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Velma Jackson High School teacher Greg Pigott introduces his students to a myriad of careers through Zoom. Pigott invites speakers from across the globe to visit his class virtually and share their work experiences with his rural Mississippi students. Photo courtesy Greg Pigott

Virtual Career Talks Introduce Opportunities to Velma Jackson Students

The tree-lined stretch of Loring Road Extended in Camden, Miss., breaks, bringing a school into view. The gray and brick building with large letters announcing Velma Jackson High School stands stoically in the open area. Velma Jackson is one of the Madison County School district’s most rural schools.

Camden is less than 50 miles from the state capitol with a population of around 1,300 and an average household income of $37,017.  It is also unlike most of its district counterparts in that it is almost 100% Black and economically disadvantaged. Students in the small community often do not have the opportunity to meet people in the career fields that they dream of entering. However, one educator is working to change that by bringing those people into his classroom, virtually.

Greg Pigott got the idea during the 2020-2021 school year. Velma Jackson was one of several schools across the state that opted to run a modified school schedule during COVID. With students at home staring at screens, Pigott needed something to keep their attention and to help them learn the valuable lessons taught in his classes.

“There are great high-tech, high-paying careers in Mississippi that we want to let people know about, but we also want to show that there’s a great big world outside of Mississippi and outside of the United States that they can also be a part of,” Pigott told the Mississippi Free Press. “We want kids to make the best-informed decision based on the information we give—whether that’s to go to college, to go to community college, to go into the military, or to go be an entrepreneur.”

Dr. Carlotta Berry, an author of children’s STEM books and one of the leaders in robotic education in the country, speaks to Velma Jackson teacher Greg Pigott. Pigott has hosted more than 450 speakers to discuss their careers and backgrounds with his Velma Jackson High School students in Camden, Miss. Screenshot courtesy Greg Pigott

Pigott’s first guest was Chamar McDonald, a former star high-school athlete at Madison Central High School. McDonald was only 17 when he was drafted to play pro baseball for the Kansas City Royals. His injury-plagued career ended when he was 21. Afterward, McDonald earned a degree in engineering from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. He now works for Neel-Schaffer and has been a lead engineer on several transportation projects across Mississippi. The talk was a hit, and Pigott quickly realized he had stumbled on a unique opportunity for his students.

“(He) really showed that school is important,” Pigott said. “Just because you’re a great athlete now, it is not going to last forever. That really got the ball rolling, and we’ve been able to use people from unbelievable backgrounds.”

Guest speakers like McDonald help students see more options for their futures, Pigott explained. Velma Jackson is fairly known for its thriving sports program. The Falcons football team played for the 2023 1A state championship in November. The boys’ powerlifting team recently won its 10th state championship, and both the school’s basketball teams made it to the second round of the state basketball playoffs. Careers in sports, though, are limited, and Pigott wants his students to see that they have avenues they may not have considered.

“It’s all about exposure. Rural Black communities all over Mississippi, all over the South, were left behind on exposure for so long,” Pigott, who has been at the school for nine years, said. “And it’s something that we really want to change because these fields need diversity. It has really shed light on different success stories and different paths that kids can take.”

‘These Communities Were Left Behind’

Pigott has now hosted more than 450 guest speakers in the six courses that he teaches. In his College and Career Readiness courses, he invites speakers whose occupations align with one of the 16 career clusters the class is studying. In others, he hosts speakers related to the field or a topic the class is discussing.

The featured guests have had varied, notable careers themselves. Captain Stephanie Grant, the co-pilot on the first ever all-Black female flight crew in American history, talked to students about jobs in aviation. Former Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr., told students about his legal career and deployment to Afghanistan after 9/11. Kesi Neblett, star of Netflix’s “The Mole,” discussed growing up with a civil-rights activist as a parent and her reality-TV career.

Howard University Swim Coach Nicholas Askew spoke to Greg Pigott’s students about water safety in Black communities. Howard boasts one of the only HBCU swim teams and in 2023 housed the only all-Black swim team, including coaches and supporting staff, in the country. Screenshot courtesy Greg Pigott

Pigott has found speakers from around the world including Africa, Jamaica and Honduras. He uses social media and Google research to find guests, and the calendar fills up months in advance.

“I’ve tried to find representatives from every career cluster, whether it be local or national,” Pigott said. “I’ve had some from Canada and the UK. Some of them I already know from my own personal network. … Other ones I have found on YouTube, through podcasts or on Instagram.”

The speakers represent a variety of races and genders. Pigott said this is important to students in rural Black communities.

“It goes back to access. So many fields were dominated by white men, not just in Mississippi, but nationwide. Women were limited in what they could do for years. Minorities were limited in what they could do for years. Immigrants were limited on what they could do for years,” he said. “Showing people that look like our kids, no matter where they come from, shows that there is opportunity. They are needed in these fields that maybe their grandparents never had access to.”

Ninth grader Kaden Williams takes Pigott’s College and Career Readiness course. Williams is interested in coding but also has an interest in nursing. He was excited to listen to Dr. LaTonya Carroll, a family nurse practitioner from Columbus, Ohio, who encouraged male students to consider the field.

“(Her talk) gave us more knowledge of what really is needed,” Williams said. “Some things we think we have to do, we don’t have to.”

Senior Chyanna Harvey plans to attend Jackson State University after her May graduation. Harvey, Ms. Velma Jackson 2023-2024, grew inspired to continue her dreams of working in real estate after Pigott’s mother, Kathy Richardson, spoke to Harvey’s personal finance class. Richardson explained the process for becoming a realtor, described a typical work day and advised them on how they could market themselves. The talk was Harvey’s first opportunity to speak to someone in the real-estate field.

“I was thinking about not doing it because a lot of people were saying you’re not always going to go home with money every day,” Harvey said. “(They said) you might not sell your houses as you think you might. But I’m still going to do it.”

Real-estate agent Kathy Richardson, mother to Greg Pigott, spoke to Velma Jackson High School students about careers in real estate and the process of buying a home. Screenshot courtesy Greg Pigott

Harvey said all the talks she has heard have been eye-opening and inspiring.

“If I had not taken Coach Pigott’s class, I don’t think I would have met those many people to encourage me to keep going or tell me about their life lessons and what they had to go through to get where they are right now,” she said.

Pigott records each speaker and makes the videos available to other Madison County schools and teachers. The recordings give students across the county access to insights into career options even beyond state borders. He adds that teachers are not always familiar with changing career trends and that speakers are able to provide the most current information.

“It’s not about me. I want to highlight this community and the fact that these kids are getting exposure,” Pigott said.  ‘… These communities were left behind, and we’re looking to change that.”

Anyone interested in sharing their career with Velma Jackson High School students can email Greg Pigott at cpigott@madison-schools.com.

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