Football players broaden horizons

May 4, 2009

Photo by Steve Green

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The opportunity never crossed Gaston Miller's mind. Studying abroad sounded well and good, but the notion of a student-athlete, especially a football player, having that opportunity seemed almost taboo.

With the offseason getting increasingly smaller in every sport, the opportunities for student-athletes to set aside a period of time to study abroad may not be a possibility at a lot of colleges, but it is at Vanderbilt.

Like a good number of student-athletes before him at Vanderbilt, Miller will have the same opportunity that is provided to traditional students this summer when he studies abroad in Greece during the month of May. A rising junior running back, Miller will be joined on the trip by teammate Joel Caldwell, a rising senior safety. Caldwell and Miller will be two of a handful of Vanderbilt students who will cross the Atlantic Ocean and take a three-credit hour course called "Uncovering Greek Religion: Cults, Sanctuaries & Festivals in the Ancient World."

"I had heard of the opportunity to study abroad, but with football I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to actually do it," Miller said.

The trip outside the U.S. will be a first for the Murfreesboro, Tenn., native, who never thought he would take a class in another country. Once he heard it was a real possibility, he knew it was something he couldn't pass up.

"I never really imagined that I would be traveling out of the country to take a course, but when I heard about the opportunity, I definitely didn't want to pass it by," Miller said. "I'm only going to be here for a few more years, so an opportunity like this may not come again."

When Miller and Caldwell are in Greece this May they will be blazing a trail for Vanderbilt's football program as the first players to study abroad under Head Coach Bobby Johnson. Johnson recognizes the opportunity the two are receiving and hopes they are the first of many Commodores who study abroad.

"I was wondering why we hadn't done more of it and why our guys hadn't taken advantage of it," Johnson said. "I'm glad to see guys taking advantage of it. I think Gaston and Joel will have some good stories to tell and interest guys into looking at places all over the world that are available."

Johnson also believes providing student-athletes with the opportunity to study abroad will be beneficial in recruiting.

"We've already started talking to some recruits about it," Johnson said. "A lot of regular college students across the country are studying abroad, and we want to make that available for our athletes."

The obvious drawback to Miller and Caldwell studying abroad is the lack of training they will be able to do the month they are gone. However, the person who is the least concerned about the two players missing workouts is Johnson himself.

"The Maymester gives us a great opportunity to do this," Johnson said. "They can come back and still get in good shape by working out in June and July. I think it is fantastic, and I believe our players will be diligent enough to stay in shape when they are somewhere, and they won't be gone that long, so it is hard to get too out of shape."

As a player entering his fourth year in the program, Miller has a firm grip on what is expected in the offseason, which is why he selected May as the best time for him to travel abroad. In case there were any doubts, Johnson's blessing has provided Miller with more assurance that he isn't abandoning the team.

"During the month of May it is real low key around here. There aren't many courses going on, and most athletes on the football team normally have their vacation time or go back home," Miller said. "I just feel like it is a great opportunity for me to do that in May and be able to come back in June and July and still train and condition with the team to prepare for the season."

Although Miller is missing time during one of the slowest months of offseason training, he is missing time nonetheless. At some schools any time missed would be considered inexcusable. Miller believes a factor for why Vanderbilt didn't frown at him studying abroad was the culture within the program.

"The coaches and everyone encourage players to take advantage of opportunities like this," Miller said. "I'll miss it a little bit, and I will still do some exercises before I go to sleep at night over there, but it was definitely an easy decision to make to say I will do this in May and come back and get back in shape."

Caldwell and Miller will not be the only Vanderbilt student-athletes studying abroad this summer. Among the other student-athletes who will are Bram Chisholm from cross country who will study in China, Lyndsey Wilcox from the soccer team who will travel to Nicaragua and Alex Jennings from swimming who will go to Italy.

Unlike some other institutions in which student-athletes may be discouraged from studying abroad, Vanderbilt's administration embraces the opportunity for student-athletes just as it does traditional students. Having that support from Vanderbilt's administration speaks volumes to Miller.

"That is one of the big things that really made me want to take this opportunity because in the past I'd heard this opportunity wasn't really available for athletes," Miller said. "I think that is saying that the university is really working to get the athletes more involved with things that regular students do. That is a positive for not only student-athletes, but also the whole student body."



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