Via UT Media Relations
By Rhiannon Potkey, special to UTsports.com
Garrett Stallings had just recorded his first victory for the Harwich Mariners to cap a successful stint in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League.
As he walked off the field on Tuesday, Stallings’ excitement about his performance was amplified by what was ahead.
The University of Tennessee pitcher would soon be reuniting with his fellow VOLeaders classmates for a trip to Ecuador. The group leaves Friday for a 10-day cultural exchange that will provide leadership opportunities focused on community development and social change through sport.
“I am really excited for us to get together and share some quality memories with each other,” Stallings said. “I am realizing how much I’ve missed them. We have really become like family. That’s how close we are.”
The VOLeaders Academy is a dynamic partnership between the UT Center for Leadership and Service, the Center for Sport, Peace and Society and the Athletics Department.
UT student-athletes selected for the program spend a year enrolled in courses to help understand their individual leadership style and learn about leadership principles, professionalism, critical thinking and cross-cultural communication through sports.
By using their platform in sport, the student-athletes learn how to positively impact their team, campus and local and global communities.
Every VOLeaders Academy class culminates its time in the program with a summer trip. Administrators select countries that are safe, but also very different from the United States to enable more learning and growth.
The Vols visited Brazil in 2016 and Vietnam last year. This year’s class dedicated a lot of time to the impact of sports on people with disabilities, and Bayron Lopez, the President of the Ecuadorian Paralympic Committee, offered to be UT’s host during its trip to Ecuador.
“These students have invested in themselves and each other for an entire year, and this trip is a chance for them to get out and deliver everything they have learned throughout the year,” said Dr. Joe Scogin, Senior Associate Athletics Director, Assistant Provost and Director of the Thornton Center. “It allows them to really kind of understand the power of sport and the capability of sport to unite and connect people from all different countries. It’s a pretty special thing to watch.”
This year’s VOLeaders class includes 19 student-athletes representing 15 different sports: Alyssa Andreno (volleyball), Channing Bearden (rowing), Mary Cayten Brakefield (swimming & diving), Marquez Callaway (football), Katie Cousins (soccer), Brayden Garrison (men’s golf), Madison Graham (swimming & diving), Darryl Harris (track & field), Allison Herring (women’s golf), Abby Lockman (softball), Emily Meier (track & field), Megan Murray (track & field), Nathan Murray (swimming & diving), Ariadna Riley (women’s tennis), Chelsea Seggern (softball), Trey Smith (football), Garrett Stallings (baseball), Timo Stodder (men’s tennis) and Grant Williams (men’s basketball).
From the very start, they all realized the class had a special dynamic that went beyond anything most had experienced.
“This group has been the closest group that we have seen so far. It was almost instantaneous. They came together so quickly and were so eager to learn and eager to get to know each other and willing to kind of let their guard down and just be them,” Scogin said. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch them really care for one another in so many more ways than just VOLeaders.”
Stallings has been stretched and challenged to become a better leader and more compassionate teammate in the last year. He’s been inspired by some of his classmates and the raw emotion they’ve let spill forth in group settings.
“There are people that have shared things in class that they haven’t told their own parents. They talked to us about being vulnerable and opening up to each other, which in today’s society can be really challenging,” Stallings said. “But I think everyone is really comfortable with who they are personally and we all understand what the others are going through.”
UT volleyball player Alyssa Andreno entered the VOLeaders program as a kinesiology major but decided to switch to sports management a few months ago because of her experiences in the class.
“I have always wanted to help people, and I realized that working in sports is the way I want to do it,” Andreno said. “Being a part of the VOLeaders program has helped me so much to find the direction I want to take my life. I have absolutely adored every second of it. It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done in college.”
Earlier this month, Andreno attended the Career in Sports Forum at the NCAA National Office in Indianapolis.
“It was incredible. I learned a lot about a future career path and met a bunch of other student-athletes there,” she said. “I also got to share more about VOLeaders and what we do on a daily basis. So many of the kids told me they wished their schools or universities had that program. It’s truly life-changing.”
During their trip to Ecuador, the VOLeaders will be following a jam-packed schedule filled with activities.
They will be co-hosting sports festivals involving disabled athletes in Quito and smaller villages, and holding a sports clinic for children at an elementary school in a lower-economic community.
They will visit the university in Quito to share experiences with students in the physical education department.
“Life is all about making relationships, and getting to connect with people with disabilities and people who speak different languages through the power of sports is going to be pretty incredible,” Stallings said. “It’s going to be a little culture shock, but it’s going to be a fun experience.”
The VOLeaders plan to visit the U.S. Embassy and spend time with the cultural affairs and sports diplomacy unit to learn about their role in the country.
They are scheduled to tour the local Olympic and Paralympic training center and meet with the country’s athletes.
“That is always a very eye-opening experience for our students because these athletes are not as fortunate from a facilities standpoint and support standpoint. Our student-athletes realize how fortunate they are to have the level of training facilities and amenities we have at the university level,” Scogin said. “But it’s also a really neat thing to see how grateful the athletes in these other countries are for what they do have and how happy they are to be able to continue to train and continue their sport.”
Since their last class at UT together, the VOLeaders have stayed in touch through group text messages and social media. The last few days have included a steady stream of tips on how and what to pack for the trip to Ecuador.
They’ve been instructed to bring a journal to document their journey and allow them to better reflect on every detail.
“I really can’t wait to see everyone again and share this experience with them,” Andreno said. “I have literally met some of my best friends in this class. That has been my favorite part, being able to meet people and develop such close relationships.”