Preparing for Success

by Graham Hays

The Ingram Center trip to the Black Student-Athlete Summit and career trek experiences helped 16 Commodores transform dreams into professional development

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a hurdler, Vanderbilt’s Mya Georgiadis has expertise in not letting obstacles slow her. So when an injury cut short her sophomore season, scuttling aspirations to return to NCAA regionals for the second time in as many years and compete internationally for Greece, she found another way forward this summer.

Instead of chasing personal bests on tracks across the globe, Georgiadis stood on the rooftop deck of a Los Angeles hotel shortly after the end of the Vanderbilt academic year. Instead of track spikes, she wore business casual. Instead of competing against the other student-athletes in attendance, she discussed life experiences, professional aspirations and anything else that came to mind. In short, she networked.

She’s working hard on her competitive comeback, still determined to see how far she can go in the SEC and internationally. But as one of 16 Vanderbilt student-athletes who recently traveled to Southern California to participate in career trek programming and attend the ninth annual Black Student-Athlete Summit, she also enters her junior year inspired to apply the lessons of a life in athletics to the world that awaits beyond the finish line.

“Being able to look around and see so many student-athletes who looked like me, let alone who all want to network and grow, exposed me to and connected me with people from across the country,” Georgiadis said of mingling on the rooftop after a day spent learning about everything from entrepreneurship to social media to personal finances. “We’re sitting here and we’re the same age, we want to follow the same career path, we will definitely bump into each other down the line. So why not make connections now?

“During the day, it was like we were at school, taking notes and learning. But then afterwards, we grab food together and talk about our plans for the future. It was a really good mix of friendship and professional development all in one.”

Making Time for Growth

Organized by the Ingram Center for Student-Athlete Success and led by Amari Dryden, director of career development, the trip spanned seven days in Los Angeles.

The first half of the trip focused on career trek programming, with a variety of business leaders, innovators and alumni meeting with Vanderbilt student-athletes. During the second half of the trip, the Commodores participated in the Black Student-Athlete Summit. On the campus of the University of Southern California, the annual event brings together more than 1,500 student-athletes and university and business leaders “to offer personal and professional development resources to student-athletes to make them competitive in the global workforce upon graduation, as well as foster a sense of connection within the Black student-athlete community.”

For student-athletes like football rising senior Marlen Sewell, any week without some combination of classes, practices and games is a gift not taken lightly. But for years, the Birmingham, Alabama, native also heard teammates positively review their Black Student-Athlete Summit experiences. He wanted to attend, but conflicts kept getting in the way. Finally, with his time at Vanderbilt nearing an end, he didn’t hesitate to give up a week off.

“I always tell myself that you can’t play football for a hundred years,” Sewell said. “No matter if I make it to the NFL or not, it’s just not possible to keep playing your whole life. I need to know that I have people who I can connect with, so I can make sure that I can be successful with or without football. I want to set myself up for a successful life down the road.”

While the Ingram Center is adept at helping student-athletes find internships that fit their unique schedules, regularly assisting more than 70 Commodores find such opportunities, it’s a delicate balance. In a sport like track and field, summer is the height of international competition. The daughter of a Greek mother and American father, Georgiadis assumed her calendar would once again be full with the NCAA postseason and, after gaining dual citizenship, representing Greece. A torn ACL wasn’t in her plans. The silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud was time for a trip about which teammates raved.

“When I had to kind of redirect my focus, I became very much career-oriented,” Georgiadis said. “That’s why I really wanted to utilize this trip because a lot of times student-athletes, we don’t really have the summer to do internships—especially with track and field and our season.”

Choosing Your Path

Sewell knew early in life that he loved football. He wanted to play as long as humanly possible and at the highest level possible. The discipline to follow through on that dream led him to the SEC and Vanderbilt. Yet like a lot of teenagers, athletes or otherwise, he was decidedly less certain of what else he wanted to do in life. College affords you time to find that passion—and not only in the classroom. Long fascinated by social media videos depicting the latest trends in haircutting, Sewell started experimenting with it himself and discovered a talent and calling. He’s the barber of choice for many teammates, making good use of the barber’s chair in the football locker room.

“I really didn’t have anything that I could see myself doing other than playing football,” Sewell said. “My process was ‘NFL, NFL, NFL.’ But once I found something else that I’m good at—and that people appreciate me for—it made me realize that there are other things than being a ball player. My goal is still 100 percent to get to the NFL, but regardless, you have to have something else in your back pocket for your future.”

Jessica Campbell was among the guests who spoke to the Commodores during the career trek portion of the trip. Founder of the PO3 Agency, she helps brands and individuals develop marketing, public relations and social media strategies. In the one-on-one time student-athletes had with each presenter, Sewell mentioned his interest in building barbering into a full-fledged business opportunity. Campbell not only offered tips on enhancing his social media presence but has remained in touch in the weeks since to offer advice on the videos he puts out to express his artistry and gain a following.

The career trek included a day learning from music industry figures like Jeremiah J. Marshall, former financial adviser at Roc Nation, and Tony Clark, a music manager.

Another day featured a panel discussion with Premier Lacrosse League staff, whose job responsibilities run the gamut from social media to ticketing to social impact.

Vanderbilt football alumnus Chris Krause meets with Commodores in Los Angeles. 

Current student-athletes heard from Vanderbilt alumni such as former football standout Chris Krause, founder of NSCA college recruiting. Krause outlined his journey from Vanderbilt to starting and building a company to the myriad entrepreneurial and service initiatives that currently occupy him. He used his story to illustrate how forming genuine connections, staying in touch and leveraging Vanderbilt’s alumni network for mentors and job opportunities were indispensable tools in career development and personal growth.

As the week progressed, an entertainment industry day featured alumnus Charles King, CEO and founder of MACRO, a multiplatform media company committed to “representing the voice and perspectives of Black people and persons of color.” Former women’s basketball All-American Chantelle Anderson also met with the participants, lending her perspective as a podcaster and public speaker.

Amid all the valuable insights, Georgiadis also forged an especially valuable connection with Campbell. Where Sewell was captivated by barbering videos he found on social media, Georgiadis grew up fascinated by the medium itself. She appreciates the artistry that goes into conveying a visual message and the opportunity to craft a narrative. Last fall, the human and organizational development major even had the opportunity to complete an internship with the Tennessee Titans’ social media team. In a perfect world, she would love to one day live in Greece and work in social media, perhaps with one of the basketball-loving country’s professional teams, before returning to work with an NBA team.

Chatting about those dreams with Campbell, the latter broached the idea of a summer internship with PO3 that Georgiadis could complete from Nashville. Instead of a “lost” summer as she rehabs her injury, Georgiadis gained a mentor.

“I’m working with influencers, celebrities and all these different campaigns,” Georgiadis said. “I get to be very hands-on with them, but I’m also learning the ropes at the same time. So not only is it allowing me to help someone else, but it’s helping me with my own social media because I’m learning the ropes from a trained professional.”

Connecting with the World

After four days of career trek experiences, the Vanderbilt contingent moved to the Black Student-Athlete Summit.

Each day, participants selected from a variety of sessions, with subjects including everything from the everyday realities of pursuing professional sports in a foreign country to the perspectives of Black pioneers in predominantly white sports to a financial education panel moderated by WNBA standout and ESPN contributor Chiney Ogwumike. Afternoon breakout sessions allowed student-athletes to dive deeper into subjects—Georgiadis, for instance, sought out sessions geared toward social media and brand development.

Beyond the content in each session, the sheer scale of the summit helped reinforce perhaps the most important takeaway for Georgiadis and Sewell: Simply being around so many of their peers, as well as recent student-athletes transitioning to the working world, made clear the importance of networking and mentoring.

For young people used to balancing the demands of academics and athletics, it’s easy—and even useful—to stay in a bubble, limiting interactions to what’s needed to get through the day, week, semester or year. But the more connections you make along the way, whether with classmates, professors, alumni or just like-minded people from every walk of life, the more inspiration you’ll find. And the more doors you’ll find open in the long run.

“The trip opened my eyes,” Sewell said. “Networking was something I was having trouble doing, just speaking with people and reaching out. But after the trip, it changed my whole perspective. Everybody knows someone, and everybody has something they’re good at. Just getting it in my head to get out of my comfort zone and talk to people helped. You find time for what’s important to you, and this business is really important to me.”

The Future Awaits

Sewell remains intent on playing football professionally. But he will also graduate in December with expanded goals. A medicine, health and society major named to the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll each of the past two years, he’s still interested in physical therapy—another path he found and followed at Vanderbilt. And reinforced by the lessons and advice gained during a week in Los Angeles, he may yet follow entrepreneurial dreams the same way he once followed gridiron aspirations.

Georgiadis has more time remaining in her Vanderbilt journey, but she’s equally eager to begin applying what she’s learned toward the future she wants. In addition to the summer internship with PO3, for instance, she helped with the track and field team’s vibrant social media presence this past spring. She’s ready to make the most of her time as a student-athlete by preparing for a time when she’s no longer either.

“Now, it’s like I have my hand in two worlds on campus,” Georgiadis said. “This year, with my first major injury, it has showed me that I’m so much more than just an athlete. You can be a student-athlete and also be focused and career-oriented. I think the summit showed me that you are more than just an athlete. Taking a deep dive into what being a student-athlete means to you, while figuring out what you want to do career-wise, is so beneficial.”

The following student-athletes participated in the Ingram Center’s Los Angeles trip: Jada Brown (women’s basketball), Mustafa Dannett (football), BJ Diakite (football), Isaiah Fontan (football), Melania Fullerton (soccer), Quantaves Gaskins (football), Mya Georgiadis (track and field), Jalen Gilbert (football), Chase Gillespie (football), Taylor McKinnon (track and field), Milan Ming (track and field), Jacob Rolen (football), Marlen Sewell (football), Jameson Wharton (football), Madyson Wilson (track and field) and  Alan Wright (football).

Additionally, the following staff helped lead the trip: Amari Dryden, Brandon Floyd, Morgan Jackson and George Smith.


Guatemalan Life Lessons

For 16 Vanderbilt student-athletes, the Ingram Center’s Guatemala service trip opened eyes to global issues of social impact, sustainability and healthcare