Sometimes they fill in as mother or father, laying down the law or gently prodding their charges along. On other days, they can be a sister or brother, teasing and laughing. They can be psychologists, too, offering analysis or suggesting coping mechanisms. But most importantly, they are trusted friends.
Every day, the athletics academic advisors at Tennessee State play a jack-of-all-trades role. Their schedules are filled with visits from student-athletes, and depending on the subject being studied or the student-athlete’s mood, the academic advisor’s role can switch in a matter of minutes.
Patience is key to success in a position that goes unsung outside intercollegiate athletics. Academic advisors perform in a low-visibility, high-expectation field and often are noticed only when someone wants an answer for something that has gone astray.
Their story, on campuses throughout college athletics, sounds similar to their more visible coaching counterparts: They’re focused on getting wins, though each school must do it with different resource levels. Financial resources are slim on campuses like Tennessee State — one of many historically black colleges and universities that operate on limited budgets. In the Ohio Valley Conference, which doesn’t possess a huge media contract to help cover expenses, schools like Tennessee State compete at the Division I level by doing as much as they can with less funding.
But the advisors are driven by something bigger. The coaches on their teams can prepare their athletes to win big in games. The athletes themselves can make big plays that will be remembered for days, even months afterward. But the plays drawn up in these study rooms — setting student-athletes on a path to improving their grades, forging important relationships and building self-reliance — can provide a foundation to prepare these athletes for the rest of their lives.
As the quarterback for Tennessee State six years ago, Jeremy Perry cast an imposing presence as the team’s captain at 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, while twice making the Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll.
Today, he’s still casting an inspiring presence.
Perry completed his undergraduate degree in mass communications: radio and television production in 2011. Then, after earning his master’s degree in sports administration, he returned to work as a full-time academic advisor at Tennessee State in 2014. This year, after department head Johnnie Smith departed for another position at the university, Perry was promoted to assistant athletics director for academics, leading a team that, at full strength, has three full-time staff members and two graduate assistants to support around 250 student-athletes.
Each day, on the hilly campus in the northwest corner of Nashville, Tennessee, Perry and his staff settle in on the second floor of the renovated Edna Rose Hankal Hall, a former dormitory. Students walk in and take their spaces at some of the more than two dozen work stations. Many come to Perry and his team with questions — about classes, assignments or just life.
Perry’s presence offers those student-athletes a firsthand look at what a degree from their school can mean. And when they enter his office, complaining about being worn out from the physical demands of their sport, Perry can lean back on his experience to offer some sympathy — and some toughness.
“When they come in and say they are tired from practice or from a weight room workout, I understand what they are going through, but it isn’t an excuse,” Perry says. “We don’t want them thinking that it is OK to be a mediocre student. We don’t operate that way in our department. Academics aren’t about being average and just getting by. We want them to be great as a student. We tell them to approach it the same way they want to be great as an athlete.”
Tennessee State Director of Athletics Teresa Phillips hopes Perry’s example has a lasting impact. She points to the leadership skills Perry developed as a captain for his team and how he is using them in his professional career. Now the student-athletes who were freshmen and sophomores when Perry joined the department three years ago can see that Perry earned his promotion through the work he has done helping them.
On this September day, Perry starts with an 8 a.m. staff meeting. There, Precious Bailey and Kenita Stokes, two members of his team, update each other and develop a game plan for the day. Each member of the academic services staff is assigned specific teams. Perry’s group, for example, includes men’s basketball, men’s and women’s golf, women’s track and field, and women’s volleyball.
The student-athletes begin flowing through the doors an hour later, many coming in the early part of the week for scheduled individual meetings. They write their names on a sign-in sheet to record their weekly hours. The time each student-athlete must spend in mandatory study halls differs from team to team. The traffic remains steady.
The tone and tenor of the conversations vary. Just like with coaching, some students respond better to a hug, and some need direct comments to help spark their academic interests.
“A lot of the kids like pacifiers,” says Bailey, who has worked at Tennessee State for a year and a half after a stint at Jackson State. “My biggest thing is for them to take personal responsibility with their academics.”
A few members of the women’s track and field team find their way to Perry’s office. The banter is light and focuses on things going on around campus while the students partake in a peanut butter sandwich snack that is laid out on a table.
Another women’s track and field athlete has made her way to one of the second-floor study rooms. The student-athlete isn’t showing her normal disposition; Stokes notices immediately. She strikes up a conversation and asks her how things are going.
It’s moments like these that build trust between an academic advisor and a student-athlete.
Later in the afternoon, Perry meets with a member of the men’s basketball team. The tone of early September discussion already centers on the importance of the student-athlete completing his course work in a fall class. The talk is frank, but there is no sense of panic. The meeting ends with a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished.
In the best moments, Perry notices the student-athletes realizing that graduating from college is a realistic goal. But surrounding those moments are conversations about life in general that can be just as important. They talk about something going on at home. Trouble with a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Difficulties caring for a child. In those moments, Perry and his team must be more than just academic helpers. They need to provide a caring voice — because sometimes helping students earn a better grade starts with giving them a friend to turn to.
“That’s when you start to get a better understanding of why they do the things they are doing in the classroom,” Perry says. “A lot of these things impact what they do in the classroom.”
While Perry’s team can be caring and supportive and motivating, it takes more to turn C’s and D’s into A’s and B’s.
Just like success on the field, the academic success of student-athletes can be tied to the facilities they have. New facilities can help coaches recruit. They can help players perform better. And in the academic support world, having facilities for studying and working can help students achieve better grades.
But like many schools, those extra resources are a luxury for Tennessee State. When Perry was playing there, the academic support services team operated from a basement. The space wasn’t conducive to creating great study habits. Privacy was nonexistent. It wasn’t a setting where everyone could do their best academic work. So perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that, in 2011-12, four of Tennessee State’s teams fell below the minimum Academic Progress Rate score of 930 that programs must meet to be eligible for NCAA championships.
Then the NCAA’s Accelerating Academic Success Program Grants became available for the 2012-13 school year. The NCAA grant was created to provide support for schools as they worked to meet the Association’s academic standards. The funds assist limited-resource Division I schools as they develop programs and systems designed to increase graduation rates and ensure the academic success of their student-athletes.
Tennessee State was one of the initial recipients of the awards, receiving a three-year, $900,000 grant.
The infusion of $300,000 per year helped renovate a former dormitory into the three-story building where the academic services team was relocated. Many of the school’s coaches and athletics and university administrators now have offices in the facility.
Tennessee State also was able to hire another full-time staffer for academic services, build a computer lab with 28 work stations, create study hall rooms and add a relaxation room filled with beanbag chairs and soft furniture where student-athletes can take the edge off a hectic day. The department has purchased around 70 tablet computers that can be checked out and taken on the road to help student-athletes keep up with their class assignments.
Overnight, Hankal Hall turned into a place the student-athletes couldn’t wait to enter. And once the academic center became a desired hangout, better grades followed.
Since the grant was awarded in 2012, the cumulative GPA of Tennessee State’s student-athletes has risen from 2.1 to 3.1, and all of Tennessee State’s athletics teams have surpassed the Academic Progress Rate minimum of 930.
Phillips doesn’t believe it is a coincidence.
“We demand excellence from the student-athletes, but we were putting them in a small basement for their academics,” Phillips says. “These kids have friends at major institutions, and they know what type of facilities their friends are using. This grant came at the right time for us. It shows the kids that we were putting the money in places to benefit them.”
The funding has brought more than improved grades, too.
It has allowed the school to help pay for more student-athletes to attend summer school and for 20 of them to take a three-week study-abroad class in Germany in 2014.
The athletics department also can help send freshmen and incoming transfers — some of whom are the first in their families to attend college — to a universitywide academic boot camp held in June. The new students have a chance to get acclimated to college life through the four-week program. Aside from preparing for their academic work, they learn a few basics to help them succeed on campus: getting up early, being on time and finding their classes.
Perry looks at the differences before and after the grant as an example of how the Accelerating Academic Success Program is a step in the right direction.
“It’s important to recognize that playing field isn’t the same for everyone,” Perry says. “We don’t have the same resources as Vanderbilt, and we’re in the same city. We are dealing with a different type of kid. There needs to be more of an understanding of that.”
Early in the 2017 fall semester, graduate students Raven Davis and Taylor Green check in separately to talk with the academic services team, but not because they need help with a class.
Davis chats with some former teammates before catching up with Perry. Their conversation sounds like a mentor talking with an appreciative mentee — the type of family atmosphere that first attracted Davis to Tennessee State.
Davis, a former sprinter on the track team, graduated in the spring with a degree in human performance with a concentration in sports science. Perry helped convince her on a daily basis that earning a college degree was obtainable. The academic services team also aided her transition from Cloud County Community College in Kansas to a more challenging academic setting at Tennessee State. Davis never considered graduate school before coming to Tennessee State, but she eventually started thinking bigger about her academic goals. Now she is a graduate assistant for the school’s strength and conditioning staff with plans to pursue a career as a personal trainer or to work on a college’s strength and conditioning staff.
“You feel that someone is looking out for you when it comes to academics,” Davis says of Perry’s team.
That was important to Green, too. She played softball at Tennessee State, graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, and today is a softball graduate assistant across town at Trevecca Nazarene, where she is in an organizational leadership master’s program.
But Green isn’t sure any of that would’ve happened without the academic services team’s help. She transferred to Tennessee State from Walters State Community College in the eastern part of the state. Venturing to an HBCU campus in the state’s capital city brought a bit of culture shock. The academic services staff helped her adjust to a faster-paced life and focus on what she wanted to accomplish after she graduated.
“They not only were mentors, but I felt a personal bond with them,” Green says. “When I graduated, I knew that meant I had to be a grown-up. That was a scary feeling because you don’t want to be a grown-up yet. But they stress that part about life after you leave here.”
It’s early in the fall semester, but Perry already is meeting with men’s basketball assistant coach Pierre Jordan to discuss the academic standing of the players on the roster.
Working closely with the coaches throughout the department is as important to the success of Perry’s team as developing bonds with the student-athletes. Talks like this one help eliminate any surprises when it comes to eligibility issues. Their discussion focuses on where each member of the team stands academically. If necessary, they’ll also set a plan for student-athletes who need additional tutoring in a class.
“Academics have to be the No. 1 thing for us,” head men’s basketball coach Dana Ford says. “Whatever academic services says, I support it. We had nine basketball players with a 3.0 or higher (in the 2015-16 season).”
Tennessee State football coach Rod Reed also sets aside time during the season for Stokes to speak with his team every Monday afternoon, the football players’ day off.
Reed leans on the academic support staff to help his team succeed. A team rule requires anyone with less than a 2.75 GPA to attend evening study hall.
“It’s all about time management,” says Reed, who is in his eighth season leading the Tigers. “I know I’m a control freak, but I have to trust our academic services team. They’ve done a great job of getting me to understand the Academic Progress Rate. I know they have everyone’s best interest at heart, and we work together as a team.”
But academic concerns aren’t the only focus. Monroe Walker, the men’s and women’s tennis coach at Tennessee State, has players from India, Serbia and the Republic of Georgia. Walker’s international students have the highest GPAs on their teams. They take academics seriously and understand the opportunity they have to get an education in America.
But they face other challenges, cultural and language adjustments among them. During an early morning meeting at the start of the fall 2017 semester, Perry meets with Pavle Popovic, a tennis player from Serbia, to discuss how he’s adjusting to the culture on campus. Perry and his staff take nothing for granted. The meeting is spent making sure there aren’t any misunderstandings about where Popovic stands on his path to his degree.
At the end of each semester, the Tennessee State academic services staff has one of its signature moments. It is the day that the semester grades become final.
When that day came last December, it was filled with mostly positive results. Aside from graduation, such days are the most emotional for the academic services team.
The excitement of seeing a student-athlete grasp the subject matter and earn a strong grade after struggling in a course is one of the best feelings for Stokes. When dealing with a football team with a roster size of 63 players, the possibility of having an academic casualty increases. But Stokes was so elated by their results last year that she burst from her seat and made a mad, joyous dash down the hall.
“I ran so hard,” she says, “I could have been on the track team.”
When the news isn’t good, it is harder. Emotions rise and fall on the academic services staff as the final grades are posted each semester. It’s impossible to disconnect from those moments; there’s too much invested.
“When you go home to see your family for the holidays, it’s tough to talk about bad news,” Perry says. “When our student-athletes complete the semester with good results, it’s good for us going into the break, and we can let our hair down a little bit.”
It’s particularly satisfying when it comes at the end of a student’s undergraduate studies.
The advisors see the reward — a white sash embroidered with the school’s tiger logo. Words on one side of the sash say “student-athlete.” And when their students wear the sash for commencement, the academic advisors feel pride. They look to these kids who are like their sons, their daughters or their friends, and remember everything that went into making this moment.