It was nearly midnight when former Lady Vol Andraya Carter’s plane touched down in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, in the waning days of August 2018.
Carter, a three-time SEC champion who appeared in three Elite Eights during her University of Tennessee, Knoxville, basketball career, had been recruited by the US Department of State to join another American coach in the city for a three-day basketball camp for girls under the age of 17. It wasn’t her first time traveling overseas to work with kids, but she was still nervous.
“Zimbabwe was in this really difficult political situation—curfews, militias out in the streets. People were on edge,” says Carter (’15, ’17), who graduated from UT with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and went on to complete a master’s in sport psychology.
“I was just trying to stay focused on getting up the next morning and teaching these girls to play basketball.”
In four years at UT, Carter excelled on the court, in the classroom, and in the community. She was a 2015 National Strength and Conditioning Association All-America selection and was honored with the 2016 Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year, in part for the many volunteer hours she spent teaching basketball at Tennessee School for the Deaf. Carter had learned American Sign Language as part of her undergraduate language requirement.
But as the sun lit the outdoor court in Harare where 40 girls waited at 9 a.m. for their American coach to lead them, Carter didn’t rely on her basketball skills to get her through the ensuing six hours of drills. Instead she relied on the lessons she had learned in VOLeaders, a nationally recognized leadership development program she had participated in during her senior year at UT.
“Those language, culture, and ability barriers—I just knew I was going to break them down,” Carter says. “I had done it before. As soon as I blew the whistle, I wasn’t even thinking anymore. It was automatic.”
That is how deeply rooted the lessons of the VOLeaders Academy—which celebrates five years this fall—are to the 77 student–athletes who have gone through the program since it first launched during the 2015–16 academic year.
A partnership between the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and Tennessee Athletics, the VOLeaders Academy trains athletes representing every sports team on campus, from baseball to volleyball, on how to develop into socially responsible leaders and create positive social change through sports.
“Oftentimes young leaders look at leadership as a title or a position,” says Joe Scogin, associate provost and senior associate athletic director. “What we wanted to do with VOLeaders is redefine that—to have our student–athletes understand that leadership is more about relational influence, and to understand how to use their platform and influence to make a positive difference through sport and beyond.”
Leadership is not exclusive to captains or seniors—a point which program organizers emphasize from VOLeaders’ opening retreat in August through academic courses in the fall and spring and finally during the international service–learning trip that wraps up the year.
“VOLeaders centers around the idea that you can lead from wherever you are,” Scogin says. “Leadership is accessible to everyone.”
“It may sound dramatic, but VOLeaders literally changed the direction of my future.” MC Brakefield, VOLeaders Academy 2017–18 cohort
Grant Williams, a member of the 2017–18 cohort whose Boston Celtics recently competed in the NBA Eastern Conference finals, credits his time in VOLeaders with teaching him to lead from the middle, influencing those both in front and behind him.
But the process of leadership is not the only path-altering lesson VOLeaders learn. While many have pursued careers in professional sports—including Williams and fellow NBA player Admiral Schofield (who participated in 2016–17), WNBA guard–forward Jamie Nared (2016–17), NFL defensive end Kyle Phillips (2016–17), and MLB pitcher Garrett Stallings (2017–18)—others have taken different paths. VOLeaders alumni have joined the Peace Corps, attended medical school, and become emerging entrepreneurs.
Their stories are in ways relatable and others exceptional. Madeline Banic, a swimmer and member of the 2016–17 cohort, battled through mental health issues that saw her de-enroll from classes then return to captain her team and win a national championship in her final year at UT. Last year she received the National Association of Academic and Student–Athlete Development Professionals’ Wilma Rudolph Award for overcoming tremendous odds to achieve academic success. Another swimmer, Mary Cayten Brakefield (2017–18), had planned to launch a fashion line for athletic women after her time in VOLeaders. Then, the spring semester of her sophomore year, she had lunch with two Indian Paralympic athletes a day before Sports Fest, an adaptive sports festival hosted by VOLeaders and UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society.
“They were telling me about these degrees they’ve gotten, companies they’ve launched, medals they’ve won. And despite all that, it was still so hard for them just to get dressed in the morning,” Brakefield says. “I thought maybe I have the skills to help address that need.”
She pivoted, switching her focus to designing apparel for people with disabilities. Her senior year Brakefield won $12,000 through two entrepreneurship competitions in UT’s Haslam College of Business—the Graves Business Plan Competition and the Boyd Venture Challenge—to fund her apparel line.
“It may sound dramatic, but VOLeaders literally changed the direction of my future,” says Brakefield, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in retail and consumer sciences and is now attending the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“Seeing how to use my skills and my platform for something greater—it was not only empowering, but it actually unveiled my purpose in life,” Brakefield says.
Student–athletes in VOLeaders earn credit toward a leadership minor offered through the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. By the time they complete the program, they have received 92 hours of leadership training on top of their community service—which as of fall 2020 stands at nearly 5,000 hours for 47 local and international organizations, an average of 61 hours per student–athlete.
Academic courses are co-taught by Scogin; Jessica Wildfire, executive director for student–athlete development; and Caitlin Ryan, a former Lady Vol softball player who served as an academic counselor in the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center before being named assistant director of student–athlete development in 2019.
During one particularly impactful lesson on values-based leadership, student–athletes are asked to write out 10 of their core values—often including variations of family, faith, authenticity, their sport, hard work—then slowly eliminate each one until they’re left with a single value guiding what they seek to do on campus and in their sports.
“It’s hard, but it encourages them to think deeply about who they are and what matters most to them,” Ryan says. “Once that level of self-awareness is established, they can begin shaping their individual leadership style.”
Another classroom lesson centers around the concept of servant leadership. Student–athletes are asked to consider the Torchbearer, a statue at the entrance of Circle Park on UT’s campus, which bears the Volunteer Creed: “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.”
To Nathan Murray, a swimmer and member of the 2017–18 cohort, that message clicked.
“It’s not about what you can do for me but what I can do for you,” Murray says. “To me, that’s one of the most powerful ways to be an athlete and a force on your team and in your sport.”
Murray saw the creed put into action while in Ecuador. Every VOLeaders cohort except 2020, which was grounded by COVID-19 travel restrictions, has closed the year with an overseas trip in which student–athletes apply their classroom and community lessons during an immersive week of service at nonprofit organizations and youth sport clubs.
Carter’s cohort—which included 13 student–athletes from 10 sports—traveled to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, just before the 2016 Summer Olympics. They visited capoeira, running, and boxing clubs and helped organize two sports festivals for hundreds of kids.
“We were a team out there,” Carter says. “We weren’t winning or losing anything. We were just sharing this amazing experience together.”
Other cohorts have traveled to Vietnam, Ecuador, and Rwanda. In 2021, the latest cohort—39 student–athletes, double the size of any previous group—plans to travel to Botswana.
The academy’s expansion in summer 2020 was made possible through a donation by alumni Donnie and Terry Smith (’80). With the increase in participants, eventually up to a quarter of UT’s student–athlete population will go through the VOLeaders program before graduating.
“VOLeaders is bigger than any one team or person,” Scogin says. “We have the opportunity to positively impact the department, campus, and our community.”
Impacting the future
Allison Herring, a Tennessee women’s golf alumna and member of the 2017–18 cohort, doesn’t know who she’d be without her time in VOLeaders. While still in high school, as she tried to figure out where she’d attend college, she narrowed the options down to two schools, eventually choosing UT.
“It really came down to a gut feeling,” Herring says. “For some reason I needed to go to UT, and I didn’t necessarily know why entirely. I think VOLeaders was that why.”
Working with youth with disabilities during her cohort’s Ecuador trip, Herring felt moved to do something about what she saw. She spoke with her mother afterward and together they funded an endowment in 2019 that allows for the expansion of leadership training for alumni.
That’s what the program means to its student–athletes, regardless of the path they choose once their time on campus draws to a close.
After ending her basketball career, Carter wasn’t sure what would come next for her. As a graduate student in the athletics department, she became involved with VFL Films and broadcast a few online games for the Lady Vols. ESPN approached her with the opportunity to do sideline reporting. She accepted and has spent the past three years as a reporter and basketball analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network.
At first, Carter was nervous, as she had been in Zimbabwe. She was the youngest person on camera. Some days it took courage to ask questions and pitch ideas to her older, more experienced colleagues. But she fell back on what VOLeaders had taught her.
“Whether people say yes or no, I still can demonstrate my leadership by speaking up,” Carter says. “I’ve had to be comfortable talking to people above me or across from me. I wouldn’t have done that before. Now I’m just not afraid anymore.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)