July 1, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– “Keep your eye on the ball” is an important piece of advice for students in all walks of life, but especially for student-athletes.
That piece of advice was particularly relevant — both metaphorically and literally — last Friday and will be for the next four Fridays as 35 incoming freshmen participate in the first-ever JumpStart Jackets Program, a special orientation for Tech student-athletes.
“As we continue to seek out resources to better prepare our student-athletes ‘to be champions in academics,’ this inaugural JumpStart Jackets summer bridge program will immediately impact our newest freshmen in transitioning to Georgia Tech,” said Phyllis LaBaw, associate athletic director for student services. “This academic staff has worked extremely hard at collaborating with campus partners, including faculty, to present a series of programs each Friday during this five-week summer session.”
Metaphorically, the ball upon which incoming freshmen should be keeping an eye is this five-part series of informative and interactive presentations covering everything Georgia Tech, from useful apps and other campus resources in getting acquainted with the campus to proper nutrition.
The literal ball is a tennis ball, which is held by Senior Academic Coordinator Melissa Wheeler and is liable to be lofted in the direction of any student-athlete whose head might find comfort while placed down on the desk in front of them or whose eyes might grow heavy and close as opposed to being focused on presentations during the two one-hour sessions per Friday.
Wheeler didn’t have to show off her arm in the initial session — “I was prepared to, though,” she said with a laugh — and believes there shouldn’t be much need to, as the sessions were designed to hold the student-athletes’ interest.
“Our staff in academics really wanted to make sure that the way that we were presenting it was appealing to the student-athletes,” she said. “They sit in class all week long. We wanted this to mimic class a little bit but also be some sort of a team-building activity that they have each Friday. I think that the message was communicated.”
JumpStart Jackets began innocently enough following a conversation a few months back between Wheeler and director of academic services Chris Breen.
“Chris came to me and said he wanted me to kind of spearhead this effort,” she recalled. “It started a couple of months ago with myself, (assistant director of academic services) Whitney Burden and (academic coordinator) Rudy Wilson. We sat in a room and just came up with some ideas, and it kind of went from there. We’ve met as a staff, we’ve met in small groups. Everybody on this staff has had a big hand in it. A couple of months later, here we are with JumpStart Jackets.”
The initial session began with a brief laying down of the ground rules. First off, this was to be treated like a class — be on time, which means 9:55, no hats, no food or drinks. There is no cellphone usage. Anyone caught on their phone will find the tennis ball coming at them, then have to answer a question regarding the topic at hand. Failure to properly answer that question, meant coming up and singing the Georgia Tech fight song to the entire group. That was done once and should serve as a deterrent.
With the ground rules established, academic advisor Sunsea Williams went into the first presentation.
The first hour featured brief remarks from deputy director of athletics Brett Daniels, a track and cross-country runner at SMU who spent 25 years in the Dallas Cowboys’ front office. Daniels expounded on the advantages of a Georgia Tech education in the real world. The group then did a team-building exercise in non-verbal communication in which each row had to line up from oldest to youngest without speaking.
Williams concluded the first session by going through BuzzPort and T-Square, important applications in which student-athletes can do everything from signing up for classes, confirming their schedule and getting email to receiving assignments, class syllabus, grades and messages from professors to getting the Tech Trolley schedule.
Following a short break, the session was treated to a special presentation with Dr. Seletha Butler, assistant professor of business law and ethics on “How To Be Successful In a GT Classroom.” A big sports fan, Dr. Butler combined subtle life tips such as repeating a person’s name when first meeting them, raising one’s hand with confidence, and learning the likes of one’s professors. She concluded her hour with a YouTube video featuring Academy Award- and Golden Globe-nominated actor Will Smith on conquering one’s fears, then led a team-building exercise on conquering their fears.
The group concluded day one by heading to lunch and getting its first nutritional lessons from Tech’s director of Total Person Support Services Leah Thomas.
Wheeler was in a good spirits with one session in the books.
“I think it went well,” she said. “Our major concern was we wanted to make sure the student-athletes were engaged and they got a lot out of the sessions. I think that they came with the right mindset and that we were able to connect with them on the topics we were talking to them about. We wanted to make sure the points hit home and I think we accomplished that.
“Dr. Butler is one of the best professors we have in our business school,” she added. “To have her come and talk to them, she provided an insight from the professor perspective. I think that is really big to have here in the summer as they’re starting to, then ultimately, take classes and be students here at Georgia Tech.”
Butler, whose presence Wheeler credited to LaBaw, enjoyed the opportunity to address the group. It’s something she’d have liked when she was an undergrad at Alabama.
“I was an academic tutor, so I’ve always been involved with athletics,” she said. “When I came to Georgia Tech, I started teaching some of the student-athletes, and just from all students across the board, I started taking notes on different things that I wished/ would have known when I was going through undergrad. I thought it would be really helpful for them. I connected with Phyllis at the Athletic Association and was telling her about some of the things that I saw as information that would help students. It went from there.
“There are two things that I want the students to get: You’re here because you’re supposed to be, and enjoy this learning experience,” she added. “I love it because personalities in the classroom translate to the field and vice-versa. The field or the court or the track, whatever they’re on, the way they perform there will also be something that’s reflective of how they engage in the classroom. So I enjoy because I sort of see how they engage with me play out in another environment.”
The athletes enjoyed the first session.
“I think it was a GREAT start,” said offensive lineman Parker Braun, a Literature, Media and Communications major, and the younger brother of, Trey, who started the final 34 games of his career, graduated in 2014, making the Dean’s list five times in the process, and is finishing up his master’s. “We don’t have classes on Friday over the summer, so I think it’s great to still get moving and get thinking and really learning a lot of stuff that will immediately impact our lives.”
“It’s always good to get a jumpstart as far as classes and things,” said Brandon Adams, an Economics major and defensive lineman. “With the student-athletes, we’re all sort of in the same boat. It doesn’t matter what sport we play. My favorite part of today was with Dr. Butler. She really engaged with us. This was a really good closing to the JumpStart Jackets for today.”
There are four more sessions, covering Classroom Success & Library Tour, Academic Integrity & Academic Research, Communication & Tour of Clough Commons, and finally, Campus Resources, Major Exploration & Reflection, with a final luncheon that will include a superlatives awards presentation. In addition to the Friday meets there will be four Leadership Academy sessions taking place on Wednesday nights. That initiative is in its seventh year, is run by Thomas, the program’s creator, with the goal of helping student-athletes become better leaders on campus and in the community.
Wheeler is looking forward to seeing how future JumpStart Jackets sessions play and feels the student-athletes will as well.
“Every week we’re going to try to do something a little different and make sure that they’re getting a new topic but that they’re also having fun,” she said. “We put a lot of effort into trying to come up with the best ways to get that information to them.”