Vanderbilt consistently ranks first in athlete graduation rates in the Southeastern Conference, boasting a 94 percent success rate during the past six years. Last year 112 Commodore student athletes made the dean’s list.
The five you’ll meet here are as different as can be: a towering linebacker and a reed-thin soccer player, a Nashville native and a tennis player from Eastern Europe, a bowler and a batter.
They all cite one trait as key to their success in both academics and sports at Vanderbilt: time management. As first-year students they learned the fine art of scheduling. They study while their peers are at parties. They practice while others are asleep. They snatch 30 minutes here and an hour there to fulfill their obligations to their professors, their coaches and their teammates.
It’s not the average college life—but there are no average student athletes here.
|Josie Earnest||Class of 2010|
|Hometown: Vandalia, Ill.||Major: Human and organizational development (international leadership track)||Sport: Bowling|
When your parents own the only bowling center in town, it’s natural that you take up the sport at an early age. Josie Earnest threw her first bowling ball at age 3 and became serious about the sport when she was 12 after placing fourth in a tournament full of much older bowlers. A few years later, in 2007, Josie found herself on Vanderbilt’s NCAA championship women’s bowling team—quite an accomplishment for a sport that has only been at the university a few years.
“It was pretty surreal at first,” says Earnest, who was named MVP of the NCAA National Tournament. “I got to throw the last shot. It really didn’t hit me until we went to the White House with all the other national championship teams.”
If there’s one thing Earnest wants everyone to know about competitive bowlers, it’s that they are true athletes.
“A lot of people think bowlers are overweight and drink and smoke,” she says, “but that’s people who bowl once a year. We work out. We lift weights and do cardio exercises. You have to be in shape.”
Earnest’s experience in bowling for the U.S. national junior team has given her a taste of international travel and influenced her choice of a major in international leadership. She’s bowled in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
“I’ve traveled to some neat places and seen a lot of different things,” she says. “Meeting people from different cultures is interesting and drew me to this major.”
Earnest was named to the SEC Honor Roll during her first two years at Vanderbilt. She admits that being an athlete at Vander-bilt means missing out on some of the activities other students enjoy.
“There’s not a lot of life outside school and bowling,” she says. “But those are the choices you make when you decide to be an athlete. You know going in that you’re going to be dedicated to your sport and dedicated to your academics.”
|John Stokes||Class of 2011|
|Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.||Major: Medicine, health and society||Sport: Football|
John Stokes really likes to hit people, and as a linebacker in the SEC, he gets that opportunity most Saturdays in the fall. He also has been conditionally accepted to Vanderbilt School of Medicine. The doctor-to-be fully understands the disconnect between his current passion and future profession.
“The cool thing about football is that it’s a legal, fair, relatively safe way to channel aggression—that feeling that I just want to hit another guy really hard,” Stokes says. “But there’s also this sense in me of compassion. I care about people and how they feel. I want to help them.”
Excelling in the very highest ranks of academia and athletics seems to come easily to John, who was named to the SEC Honor Roll his freshman and sophomore years. He also has made time for service trips to Belize and several U.S. cities.
He likes the structure of a full schedule and keeping busy. “Some people are blessed with more intellectual ability and more athletic ability than others, but you have to be disciplined to do well at both. You have to plan ahead and allot the time you need to get your assignments done.”
Stokes had the opportunity to play at larger schools where winning seasons are a matter of course. He chose Vanderbilt because Coach Bobby Johnson convinced him that times were changing for the Commodore program.
“I wasn’t going to commit to a school that puts on a token show on Saturdays,” Stokes says. “I really had to believe in my heart that Vanderbilt was going to be competitive. Winning the bowl game last year was a huge step in that direction.”
Unfortunately for Stokes, a shoulder injury meant he couldn’t fully enjoy the Music City Bowl victory.
“Football is painful,” he says. “I was in the training room earlier getting an injured ankle worked on. I looked at the guy next to me, and he had a broken foot. Sometimes I think we’re absolutely crazy to play this game … but we do it because we love it.”
|Molly Kinsella||Class of 2011|
|Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.||Major: Molecular/cellular biology||Sport: Soccer|
According to Molly Kinsella, the best way to achieve big goals is to take small steps. For this future pharmacist, the formula works for soccer and for academics.
“You have to set attainable goals,” Kinsella says. “It’s not, ‘We have to make it to the SEC tournament, and I have to get an A in this class,’ but ‘We have to beat South Carolina, and I have to do this paper.’”
Evidently her strategy is working. In her sophomore year she was named first-team All SEC and was on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. She is proud of both accomplishments, but says that making the All SEC team is particularly gratifying.
“I know that school is supposed to come first, but right now soccer is fun. I have lots of school ahead of me, but only a couple of years of soccer,” she says.
At the beginning of each semester, Kinsella must discuss her schedule with her professors—and let them know that she’ll be absent at certain times because of soccer.
“You cross your fingers to see how they’re going to react,” she says. “Some teachers think it’s really cool that you’re an athlete, and some have no sympathy whatsoever.”
Like all Vanderbilt student athletes, Kinsella cites effective time management as the key to getting everything on her full schedule accomplished.
“You learn freshman year after staying up too late that the two-hour nap you took in the afternoon probably wasn’t the best idea. Now, even if I only have a 30-minute break, I use my time productively.”
|Alex Zotov||Class of 2011|
|Hometown: Minsk, Belarus||Major: Engineering science||Sport: Tennis|
For most people, just sitting through an engineering class would be hard enough. Now imagine you’re taking the class in a foreign land from a professor speaking a foreign tongue. That’s a daily experience for Alex Zotov.
“The first two years at Vanderbilt were really hard academically,” he says. “It takes me a lot longer to do my homework because sometimes I have to translate words and terms I don’t know. I thought I knew a lot of English—but now I realize that I really don’t.”
Fortunately for Zotov, his racquet does the talking when he’s on the tennis court. He and his doubles partner, Adam Baker, are nationally ranked, and he has already competed in the Davis Cup. He attributes his academic and athletic success to a strong work ethic.
“Sometimes you’re tired and don’t want to do the things you know you have to do,” says Zotov. “But you have to push through, and if you plan ahead and manage your schedule, you might even have time to hang out with your friends.” Last spring his hard work earned him a place on the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
Coming to Nashville was a little easier for Zotov because he had built-in friends—his teammates. “I had 10 people here who helped me adjust,” he says. “The people here are also very kind and know how to make you feel better about yourself. In Eastern Europe people can be harsh.”
Like all international students, Zotov misses his family. His doubles partner, Adam, always invites him to his Nashville home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I only get to go home once a year for about three weeks,” he says. “My parents haven’t been able to come here yet, but I think they’ll be here for my graduation.”
|Alex Hilliard||Class of 2010|
|Hometown: Lafayette, La.||Major: Music education||Sport: Baseball|
Star outfielder by day, tuba-playing musician by night—that’s the life of Alex Hilliard, the first student in the history of the Blair School of Music who is also a varsity athlete. It’s an arrangement that works because of the cooperation of both Blair and the baseball program, and because of Alex’s dedication to both.
“To succeed in both baseball and music, you have to create a fire within yourself
because the coaches and professors won’t do it for you,” Hilliard says. “For me to be a better musician, I have to spend hours in the practice rooms. To be a better baseball player, I have to be willing to be in the batting cages at 6 in the morning.”
The cooperative arrangement between Blair and the baseball program was reached when Vanderbilt was recruiting Hilliard. In fact, the deal was struck while Hilliard was still in high school and has held firm since, earning him SEC academic honors.
“I don’t think there’s another music school that would’ve worked with me on this kind of arrangement, or another baseball team,” Hilliard says. “The coaches definitely understand the academic side of Vanderbilt.”
If early mornings are for batting practice, late nights are for music. Every student at
Blair is required to spend many hours outside the classroom rehearsing and learning new pieces.
“They don’t allow you to perform music at a mediocre level,” says Hilliard, who also plays piano, trombone, clarinet, saxophone and string bass. “If I’m unprepared, I don’t play—that’s true in music and in baseball.”
Pro scouts have already shown an interest in Hilliard, and a career in the major leagues would be a dream come true. As for music, there’s plenty of time.
“You can only be an athlete for so long, but you can play music forever.”
|Jessica Mooney||Class of 2010|
|Hometown: Nashville||Major: Human and organizational development||Sport: Basketball|
If there’s one thing Jessica Mooney can’t stand, it’s the stereotype that athletes at Vanderbilt aren’t as intelligent as their non-sporting classmates.
“We all worked hard to get into this school,” Mooney says. “We don’t get any special privileges because we’re student athletes. Our classes aren’t any easier, and nothing is handed to us.”
Mooney’s feisty attitude serves her well on the basketball court.
“You just can’t be intimidated,” she says when asked about playing against much larger women. “You have to have confidence in yourself. Besides, I’ve always played against guys, and most girls don’t compare to their size and strength.”
Mooney comes by her talent naturally: She is a cousin of Vanderbilt basketball great Charles Davis Jr., BS’82, who played for the Washington Bullets, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls.
The growing popularity of women’s collegiate basketball means playing in front of some rowdy fans—most notably the Cameron Crazies at Duke—who serenaded former player Caroline Williams with “Sweet Caroline” every time she touched the ball.
“You can’t let that stuff bother you. You can’t focus on what they’re saying,” says Mooney, who in her first year at Vanderbilt was the only freshman to play in all 34 games and helped her team win the SEC championship that year.
Unlike other sports with shorter schedules, the basketball season spans fall and spring semesters. The addition of summer school means Mooney and her teammates are on campus year-round.
“Sometimes I do feel like we never get a break,” she says, “especially when we see the football team lounging around in the spring.”
As a senior, Mooney tries to help her younger teammates adjust to the rigors of being a Vanderbilt student athlete.
“Time management is the key,” she says. “Once they figure that out, they’ll be great.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: John Russell and Daniel Dubois
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