July 22, 2014
By Jerome Boettcher | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Jovan Haye arrived at Vanderbilt in the fall of 2002 on a football scholarship.
By the end of his first semester, he was on academic probation. Diagnosed with dyslexia, Haye struggled with piecing together research papers.
He could have felt lost and alone. He wasn’t.
Elizabeth Wright, the director of academic support for Vanderbilt student-athletes, wouldn’t let him fail. Wright, an author and former writing tutor for more than 25 subjects, worked with Haye on his grammar, his writing style and properly citing sources, which if improperly cited constitutes a violation of the honor code.
“Vanderbilt is extremely hard,” Haye said. “To actually play in the SEC and try to get your grades (up) is that much harder. I knew what I signed up for. It rocked me at first and then I had to find a way to buckle down. But, Mrs. Elizabeth, she always knew I wanted to play pro ball. She knew where I wanted to go and she wasn’t going to let me fail.
“She was there. She never gave up on me. She helped me push through.”
Haye, after a seven-year career in the NFL, recently published his autobiography, “Bigger Than Me: How a Boy Conquered Dyslexia to Play in the NFL.” His framed No. 75 Tennessee Titans jersey hangs on the wall in Wright’s office in the Stratton Foster Academic Center.
Haye is just one of the many student-athletes Wright has impacted over 15 years at Vanderbilt.
“Every year we have a lot of success stories. That is the most rewarding thing about the whole job,” she said. “Everybody is smart. But some haven’t had the same educational advantages that a lot of the other Vanderbilt students have had… but they can do this. Because they’re smart, they can do it. The first year I would say is the most difficult in trying to get up to speed. It is just the belief that they can.”
Wright oversees the entire 11-person academic support staff. Wright and her team are in frequent communication with Vanderbilt professors. They work with the student-athletes’ faculty adviser to ensure they’re progressing toward their degree and maintaining eligibility. She monitors textbook purchases to make sure they’re in compliance with NCAA legislation.
On a weekly basis, Wright and her staff—each member is assigned a sport—meet with their respective coaches and keep them abreast about any academic concerns.
When incoming freshmen arrive at Vanderbilt, the academic support staff awaits them. For 30 freshman student-athletes who arrived in June for summer school, Wright and her staff offer a Summer Bridge program. The intensive freshman orientation offers workshops and speakers. Shan Foster, Vanderbilt’s all-time leading scorer in men’s basketball, spoke to the freshmen last year. This year, Haye will offer advice to the class of 2018.
“Elizabeth and her staff do a great job (with Summer Bridge), and in general are so vital to the overall experience” said director of compliance and VU grad Candice Lee, who was an academic counselor for two years following her student-athlete days. “They’re attacking societal issues, college issues, things you’ll face as a student-athlete.”
Wright’s resume features a strong academic and writing background. She has two degrees from the University of Virginia, including her master of fine arts in creative writing. She has written numerous short stories and poems and has published two books. In addition, she has been a grant writer for the medical centers at Virginia and Vanderbilt. She also worked in the neurology department at Virginia. After living in New York for six years, Wright, her husband, Paul Moots, and their two children, Hannah and Skyler, moved to Nashville in 1991 for her husband’s job. Paul is currently the chief of the division of neuro-oncology.
Wright stayed writing from home until 1999 until her children began to get older. At that point, she started thinking about a second career.
“I said, ‘What’s my favorite job I ever had?’” she said. “I had been a tutor at the University of Virginia for the football and men’s basketball teams. I thought that was the favorite thing I ever did.”
Fifteen years ago she began as a tutor and writing specialist at Vanderbilt. By December 1999, she was the director of tutoring. She then became an academic counselor for football and in 2004 athletic director David Williams promoted her to director of the Stratton Foster Academic Center.
Not only did she have the higher institution experience, but Hannah and Skyler both ran track at the collegiate level and at two academically prestigious schools—the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis.
“(Both schools) have very strong academic standards as we have and so I think that is very helpful for her to have been on the side as a parent,” Williams said. “She has a very good demeanor. While she is strict with the kids she also has a lot of patience.”
Every Mother’s Day, Wright receives numerous text messages. She has been invited to weddings, and former student-athletes frequently pop into her office to say hi. And, for her, one of her most rewarding days comes every May in the form of commencement.
“Mrs. Elizabeth worked wonders,” said former football player Darlron Spead. “You go through this university, it is very tough, you need someone to help you out, guide you the right way. The coaches did that. (But) then there is also a comfort zone. You need that motherly figure and I feel like she provided that for me.”