Commodores Immersed in Opportunity

Vanderbilt student-athletes take part in courses to help grow network, experiences

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Faced with the reality of her impending senior season, followed by what professional path to follow after graduation, Emily Cohen knew going into this summer that she needed to start wrapping her mind around what the future holds.

So, like 34 other student-athletes at Vanderbilt, she enrolled in the Summer Immersion Experience, a program which relies on the vast Vandy alumni network and the testimonials of guest speakers to give the Commodores some guidance on the next step in life.

“I’m just hearing their experiences because I’m not totally sure what I want to do with my life – but a lot of these speakers didn’t either,” said Cohen, a distance runner for Vandy track and field. “Now looking where they are now it’s helpful. Being able to connect with all these people and grow our network is really helpful.

“It’s been nice to hear the different perspectives. They’ve brought in people from different industries and it’s been good to hear different options and what’s even available out there after you graduate.”

Vanderbilt’s Summer Immersion Experience was formed in response to the shifting summer due to COVID-19. It serves as an opportunity for Vanderbilt’s student-athletes to explore their futures where they complete an educational track in the first half of the program that supplements their consulting project in the latter half.

Students engage with guest speakers and alumni to understand other professionals’ trajectories and dream about their own. Former Vanderbilt men’s basketball Shan Foster, Roscrete Weath Management founder Reggie Ford and Jarrod Barnes of the Los Angeles Rams have been just a few of the speakers to virtually chat with the Immersion class.

“We kind of came together with our team at our center and said, ‘How can we create some more experience that has this dual academic and experiential opportunity for students?’ ” said Mario Avila, Director of the Vanderbilt Turner Family Center for Social Ventures. “Can we deliver academic content and also give students that kind of hands-on experience through some sort of consulting project/internship?”

Geared specifically for Vanderbilt student-athletes with course instruction facilitated through Coursera, the two-month program offers four weeks of online content followed by four weeks of consulting with different organizations in Nashville. Student-athletes have four different cohorts from which to choose from: entrepreneurship, consulting, social innovation and social impact.

Avila explained that the entire premise of the Experience is to offer future graduates windows into their professional options and to demonstrate just how far-stretching the Vandy alumni network is.

“I think the biggest thing is a different way to approach and to think about their careers and their time through this stage of their life,” he said. “I think one of the key questions that we ask them is really a very selfish question of what they want. I think often we forget to ask the student-athletes what it is they personally want out of their career?

“So an ability to be able to take a step back, to be open and to ask to explore different opportunities – I think that’s the biggest thing. For many of them it’s an, ‘a-ha,’ moment. ‘There are all these opportunities and I need to leverage and understand how powerful this network is.’ ”

Oren Milstein graduated from Columbia University earlier this year and decided to transfer to Vanderbilt for graduate school and his final year of athletic eligibility. He was a First Team All-Ivy League selection in 2016 and a finalist for the Fred Mitchell Award which is given annually to the nation’s best kicker.

In 2017, Milstein went 8-for-13 in field goal tries and converted 26 of 28 PATs.

He came to Nashville in June with an open mind about how to diversify his experience while pursuing a masters degree in marketing at the Owen Graduate School of Management. A group message to the football team earlier this summer explaining what the Immersion Experience was peaked Milstein’s interest.

So after soaking up a course called Business Innovation for Social Impact where Milstein learned how companies can create impacts on their immediate environments and how they can become more sustainable in finance, he’s now learning with the Vanderbilt University Credit Union on consulting.

“I’m unbelievably grateful for this opportunity – especially given the fact that I had no concrete plans coming into this summer and something so applicable to business, so applicable to the professional world was pretty much presented to me as I joined the Vanderbilt family,” Milstein said. “I’ll be grateful for this opportunity for a long time because this is an opportunity where I can directly act as a consultant and learn new consulting skills to apply directly to being a consultant.

“That’s something that I would like to do after my football career ends. I’m definitely extremely grateful for this Immersion Experience.”

While Vanderbilt student-athletes await the return of their respective sports, many are also awaiting the inevitable end of their competitive careers in one way or another. It’s a sobering – but truthful – thought for Commodores across all sports.

But Avila has seen the Summer Immersion Experience help Vanderbilt student-athletics grow in both their understanding of what the future holds and in their confidence in how to tackle that future.

“One of the best quotes from a student when we had our first session is how he modified how he described himself,” Avila said. “He said, ‘I’m a football player, but really I am Vanderbilt student that happens to play football.’

“It’s about that shift and that understanding of harnessing the amazing network and academic opportunities they have at Vanderbilt while playing at the top of their league.”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for Follow him @MrChadBishop.