What’s On My Mind: Student-athletes—classes, competition and championships

This regular column is aimed at opening another channel of conversation with you about the opportunities and challenges we face, together as the faculty, students, staff and leaders of our great university.

I watched with pride a couple of weeks ago as Vanderbilt golfer John Augenstein played an incredible round at our Mason Rudolph Championship. In capturing his first collegiate championship, he clinched the win for the team. It’s especially sweet for me as John is a Steve and Nicholas Zeppos Scholar. My father, Steve, loved golf but never had the opportunity to go to college. I feel very fortunate that I could establish a scholarship and, in a way, finally send my father to college.

There’s a lot to be proud of in Commodore Nation right now. For students, this is exam season, but for our student-athletes, it’s also championship time.

Earlier this month, our women’s bowling team brought home the national championship—Vanderbilt’s fourth overall—for the second time. On Sunday, our women’s tennis team clinched the SEC Championship. Their next stop? The NCAA tournament in a bid to repeat their 2015 national title. Vanderbilt will host the tournament regionals Commencement weekend. In a true demonstration of the dual accomplishments and hard work of our student-athletes, Astra Sharma, one of the nation’s top-ranked players, will play for the Commodores and receive her Vanderbilt degree just days apart.

Women’s golf made it to the match round of their SEC tournament, bowing to No. 2-ranked Alabama in the quarterfinals. On Wednesday they learned they made it to the NCAA postseason, headed for regionals in Tallahassee, Florida.

This weekend, Augenstein and the rest of the No. 3 men’s golf team head to St. Simons Island in Georgia with hopes of repeating their 2017 SEC championship, and men’s tennis, seeded sixth in the conference, travels to the University of Alabama for their SEC tournament. Track and field’s championship is right after Commencement, and at the end of May, our Vandy Boys will start the baseball playoff season.

But there is much more to our student-athletes than notching wins and taking home trophies. In addition to competing in one of the toughest conferences in the nation, they also take on the challenges of an academically rigorous Vanderbilt education. They juggle classes, labs, papers and studying along with practices, one-on-one workouts, travel and competition. Time management is essential.

At many universities, student-athletes focus on the classroom and the playing field, leaving little time for the opportunities that provide a complete undergraduate experience. At Vanderbilt, we strive to deliver a better, fuller experience, developing ways to help our athletes broaden their student careers through internships, volunteering and opportunities to study and travel abroad.

This year marks the fourth summer of the Commodores’ internship program, considered to be the most comprehensive of its kind in college athletics. Last year, more than 85 students gained experience with unpaid internships in research labs, commercial real estate, artist management and more.

Our student-athletes also give back to the community. We’ve launched a partnership with Buena Vista Elementary School, an economically challenged school in Nashville where about a quarter of the students have experienced homelessness. Earlier this month, men’s baseball held a drive to collect essentials such as laundry detergent, paper towels and more for the students. We’re hosting the third- and fourth-graders on campus for a field day this week, and then holding a field day at the school after Commencement for the younger classes.

In August, a cohort of our student-athletes will travel to Morocco as part of a Soles4Souls service trip. Last year’s trip to Jamaica offered students the opportunity to experience another culture while doing hands-on projects with local children.

Our student-athletes also impress me with their continuous creativity. Earlier this year, in an effort to celebrate student-athletes outside of their sport, cross-country senior Sam DeFabrizio launched the I Am More campaign. More than a dozen Commodores appeared in short videos talking about their passions outside their sports. For football tight end Sam Dobbs, it’s music. Abbey Carlson of women’s golf earned her pilot’s license in high school. Swimmer Eun Sol Chon immerses herself in neuroscience research, and basketball center Djery Baptiste takes pride in being a Haitian ambassador. Simone Charley, who was a standout member of both the track and soccer teams and is one of three of our women’s soccer players to sign contracts to play professionally, is simultaneously pursuing a graduate degree.

The lesson is that there’s more to all of us than meets the eye. And that’s what Vanderbilt is all about. This is a unique place with a unique brand of education. We deliver a full, rich experience that goes beyond the classroom into a 24/7 learning environment. Our approach gives all of our students the opportunity to go below the surface to really know, respect and understand people who seem to be completely different from them. Usually, when we do that, we find that we have a lot more in common that we thought.

I hope you’ll join me as I cheer for our student-athletes through this championship season and into the next. Anchor Down!

“What’s On My Mind” is a regular column from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on the life, people and mission of Vanderbilt University and the issues affecting higher education today. Share your thoughts at