Bridge Program prepares Vanderbilt freshmen

Aug. 9, 2017
By Zac Ellis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Michael Owusu listened intently as Neal Clark, an academic counselor at Vanderbilt, spoke to a group of student-athletes during a recent summer presentation on campus. The topic of the lecture was “Goal Setting,” a subject that struck a chord with Owusu, an incoming freshman linebacker on Vanderbilt’s football team.

“I went back to my dorm, went to my mirror and wrote down goals — long-term goals and short-term goals,”¬†Owusu said. “It really inspired me. Being a freshman, that will help me in the long run.”

Clark’s presentation was part of Vanderbilt’s Summer Bridge Program, a variety of workshops designed to assist new student-athletes in their transition to academic and athletic careers at Vanderbilt. Thirty-one incoming first-year students took in instructional sessions on topics ranging from academic integrity and college writing to financial management, networking and mental health. Most participating students enroll in three credits hours in June and three in July as well as provide weekly, written reflections on Bridge presentations.

Bridge workshops take place in collaboration with:

-Vanderbilt Psychological Counseling Center
-Student Accountability, Community Standards and Academic Integrity
-Vanderbilt Housing and Residential Education
-Dean of Students
-Vanderbilt University Police Department
-Vanderbilt Writing Studio
-Vanderbilt University Libraries
-Vanderbilt Career Center
-Center for Student Well-Being
-Dean of Commons
-Vanderbilt Recreation and Wellness Center
-University faculty members

As part of Bridge, Vanderbilt’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion provided a grant for programming that included discussions on Nashville and Vanderbilt’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, LQBTQI life at Vanderbilt and in the NCAA, Title IX’s impact on athletics, and two local bus tours. Incoming student-athletes also read and discuss Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. Written by Vanderbilt alum Andrew Maraniss, the book chronicles the journey of former VU student-athlete Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in the SEC.

“The Vanderbilt Athletics Summer Bridge program has been a great vehicle for introducing incoming student-athletes to campus and departmental resources, and helping them transition from high school to Vanderbilt expectations,” said Elizabeth Wright, Director of Academic Support and Assistant AD for Student Services at Vanderbilt. “Each year, the Bridge program has added new initiatives, and through our emphasis on the importance of academics, integrity, character, and leadership, each year the program has improved.”

Like Owusu, Paige Warren found herself influenced by the Bridge Program. In July, the freshman forward on Vanderbilt’s women’s basketball team joined other newcomers on a diversity bus tour around Nashville. Student-athletes visited Fisk University, the Islamic Center of Nashville and Plaza Mariachi. Earlier, they visited the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library.

“I definitely enjoyed going to the civil rights museum,” Warren said. “It focused on the history of Nashville and was probably one of my favorite experiences here. We had a woman discuss the backstories of the history of Nashville, and it included several artifacts we could interact with.”

Meanwhile, the opportunity to learn about Perry Wallace stuck with other student-athletes. Wallace was a nationally recruited basketball prospect from Nashville’s Pearl High School when he arrived at Vanderbilt, becoming the first African-American to play varsity basketball in the SEC. Strong Inside illustrates Wallace’s struggles in integrating college basketball in the South.

As part of the Bridge Program, Vanderbilt’s freshmen student-athletes were able to discuss Wallace’s story with Maraniss himself. Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in 1970, and he is currently a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. The totality of his journey made an impact on several incoming student-athletes.

“If Perry Wallace can do what he did, I can do a lot more today. He achieved a lot from very little chance,” said freshman basketball player Ejike Obinna. “I think it encourages us, especially me as a basketball player, that there is nothing impossible. [Just] keep the dream going and just keep moving.”

The Bridge Program also presented a number of real-world lessons to incoming freshmen. During one week, a panel of former Bridge participants imparted advice on how to successfully navigate college. The panel featured Vanderbilt soccer and track athlete Simone Charley, basketball player Kaleigh Clemons-Green and football players Nifae Lealao and Kyle Shurmur. Meanwhile, the student-athletes took in regular meetings with David Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director.

“What really stuck with me were the discussions with Vice Chancellor Williams,” said Colin Anderson, a freshman linebacker with Vanderbilt football. “I’m considering going into law school after football. Just listening to him and how mature he is, that’s the point you want to get to. That’s a role model who you can look up to.”

For Cooper Davis, Vanderbilt’s Bridge Program allowed him to acclimate to new surroundings. The incoming freshman on Vanderbilt’s baseball team hails from Canada and was hardly familiar with Nashville prior to arriving for the Bridge Program.

Now, like many of his new classmates, Davis feels prepared for his Commodore career.

“This Bridge Program has been an amazing opportunity for me,” Davis said. “I feel like I’m ahead of the game.”