Oct. 30, 2008
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Vanderbilt men's cross country team runs on the road less traveled and it is making quite a difference.
In its third year under Head Coach Steven Keith (VU, '81), the team regularly competes well with other Division I schools, despite not offering athletic scholarships. This year the team finished third in the Belmont-VU Opener and won the Commodore Classic in Nashville, Tenn.
Academically, the team members are involved in some of the most challenging and difficult fields of study at Vanderbilt, yet last year had an outstanding 3.54 cumulative GPA.
"These kids love big challenges," said Coach Keith. "The men are here to go to school, and they love running. They are true student-athletes as far as that goes. And we encourage their community involvement.
"There's a certain profile of the type of runner that fits here. We try to target them."
Despite their demanding and busy schedules, most of the team is heavily involved in significant community service. For over two years now, roughly half of the team has been very involved in a thriving service organization called Students for Students that helps expand educational opportunities for local high school students. Senior runner Rob Whiting is the primary founder of the group, which helped him earn a prestigious Ingram Scholarship.
Vanderbilt Students for Students (VSS) assists students at Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville in their efforts to attend college. The primary ways the group helps is through mentoring, tutoring, conducting workshops and providing financial assistance and scholarships.
VSS is now in its third year and is an official 501(c)3 non-profit. Over 20 Vanderbilt students are involved as members.
The story of how VSS was started is interesting. During his career at Vanderbilt, Whiting has been the beneficiary of scholarship assistance. Early in his career, after being involved in community service for several years, he began to realize that many high school students, especially those from public schools, did not expect to attend college.
Around this time, Whiting took a sociology class about poverty, and he decided to try to help high school students attend college. He and a small group started what is now VSS.
"I realized there was a huge financial gap for students trying to attend college," he said. "After receiving a lot of scholarship assistance myself, I know I am fortunate.
"We are trying to make college a financial reality for high school students. We do this through mentoring and relationships and through monetary support."
Fellow senior team member Michael Nordlund, one of VU's top runners, is the vice president of the group. Other teammates who are members of the group include senior Matt Long, junior James Kasten, and freshmen Jenner Kizer and Kyle Rewick. Last year, several seniors were very involved as well.
On the women's side, senior Carmen Mims was secretary of the group last year, while senior Amanda Scott, and sophomore Rita Jorgensen and redshirt freshman Kristabel Doebel-Hickok are all active members.
On the mentoring side, the group offers workshops in different areas that are important to a young person's goal of attending college. The subjects of the workshops this year are: resume-writing, college applications, scholarship applications and financial aid. The group also connects VU students with high school students for one-on-one mentoring. In addition, VSS has outings to Vanderbilt events that allow high school students to experience certain aspects of college.
VSS raises money to provide a scholarship each year to a student (approx. $3,000) as well as college application fee vouchers (one per applicant). So far, they have given $5,000 in scholarships to two students.
One of the ways they raise funds is through the annual Vanderbilt Mile Bonanza (in April on the VU track). Last year, over 150 people participated in the event. At least 19 local businesses are listed as donors to VSS.
Another member of the team making a difference in the community is junior Thomas Davis from Louisville, Ky. A top student and also an Ingram Scholar, Davis' primary community service is within the Hispanic community. He lived in Mexico for four years as a boy and is fluent in Spanish. Davis has a passion for helping people learn English and develop communication skills.
He has started a bi-lingual Spanish-English library with a vision for holistic development within the Hispanic community. The library now has over 800 books. Davis also plans to provide ESL classes for adults and children.
Currently the library and program is focused on helping elementary school-age children develop literacy and communication skills. Jorgensen and teammate Jillian Currie, who's been instrumental in working with the children and developing the beginning reader's literacy program, are involved in this endeavor as well.
"The entire cross country team is so committed to community service," said Davis, "I think it defines our team. The guys and girls have great relationships together, but we're very inclusive of the Vanderbilt community.
"Sometimes there's a disparity between athletes and students. These service organizations are a nice way of integrating the two."
Whatever endeavors the men's cross country team is involved in, their track record shows they are more than up to the challenge.