Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 6, 2018

VOLeaders learn about life outside sports

Some of the participants in this year’s VOLeaders Academy - Rhiannon Potkey | Knoxville Ledger

They could already tell after the first few classes. There was something special about this group of VOLeaders at the University of Tennessee. They connected on a much deeper level than anyone envisioned.

“It was almost instantaneous. They came together so quickly and were so eager to learn and eager to get to know each other and willing to kind of let their guard down and just be them,” says Joe Scogin, UT senior associate athletics director, assistant provost and director of the Thornton Center.

“It’s been pretty amazing to watch them really care for one another in so many more ways than just VOLeaders.”

The VOLeaders Academy, which began in 2015, is a partnership between the UT Center for Leadership and Service, the Center for Sport, Peace and Society and the Athletics Department.

UT student-athletes selected for the program spend a year enrolled in courses to help each understand his or her individual leadership style and learn about leadership principles, professionalism, critical thinking and cross-cultural communication through sports.

By using their platform in sports, the student-athletes learn how to positively impact their team, campus and communities.

This year’s VOLeaders class includes 19 student-athletes representing 15 different sports:

  • Alyssa Andreno, volleyball
  • Channing Bearden, rowing
  • Mary Cayten Brakefield, swimming & diving
  • Marquez Callaway, football
  • Katie Cousins, soccer
  • Brayden Garrison, golf
  • Madison Graham, swimming & diving
  • Darryl Harris, track & field
  • Allison Herring, golf
  • Abby Lockman, softball
  • Emily Meier, track & field
  • Megan Murray, track & field
  • Nathan Murray, swimming & diving
  • Ariadna Riley, tennis
  • Chelsea Seggern, softball
  • Trey Smith, football
  • Garrett Stallings, baseball
  • Timo Stodder, tennis
  • Grant Williams, basketball

The group left last Friday for a 10-day cultural exchange trip to Ecuador that was to provide leadership opportunities focused on community development and social change through sport.

Stallings cut his successful pitching stint in the prestigious Cape Cod League short this summer to return for the journey with his classmates.

“I am really excited for us to get together and share some quality memories with each other,” Stallings says. “I am realizing how much I’ve missed them. We have really become like family. That’s how close we are.”

Over the last year, Stallings has been stretched and challenged to become a better leader and more compassionate teammate. He’s been inspired by some of his VOLeader classmates and the raw emotion they’ve displayed during group discussions.

“There are people that have shared things in class that they haven’t told their own parents. They talked to us about being vulnerable and opening up to each other, which in today’s society can be really challenging,” Stallings adds.

“But I think everyone is really comfortable with who they are personally, and we all understand what the others are going through.”

The VOLeaders showcased their support for each other far beyond the classroom. They socialized outside of school and frequently attended each other’s games and matches during the 2017-18 season.

Williams, the SEC Player of the Year in men’s basketball, was a regular at Tennessee softball games. He often sat next to Seggern’s family in the stands, doling out high fives to surrounding parents after big plays.

“I love going to their games and watching. The softball players are just as competitive on the field as we are on the basketball court,” Williams points out. “It’s been nice to talk to Chelsea and Abby in class about the sport. I like to tease them a little bit about their games, but I have really learned a lot.”

Seggern wanted to get involved with VOLeaders from the moment she stepped on campus. The rising junior watched other teammates go through the class and knew she would benefit.

“It’s really been even better than I thought it would be. I have grown in so many ways and met so many great people,” Seggern says. “I’ve not only become a better leader, but I’ve become so close with everyone in the class. I know I can count on them for anything.”

Andreno entered the VOLeaders program last fall as a kinesiology major, but she decided to switch to sports management a few months ago because of her experiences in the class.

“I have always wanted to help people, and I realized that working in sports is the way I want to do it,” Andreno explains.

“Being a part of the VOLeaders program has helped me so much to find the direction I want to take my life. I have absolutely adored every second of it. It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done in college.”

Andreno was given the chance to attend the Career in Sports Forum at the NCAA National Office in Indianapolis earlier this month.

“It was incredible. I learned a lot about a future career path and met a bunch of other student-athletes there,” she says. “I also got to share more about VOLeaders and what we do on a daily basis.

“So many of the kids told me they wished their schools or universities had that program. It’s truly life-changing.”

During their trip to Ecuador, the VOLeaders had a schedule jam packed with daily activities.

This year’s class dedicated a lot of time to the impact of sports on people with disabilities, and Bayron Lopez, the President of the Ecuadorian Paralympic Committee, offered to be UT’s host during the trip.

The VOLeaders co-hosted sports festivals involving disabled athletes in Quito and smaller villages, and they held a sports clinic for children at an elementary school in a lower-economic community.

They planned to visit the university in Quito to share experiences with students in the physical education department.

“Life is all about making relationships and getting to connect with people with disabilities and people who speak different languages through the power of sports is going to be pretty incredible,” Stallings says. “It’s going to be a little culture shock, but it’s going to be a fun experience.”

The VOLeaders were scheduled to visit the U.S. Embassy to spend time with the cultural affairs and sports diplomacy unit and tour the local Olympic and Paralympic training center.

“That is always a very eye-opening experience for our students because the athletes in the countries we visit are not as fortunate from a facilities standpoint and support standpoint,’’ Scogin explains.

“Our student-athletes realize how fortunate they are to have the level of training facilities and amenities we have at the university level.

“But it’s also a really neat thing to see how grateful the athletes in these other countries are for what they do have and how happy they are to be able to continue to train and continue their sport.”

Before leaving for Ecuador, the 19 VOLeaders stayed in touch through group text messages and social media.

Along with expressing excitement about the journey, they shared tips on how to pack and what to pack.

They were instructed to bring a journal to document the 10-day trip to allow them to better reflect on everything they would encounter.

“I really can’t wait to see everyone again and share this experience with them,” Andreno adds.

“I have literally met some of my best friends in this class. That has been my favorite part, being able to meet people and develop such close relationships.”