From Atlanta to Queens: Two Students’ Quest for Identity and Purpose

Freshmen TyRon Simmons and Anneka Russ never thought they’d find a home in performance. The MBU community brought it out of them.

Sometimes, Mary Baldwin students have no idea how interested they are in something until they try it.

That’s been the story for MBU students for centuries now, and it’s no different for Anneka Russ ‘27 and TyRon Simmons ‘27. Together, and at the behest of some critical faculty members, they’ve discovered an interest in performance and a world of creative possibilities.

It all started with choosing Mary Baldwin.

“Coming here and seeing the area, meeting the people, I instantly could see myself here for four years,” Russ recalled. “I always thought I would go to a bigger school, but I realized over time that I wanted something smaller.”

Russ grew up in Atlanta, but she went to high school in Richmond. There, she had an influential teacher, Joella Saffore ‘09, an alumna who encouraged her to give MBU a chance.

Simmons hails from farther away – Southeast Queens, New York. He came up through the Eagle Academy, which is the only all-male public school in New York City. According to Simmons, “It’s made to ensure that young minority men in urban areas get to have the opportunities that they might not have if the academy never existed.”

He adds, “The Eagle Academy’s dream is to stop the school-to-prison pipeline that exists for so many minorities in America.”

Mary Baldwin has partnered with the Eagle Academy, which is a seven-year program from sixth to 12th grade, since 2022. This partnership aims to carry on that dream by offering high-quality higher education to graduates of the program. 

President Jeff Stein visited the Eagle Academy this past fall, and it was on a similar MBU visit in 2022 that Simmons decided to give Mary Baldwin a chance.

President Stein meeting with Eagle Academy leaders in NYC.

For both Russ and Simmons, it was a human connection that drew them to Mary Baldwin, and that human connection has helped them thrive here, too.

Both students are heavily involved in extracurricular activities on campus – particularly those connected to minority clubs and organizations. Russ explains, “A lot of what I’ve gotten involved in has been through the Ida B. Wells Living Learning Community. Remix the Hymn, Kwanzaa, a lot of stuff with Rev. Scott.”

Reverend Andrea Cornett-Scott, Mary Baldwin’s chief diversity officer, plays an important role in the lives of students like Simmons and Russ.

Coming to a small town and a small college from one of the world’s most developed metropolises can mean a difficult adjustment. Luckily for Simmons, MBU was there for him: 

“What’s really been helpful for me is the Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIE). They’ve made sure that I have support, that I have a community, and all of those programs under Rev. Scott and [OIE Director] Destiny Woodall have been so instrumental. But also encouraging me to meet people who don’t look like me, which is a great balance of comfort and stepping out of your comfort zone.”

Together, Simmons and Russ performed in this year’s Kwanzaa celebration in a performance called “This Life Ain’t Free.” It was a spoken-word piece, an adaptation of a song from Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winning album To Pimp a Butterfly. Their experience with performing in these events during their freshman year has inspired both students to seek out more performance opportunities.

“I never wanted anything to do with acting and singing. I grew up dancing, but I never thought about performing in ways like that,” Russ said. 

Simmons said the same, “I’ve never been in a play or anything before. I did take an acting class last semester and that showed me I could do it.”

Russ’ next step was to audition for the spring play. “Rev. Scott recommended that we in the Ida B. Wells community go for auditions with JP.” That’s JP Schiedler, associate professor of theatre and Shakespeare and Performance. Schiedler, along with Associate Dean Dr. Kerry Cooke and Assistant Professor Molly Seremet, has been leading the charge to diversify the undergraduate theatre. 

That diversification means partnering with MBU’s African American theatre group, Kuumba Players, and producing plays that are inclusive of MBU’s already diverse campus.

MBU Theatre is producing Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, famed black playwright and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And, in this play, Simmons and Russ have found their part. 

It was a surprise for Simmons, who explained, “A few of my friends got me to audition for Intimate Apparel with them.”

 “Lo and behold I got the callback and then I came in and read the play. And I was like ‘I’m not sure if I can do this.’ But then the more I thought about it the more it made sense.”

While Kwanzaa, the upcoming play, and other performance events have been enlightening for them, these commitments are still supplements to their goals at MBU.

Russ intends to be a science major. “My current main track I’m leaning toward is biology with a biomedical emphasis,” Russ reports. “The plan would be to go to medical school and to take a DO track, Doctor of Osteopathic medicine, and focus on women’s health.”

Simmons is a little more committal with his plans – despite being a freshman, he’s already declared his major in elementary education.

“I didn’t have my first Black male teacher until I was a freshman in high school,” Simmons recalls. “Students should be able to see themselves on the other side of the classroom. I want to go back to New York to teach at Eagle and be that person for them.”

There are lots of ways you can support students like Anneka Russ and TyRon Simmons. Consider attending a performance of Intimate Apparel between February 15 and February 18. If you’re not nearby this weekend, a donation to Mary Baldwin University can keep Mary Baldwin’s mission for accessible, transformative education going for years to come.