By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the summer of 2016, Ralph Webb studied abroad in Australia, where the Vanderbilt running back experienced first-hand the ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. Webb's trip included hikes through the rainforest, snorkeling excursions and a helicopter ride high above the reef.
Upon returning to Nashville, the Gainesville, Fla. native shared the details of his adventure with his Vanderbilt teammates. That group included linebacker Oren Burks, who found himself particularly inspired by Webb's jaunt across the globe.
"After Ralph told me about studying abroad, I started looking into it, because I needed the science credit anyway," Burks said. "A lot of alumni have told me that studying abroad is one thing they wish they'd done while they were at Vanderbilt."
Now Burks and a few other student-athletes will enjoy a similar experience as Webb. Last month, Vanderbilt athletics announced plans to send 10 student-athletes on study abroad trips that will be funded solely by its athletic department. To David Williams II, Vanderbilt's Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletics Director, the opportunity is part of what makes Vanderbilt a unique destination for student-athletes.
"I think these kind of things may be the most important things we do," said Williams. "It's the kind of thing that might not be a requirement or covered by an athletic scholarship. But it's one of the most fulfilling things we do."
Vanderbilt has allowed student-athletes to study abroad in the past, but finances made this summer's situation a bit different. The Commodores football team returned from last winter's berth in the Camping World Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La, with a near-$100,000 surplus from its bowl budget. As Williams studied the applications for study-abroad programs, he realized the budget to send Vanderbilt's student-athletes abroad -- as well as to include $1,000 travel stipends -- totaled about $100,000.
The 10 student-athletes hail from seven different sports programs and will venture to nine different countries. Like Burks, sophomore tennis player Fernanda Contreras gleaned her international inspiration from a teammate. Contreras listened when Courtney Colton, a senior on the 2015-16 Vanderbilt roster, described her own experience studying abroad in Ireland. Contreras took her teammate's reviews to heart when a chance to travel opened this summer.
This June, the Austin, Texas native will venture to Cape Town, South Africa for a six-week program, one decidedly different than her stateside academic curriculum. In preparation for her trip, Contreras said she will meet with men's tennis coach Ian Duvenhage -- a South Africa native -- for some first-hand advice.
"I wanted to learn more about that culture," said Contreras, who plans to visit local museums and hiking trails in South Africa. "My program studies poverty and social issues, and I'd never touched that in my major, which is mechanical engineering. I wanted to do something totally different, and I wanted to go somewhere I'd never go on my own."
Other student-athletes sought programs that aligned with their majors. Women's basketball senior Christa Reed, a medicine, health and society major, is slated to venture to France for a six-week comparison study on American and French healthcare systems. "Apparently France has the No. 1 healthcare system in a world.," Reed said. "We get to see how France and the United States compare to each other."
Meanwhile, Reed hopes to make the most of her trip across the pond.
"We do have a couple of free weekends where we can travel around Europe," Reed said. "We can do different things like a cooking class, we go horseback riding, we can go to the beach. We can also visit things like the Maria-Curie Museum."
This is just the latest unique experience to take place for student-athletes at Vanderbilt; the athletic department also offers the country's most comprehensive internship program for student-athletes each summer. In 2016, 69 student-athletes took part in summer internships in the Nashville area, and the idea has caught on at other universities. Williams says fellow SEC schools Missouri and South Carolina, as well as Oregon from the Pac-12, have contacted Vanderbilt in hopes of replicating the internship opportunity.
Ean Pfeifer, an economics major and offensive lineman on the Commodores football team, will study in London as part of a business course. Pfeifer said he is thankful for the opportunity offered by his Vanderbilt education, one unique among SEC universities.
"Vanderbilt, as well as our coaches, they know being a student-athlete extends further than football," Pfeifer said. "Mr. Williams has given us an amazing opportunity with our study abroad programs."
Adds Burks: "You become a global citizen. You get different perspectives from different countries around the world. David Williams is big on that. The summer is really the only time student-athletes are able to travel, so I'm just really blessed to have this opportunity."
Student-athletes in 2017 study abroad program
Christa Reed (WBB): France
Madison Eaker (Swim): Czech Republic
Kaitlyn Fahrner (Soccer): Swiss Alps/Italy
Caroline Pietrzyk (Track/XC): Denmark
Devon Grisbaum (Track/XC): South Africa
Fernanda Contreras (W. Tennis): South Africa
Oren Burks (Football): Australia
Ean Pfeifer (Football) England
Wade Freebeck (Football): England
Brenda Cha (Swimming): China