Do What You Can

by Graham Hays

In going all in as a runner and a double major, Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year finalist Kaira Brown embodies Ashe’s commitment to improving communities.

A little serendipity can go a long way. Or in the case of Vanderbilt senior and Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year finalist Kaira Brown, roughly a quarter of a mile in less than a minute.

Brown wasn’t called to track and field. In middle school, signing up for the track and field team offered a spring reprieve from physical education classes. She reasoned that running was her favorite part of soccer, her fall reprieve, so why not cut out the part with the ball?

And while she is now an accomplished 400-meter runner, she didn’t exactly set her sights on that longest of sprints. That race, which demands a blend of speed, competitiveness and stubborn will, chose her—with some help from coaches.

From unassuming beginnings, Brown seized her opportunity and, well, ran with it—all the way to Vanderbilt. Here, she has competed in the nation’s most competitive conference and challenged herself at a world-class university, from which she will soon graduate with honors as a double major in public policy studies and Latino and Latina studies. And along the way she picked up school records and the 2022 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the 4×400 relay.

What began as a good way to get out of PE class grew into a journey—one that she hopes will continue with a career in public policy that helps change communities for the better.

It’s a journey now recognized by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine, sponsor of the annual Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Awards. Brown is already the sport award recipient for women’s track and field and cross country, selected from across all three NCAA divisions. She is also one of four finalists across all sports for the Female Athlete of the Year Award. Presented annually, the award named in Ashe’s honor recognizes “outstanding, young minority men and women who have distinguished themselves in their academic and athletic pursuits.” Winners will be announced before the magazine’s April 27 edition.

(Pictured above, the 4×400 team that qualified for the 2022 NCAA Outdoor Championships, from L to R: Haley Bishop, Taiya Shelby, Madison Fuller, Brown. Photo: Karlee Sell.)

"I think there's just something about running for your teammates that makes it, at least for me, a lot more special and probably gives you a little extra push. I honestly think I run better with a baton in my hand."

Kaira Brown

Born nearly a decade after the civil rights icon, social activist and tennis legend passed away, and looking back nearly 50 years after he won his last Grand Slam title, Brown is nonetheless aware of his legacy and the honor of being nominated for the award.

“I know that he was a really great tennis player, but also super involved in a lot of other community service and scholarship aspects,” Brown said. “Sometimes today, you hear people say athletes like LeBron and other athletes should just shut up and dribble. He very much was not that. He lived a full life. Athletics was a huge part of that, but he also had other contributions to society.”

Her path to being a finalist for the award named in his honor embodies one of his lessons.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Long interested in history and political science, Brown knew she wanted to study public policy in college. The availability of the major was one of the reasons Vanderbilt most appealed to her. But not unlike finding the 400 meters, her second major was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Required to take a freshman writing seminar, she settled on Growing Up Latino and Latina with Gretchen Selcke, assistant director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx studies. Rather than the broad strokes of political history she’d learned in high school classes, she was enthralled by the social history and often intensely personal perspectives of the course’s reading material.

“I’ve always loved to read, and so that’s a lot more memoir-based. … Political science is a lot more about reading academic articles,” Brown explained. “Having that balance has been super fun throughout my academic career.”

Going all in on that newfound path, she applied to the College Scholars Honors Program, initially to be able to sign up for one of Selcke’s classes on Caribbean literature. As the semesters passed and she continued exploring, she realized she was only a few credits shy of fulfilling the requirements for the Latino and Latina studies major, in addition to her public policy major. The two interests dovetailed in her honors thesis on education and the American dream in Latina memoir literature, with an emphasis on how the education system helps Latina students achieve success during and after school and what policy goals might improve that system.

She hopes to work in social policy, with urban planning among the spheres that most intrigue her. One of the papers she wrote in her studies that was most illuminating and meaningful to her was on housing issues in Nashville. She leaves Vanderbilt with an appreciation of the big-picture policy challenges of rising costs in the rental and ownership markets and a shortage of affordable housing construction, but also for the stories of the people whose lives and futures are upended on a daily basis by the issue.

“Not only the literal problem of people not being able to afford housing, but also all the political challenges associated with all of those solutions,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, people need housing. Those are the kind of issues that are really interesting to me—things like housing, city planning and how do we make a city accessible for everyone.”

She will continue her studies at Georgetown University, where she was accepted into the master’s program in public policy. But even if she wasn’t busy with the SEC Championships during Commencement weekend and could attend the ceremony, it wouldn’t be her final act at Vanderbilt.

A year after she and her 4×400 relay teammates qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, they are intent on again advancing to the biggest stage in collegiate track and field. As a sophomore, the relay team of Brown, Madison Fuller, Taiya Shelby and Jordan Smith advanced to NCAA regionals but missed out on advancing to the championships by one finishing place—just three-tenths of a second. In 2022, Haley Bishop, Brown, Fuller and Shelby committed to finishing at least one place better.

“I think we talked about it almost as a given,” Brown said. “We were going to go to each meet, then go to regionals, then go to nationals. We had a lot of confidence in ourselves in that way. We knew we were almost even a stronger team than we had been the year before. And more than that, we had been on a regional stage and knew more about what that experience was like. We felt really prepared to be a nationally qualifying team.”

Last month, again teaming with Shelby and joined by Allyria McBride and Brooke Overholt, the Commodores finished third and set a school indoor record in the 4×400 relay in the SEC Indoor Championships. Returning to the Outdoor Championships, improving on last season’s showing and setting a new school outdoor record all remain goals to chase beyond Commencement.

For Brown, it represents the best possible way to honor the bonds of community that have steered and shaped her Vanderbilt experience. The stories she read that brought her closer to people and groups. The commitment to build better communities for those struggling in the present. And the collaboration of four women working together to run a mile as quickly as they can, while enjoying their time together for as long as possible.

“I love racing, and I’ll race by myself, but the relay is my favorite event in track—any event, whether or not I compete in it,” Brown said “I think there’s just something about running for your teammates that makes it, at least for me, a lot more special and probably gives you a little extra push. I honestly think I run better with a baton in my hand.”

Take it and run with it.


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