photo shows Cecilia Trotter at Ole Miss prior to the Study Abroad in Scotland program

Cecilia Trotter is the current Miss Ole Miss and an intern for the Sullivan Foundation’s Study Abroad in Scotland program.

“The history of the Czech Republic and the old architecture and buildings made it feel as if you were living in the midst of so many different periods of time while still living your own experience,” Trotter added. “It felt really surreal as I began to see and consider all the different perspectives of both my fellow travelers and the natives around the city.”

Always ready for another overseas adventure, Trotter looks forward to working with the Sullivan study-abroad cohort in Edinburgh next summer. “The great thing about the courses offered through the Sullivan Foundation is that any student can benefit from them,” she noted. “We will all be called or challenged at some point in our lives to be a leader and have opportunities to serve or stand up as a leader. That is why I think it is important to take the [study-abroad] leadership course—so you may have the opportunity to dive deeper into learning about yourself and how you may lead others.”

Related: Sullivan Field Trip students discover the power of creative placemaking to help communities spur economic growth

The Scotland program’s course in social entrepreneurship is also important, she said, “because it focuses on innovative thinking. I found, in my own experience, that the ability to think creatively and innovatively fits any interest. Whether a student is interested in politics, medicine, art, or engineering, this course allows them to take the things they are passionate about and form ideas on how to move their interest forward. I really enjoyed the entrepreneurship course [in Prague] as it has given me insight on how to create and dream in systems, and I already feel like I have a strong system in place. Some students are already really great at that, but being able to challenge yourself while also seeking [innovative ideas] through a new lens abroad is something I find invaluable to education.”

Trotter is still mulling over her career options, but she will most likely earn her law degree next. Over the long term, in true Sullivan changemaker fashion, she hopes to live a life of service to others. “I really do see myself starting in a career with a law degree,” she said, “but also working in projects that will focus more through an entrepreneurial lens that targets the well-being of others and the education of young people.”

Experienced changemakers at the Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat included (from left): Crystal Dreisbach of Don’t Waste Durham and GreenToGo; Alexis Taylor of 3 Day Startup; Ajax Jackson of Magnolia Yoga Studio; Tessa Zimmerman of ASSET Education; and Abhinav Khanal of Bean Voyage.

In that regard, Trotter took some inspiration from facilitators and guest speakers at the Fall Ignite Retreat. Many of them are successful social entrepreneurs who use the principles of business to improve their communities. Crystal Dreisbach, for example, founded both a nonprofit, Don’t Waste Durham, and a social enterprise, GreenToGo, that focus on sustainability and reducing waste in Durham, N.C. Dreisbach related her changemaking experiences in an Ignite Retreat session attended by Trotter. “It was probably one of the best stories I have heard in my life,” Trotter said. “All of the women who spoke had the most amazing stories.”

Related: Crystal Dreisbach’s GreenToGo makes it easier for restaurants to kick the styrofoam habit

But Trotter was just as inspired by the student changemakers she encountered at the Sullivan event. “We have some really passionate, dedicated and extremely creative and intelligent young adults who, I believe, will do some really great things for our world in the future,” she said. “It is super-empowering to put all of these college students in one small place together for a weekend. People are exchanging ideas and working together to help one another, and it is so genuine … I think that students who are seeking to better themselves and make new and future connections would greatly enjoy this retreat. Even trying it won’t hurt or be a waste of time because I think you will leave with a piece of something that will better you.”

After all, trying is what changemaking is all about, as facilitators like Spud Marshall and Chad Littlefield made clear in their Ignite Retreat sessions. “Spud and Chad really have a way of making the risk seem like a small bump in the road,” Trotter said. “Quite honestly, it probably is, but when you are a young college student with no money and have a lot of ideas in your head with little direction, it seems huge. I think that my experience with the Sullivan Foundation has really helped me stop glorifying the risk and start glorifying the action of moving forward, knowing I could really, really fail in some aspect of life, big or small. I have also gotten to meet some really positive and intelligent people along the way whom I look up to. Sometimes, I feel like college students hear things like, ‘Do not join the real world—it’s a trap.’ But I’m excited to move forward, and meeting people through the Sullivan Foundation has solidified that for me.”


Moving Mountains

From the Hatfields and McCoys to the once-thriving coal mines that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, rural Appalachia has a rich and storied history—and a troubled, uncertain future. Vast swaths of the region are mired in poverty and joblessness. Its inhabitants are more likely to die of heart disease and cancer than the average American. And while doctors are few and far between in many counties, Vicodin and Lortab are all too easy to come by.

While many gaze out at the strip-mined Appalachian landscape and see a “big white ghetto” (to borrow a term from the National Review), Dr. Sharon Perot, Professor David Hite and their team at the Appalachian Summit Center (ASC) see opportunities for economic empowerment and innovative people willing to work hard for a better life. Thanks to the power of social entrepreneurship, there’s still gold in them thar hills, they believe, and you don’t have to tear down the mountains to mine it.

Dr. Sharon Perot developed the Appalachian Summit Center for her Sullivan Foundation Faculty Fellows project.

Encouraging Startup Communities
Headquartered in Bluefield, Va., the ASC started out as Perot’s Sullivan Faculty Fellows project and became the first initiative of the Campbell University Hub, a network of Sullivan-affiliated schools in the Campbell region that provide programming to promote social entrepreneurship and economic growth. Perot, a professor and interim dean of the Caudill School of Business at Bluefield College, said she launched ASC because she saw “a need to improve the overall community well-being, including health and education. ASC focuses on encouraging startup communities, providing support to agribusinesses and small business growth.”

As they worked on the project, Perot and Hite realized that, although local civic leaders were working to address problems, they knew little about initiatives outside their own agencies or defined scope. “It became clear that collaboration was essential if we were going to help improve the community,” Perot said. “We envisioned a hub or center where businesses, local leaders, regional tourism agencies, workforce development organizations, SBA chapters, economic development directors, and church leaders were able to share their goals and work together to prevent redundancy. As we know, scarce resources necessitate partnerships and a willingness to work together.”

Perot found partners in the academic world through the Sullivan Foundation. At the Fall 2017 Ignite Retreat in Black Mountain, N.C., she and Hite, a Bluefield business professor, met with Dr. John Bartlett, an associate professor of biology at Campbell University (CU), and Sullivan liaison Dan Maynard, the business librarian at CU. “Sharon mentioned her interest in social entrepreneurship as a way to abate the economic and social stress her community in southern Appalachia is experiencing,” Maynard wrote in a document about the project. “She said that tourism and agriculture looked like fertile areas for social entrepreneurship.”

Dr. David Hite

The Bluefield and Campbell colleagues quickly formed a partnership, and Perot introduced the ASC at Sullivan’s Spring 2018 Faculty Summit in Raleigh, N.C. Its goal: “Identify opportunities that build collaborative, innovative solutions that create social and economic value in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia.” Designed to serve as a model for other rural Christian colleges, the ASC “uses education, research and hands-on projects to strengthen individuals and organizations so that they may build a more prosperous Appalachia.”

Opportunities in Entrepreneurship
And there’s plenty of work to be done. As a 2019 report from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) shows, Appalachia’s poverty rate, while showing some signs of improvement, remains higher than the U.S. average, with many counties moving in a negative direction or stuck in the “distressed” category. The region also outpaces the nation in mortality due to medical issues like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and suicide while lagging behind in the number of healthcare professionals, according to a 2017 ARC report.

The decline of the coal industry has played a major role in the region’s economic woes. A 2018 ARC study found Appalachian coal production declined by nearly 45 percent between 2005 and 2015—more than double the rate of national decline. Coal industry employment in the region decreased by around 27 percent, with Central Appalachia taking the hardest hit.

But tunneling through the mountains for coal isn’t the only way to create jobs and prosperity. Thanks to an abundance of sugar maple trees, the Central and Southern Appalachian region has the potential to rival New England in maple sugar production.

“Our maple trees outnumber Vermont’s, and we have all witnessed the success that industry has brought to Vermont,” Perot noted. “We also have several small mountain farms capable of producing a healthy living. In addition, there has been a tremendous increase in adventure tourism, which is driving small business growth in the areas of housing and restaurants. And there are hundreds of ATV trails throughout the region—Hatfield-McCoy is just one of the trail systems within a few miles of the ASC.”

The Hatfield-McCoy Trails are a major destination in the adventure tourism sector.

The ASC’s research included an adventure tourism study that identified the need for more restaurants and lodging, resulting in the creation of new lodging (such as tiny houses) and dining establishments. ASC also works with local entrepreneurs interested in leveraging the region’s natural resources, provides coaching and mentoring for startups and assists in small business growth. “Our work includes helping businesses and local leaders define customer value, find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition, and develop profit formulas as well as social media marketing strategies,” Perot said.

Appalachia is also dotted with food deserts, defined by the ARC as low-income areas where many residents don’t have access to vehicles or live more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket. The ASC team promotes startup agribusinesses that can produce high-quality food, such as McDowell County Farms, a farmers co-op in southern West Virginia. The co-op offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which consumers can buy an annual stake to source locally grown food, and provides produce to food banks and grocery stores in struggling communities.

Opioid addiction is another vexing problem in Appalachia—one recent CBS report ranked West Virginia as the deadliest state for drug overdoses. The ASC provides support for recovering addicts who are passionate about social change and entrepreneurial opportunities. ASC worked with one group, Mountain Movers, to develop Launch Recovery, a business pitch competition for individuals in the recovery community, with startup money and free business services awarded to the winners. “We believe the coaching and training we are offering provide a structure and process to help individuals stay focused and move forward toward a healthier lifestyle,” Perot said.

McDowell County Farms sells produce at a regional farmers market.

Building Trust
Meanwhile, getting young people involved in the community is essential to revitalizing Appalachia. In addition to collaborating with the American Youth Agripreneur Association, Perot and her team launched the ASC’s first summer internship program.

“Social change and innovation begins with community engagement,” Perot said. “Community engagement begins with trust—trust that people care, trust that people are genuine and honest, trust that people are willing to be open to differences and nonjudgmental. The internship is designed around human design theory and Living Learning Communities. Empathy helps design thinkers seek understanding about a particular group of people or community. Learning what is important to them and understanding who they are demonstrates caring, which leads to trust.”

In the program’s inaugural year, student interns worked within Living Learning Communities in the Bluefield area, developed their teamwork, leadership and followership skills, and took part in experiential learning activities. They visited local agribusinesses, art studios, small businesses and startups to learn about the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and how to use their own talents to bring about social change.

“They discover that community identity is often shaped by facts and statistics that lead to generalities,” Perot said. “Facts about income, age, education levels, family structure, health statistics, crime rates, etc. may not accurately characterize the culture or people. Natural resources, anchor institutions such as churches, agencies and schools, and community leaders are seemingly not included in the community story. They discover that communities are often richer than the story being told in the news or by the facts. They discover how they can make a difference.”

ASC’s first group of summer interns visits an art makerspace in Bluefield, Va.

ASC has also lent support to a student-run art makerspace in Bluefield that will bring older and younger residents together. “The goal is to renovate a downtown building into a student-run skills makerspace for the community with a significant focus on art,” Hite said. “The initiative seeks to create partnerships with the seniors in the regions who have various talents, such as art, woodworking and other hands-on skills.”

The co-working space will include young entrepreneurs, skilled laborers and ASC team members. “Interns will assist with business startups, one-on-one business mentoring for new entrepreneurs and operations of the facility,” Hite said. “Based on the feedback I received from the town manager and mayor, they loved the idea and strongly support the project, which also has the verbal backing of over 20 seniors in the community and many artists and business owners.”

Achieving real social change can feel like moving mountains, so to speak, and tough challenges lie ahead for the ASC team. But for Perot, it’s a personal and spiritual mission. “ASC is my way of serving others,” she said. “I believe God endows each of us with unique gifts and talents, and it’s up to us to develop them in order to serve the needs of others. This part of our country continues to be neglected by state and federal agencies. False promises are made about a resurgence of coal mining, and there’s a lack of research in the area of poverty in the U.S.”

But the people of Appalachia will do whatever it takes to bring about real change. “Living in this community, I’ve witnessed service to others, selfless leadership, generosity, compassion, and ingenuity, despite growing health issues, increasing addiction rates and limited resources,” Perot said. “I’m motivated by the community leaders committed to making improvements and by the belief that I have some of the talents and abilities needed to make a difference in the lives of others in need.”