New course helps Gator athletes learn and teach leadership in middle-school mentoring program


April 29, 2008



New course helps Gator athletes learn and teach leadership in middle-school mentoring program

What do 6-foot-6-inch Florida football lineman Phil Trautwein and sixth-grader Nick Nixon have in common?

UF, student-athletes, P.K. Yonge team up in new mentoring program

Gator lineman Phil Trautwein (right) was one of several UF students who mentored middle school students at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School as part of a new course on leadership at the UF College of Education.

A lot of mutual admiration and encouragement, and, hopefully, plenty of learning from each other.

Trautwein and seven other University of Florida student-athletes are joining some of UF’s brightest non-athlete students to act as mentors to a group of middle-school students at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the university’s nearby K-12 laboratory school. The mentoring is part of a College of Education course designed to let some of UF’s most accomplished students—both on and off the playing field—share what they know about leadership.

“To compete in collegiate athletics, you have to pick up a number of really valuable skills of self-motivation and leadership,” said UF doctoral student Matt Ohlson, who created the course. “There’s a lot of overlap between those skills and the skills you need to be a school leader. I wanted to find a way for athletes and educational administration students to share their skills with each other, and pass them down to young people.”

Ohlson, a former elementary school teacher now working toward a Ph.D. in educational administration and policy, played basketball as an undergraduate at Brandeis University.

Ohlson recognized that when he was on the court, he was not just learning how to shoot foul shots and dribble around defenders. He was developing leadership skills and self-confidence that would be useful off the court as well. Ohlson often wondered why there were not more courses and educational opportunities available that teach student-athletes to bring their on-court skills into play through their roles as community leaders. Later, as a UF graduate student in educational leadership, he found that his classmates — most of them future school administrators — were getting exactly the sort of education athletes needed: classes in leadership, goal-setting and motivating others.

While doing research for UF’s Lastinger Center for Learning, Ohlson also observed a level of collegiate sports fanaticism he’d never seen in New England. On some days, nearly 80 percent of the students would be wearing Gator gear. To Ohlson, students’ admiration for Gator athletes seemed like a powerful force just waiting to be tapped.

Thus was CAMP Gator born. Short for Collegiate Athlete Mentoring Program, CAMP Gator is a course, offered at both the graduate and undergraduate level, that unites Gator athletes and outstanding non-athletes to share their knowledge about leadership. Students in the class study respected books about organizational leadership, including Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and develop their own philosophies of leadership. They then take their combined knowledge to P.K. Yonge to mentor at–risk middle-school kids who show potential leadership abilities. The mentoring program and class were offered for the first time in January.

The class encourages UF student-athletes to participate in community volunteer activities, and to develop leadership skills for professional sports, education or almost any career they choose.

“What sets our program apart is its leadership focus. The objective is to find your talents and bring out the best in others,” said Ohlson.

The mentoring pairs meet once a week to talk about leadership and goals, but also to hang out, encourage and listen to each other. Trautwein, an offensive lineman for the Gators, does exactly that with his new buddy—sixth grader Nick Nixon. Trautwein tells Nick how he manages his time wisely to balance school and football. Nick said that helped him learn how to juggle his many activities and projects, such as starting a petition for sixth-graders to have lockers and playing on a local basketball team.

Trautwein (who, as a Gator senior captain, received a medical redshirt after suffering a stress fracture in his right foot and will return to play on the 2008 squad) says he has also learned from his time with Nick. “I’m a role model, and whatever I say or do could help him become a better leader,” the 300-pound left tackle said.

Another P.K. Yonge student, seventh-grader Jordan Lewis, made noticeable improvements after just one session with UF mentor Katie Hurst, according to Jordan’s teachers.

“Middle school is a mish-mash,” said PKY Assistant Principal Russ Froman. “This program helps the kids feel like they fit in with someone,” Froman said.

During their first session, Jordan and Hurst paired up on an ice-breaking activity and got to know each other better.

Hurst, a UF public relations major, wrote in her class blog on the CAMP Gator web-site: “The activity was helpful in generating topics to talk about, but after the first few questions we were talking like new friends. Each of us was sharing funny stories and laughing.”

Hurst posts her thoughts about her time with Jordan on the class blog, and Jordan can respond or write her own posts. Jordan said she has already learned that she needs to apologize when she misbehaves and not stay mad at the world — a significant change in attitude, say her teachers.

“We hope CAMP Gator is the beginning of a long relationship between P.K. Yonge and student mentors from the University of Florida,” said Froman. “Every one of these kids has incredible leadership potential and the goal is just tapping into that.”

Anwen “Wendy” Norman and Tim Lockette