Black History Month – A Conversation with Former UVA African-American Student-Athletes
As February winds down, it brings Black History Month to a close. Jeff White, director of news content for VirginiaSports.com, spoke to a collection of former African-American student-athletes about their experiences at the University. That group included Ted Jeffries (men’s basketball), Jordan Lavender (track and field), Breyana Mason (women’s basketball), Akil Mitchell (men’s basketball), Shawn Moore (football) and Morgan Stith (women’s soccer). For more background on each of these former UVA standouts, see the bottom of the article. Here is part two, featuring some of their responses. For part one, click here.
Question: If you could give the current student-athletes at UVA any piece of advice, what would it be?
I think it is incredibly important that current student-athletes take the time and the energy to connect with their communities. As a student-athlete you do not have a lot of [free] time, and while I was in school I felt that I distanced myself not only from the black community at home but the community at UVA and in the greater Charlottesville area. As a student you have the special ability to prove that multiple opportunities exist beyond sports, while also maintaining the platform that being an athlete provides. Build genuine relationships with the people around you, whether they live in dorms or on Cherry Avenue. No one will hear your inspiration if you never take the time to connect and build.
Soak up the journey and really appreciate where they are. Playing sports at any school is such a special experience, but especially at UVA, where there’s a ton of support for student-athletes. Enjoy playing the sport that they love with their best friends. As much you’re in the hustle and bustle of getting to practice and study hall and being on the bus for many hours, which can be really challenging, know that this is a really special time, and you’re really not going to get it back, even if you play sports at the professional level, I imagine.
The relationships that you build in each class that you take, your peripheral relationships with people [outside athletics are important], because you never know where they might end up in future positions. They might be able to help you, or vice versa. You might be able to help them in whatever area of concentration when you get out into the real world. Build relationships and friendships early. Build those relationships before you need them, so when you make that call and say, ‘I’d love to sit down and talk to you about something I’ve got going on,’ they’re ready to receive your call, because it’s not you just begging for something. You’re a friend. You’re somebody they want to talk to. And a lot of that comes with making sure you have a good name.
It would be to act on any desire that you have to engage in activities that are not athletically related. If you want to join different organizations on Grounds or get more involved in the community, plan accordingly so that your commitment to academics and athletics will not be an excuse. Although it may seem hard to do with your demanding schedule, the sacrifice will be worth it in the long run.
You should never forget your roots, and if you’re a student-athlete and you’re of color, particularly African-American, you really should get entrenched in the community of Charlottesville — not just the student-athlete mix, but the entire community.
Question: What advice would you give your younger self?
Football gave me the platform for people to know me, when I was at UVA. Whether it was through media or whether it was through just kind of being the quarterback and being the leader for the team. But I will admit that even during that four-, five-year run from 18 to 22 for me, I still didn’t get as involved as I should. For me, being involved in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and some of the outside organizations in Charlottesville, I did that because it looked good on my résumé, instead of doing it because it made a better person and got me entrenched in the community. When I came back to Charlottesville to coach [in 2010], I felt closer to the community, and that’s the University and the city of Charlottesville, than I did when I was a student-athlete.
I would tell myself that everything is going to be OK. Sometimes it feels like you’re always just pushing towards the next thing. You get to play soccer, then you’ve got to get the job, then you’ve got to get into grad school, then you’ve got to get that next job. And it’s always pushing towards the next thing. A lot of times we try to control what those outcomes will be, when in reality most of the time things work out the way that they should. I would never have thought that I would end up at Fuqua for grad school and have had a really interesting career in financial services. But in many ways, those kind of twists in the road have been really meaningful for getting me where I am today.
I would suggest to my younger self that I should challenge myself more academically to step outside of my comfort zone, and to get involved a little bit more with the student body. We can be regimented as athletes and stay comfortable in being regimented. But there’s so much more to the academic [experience] at UVA that I wish that I’d tapped into a little bit more. I don’t have any regrets, by any means, but I wish that I’d experienced more.
Do not let fear of rejection or failure get in the way of fulfilling your purpose in life. Failure is not indicated by not getting something right the first time. It is marked by your unwillingness to try again. You are your greatest enemy, and the only way to overcome that is to be fully confident in yourself and your capabilities. Put the upmost faith in your work and preparation in whatever you do, and never doubt your ability to be extraordinary.
Don’t put too much pressure on himself. I have a pretty bad habit of putting a lot of pressure on myself, and then the anxiety goes up, and then my performance in whatever I’m trying to do is not that good. I would tell myself just to kind of have fun every day and not to put pressure on myself and enjoy life as it is. Everything’s that meant to happen will happen.
Question: What would you like to see UVA do to further diversity and inclusion?
I think the University has been good in some areas. You look at leadership like [athletics director] Carla Williams, and you look at the fact that we’ve had a female president, one of the few universities that has, and we’re definitely making some strides. But that can’t stop. It’s amazing that at the top, with the athletic director and the president of our school, we’ve had diversity, but that can’t stop. That has to go on throughout the entire school community. We need more faculty of color. We need more leadership of color. That has to happen. That can’t just be the person at the top, it’s got to circulate all throughout the faculty and the administration.
I wish that were more speakers of color or professors of color. I think that that would have been helpful, just because I think having that face and seeing, OK, this person’s now a CEO, or this person’s a professor, and they are where I want to be, that would be important, knowing that they got there, so I could get there. Maybe doing more things around Black History Month and having more cultural programming between the African-American experience and the African experience or Afro-Caribbean experience.
Diversity and inclusion cannot be mere buzzwords, especially in the face of historical division. Diversity has to be at the core of the university’s spirit. UVA must go above and beyond to create and maintain safe spaces for black students, must go above and beyond to enroll and hire more black students and faculty members, must go above and beyond to highlight the success of current and past black students and their organizations.
I’d like to see more representation for African-American students. The Ridley Scholarship works pretty well, but it needs to be expanded, and I think the University can do some things to try to help promote that. And it’s not just African-Americans. I think Latino students, Asian students. I’d just like to see a little bit more inclusion, a little bit more help to level the playing field against the peer institutions that we’re battling [in recruiting African-American students].
Diversity and inclusion could be improved through representation. It is not enough to have minority professors for courses that cover racially based subject material. Although I was fortunate enough to have several African-American professors during my time as a student, with the exception of two, my black professors taught courses that were related to African-American history. I had one Asian-American professor and, unfortunately, never had any Latino professors. My sentiments regarding representation at UVA are not solely relegated to African-Americans. It extends to all minority groups. Minority students at UVA should be able to see people who look like them throughout numerous faculty and staff positions, not just in athletics or custodial services.
Morgan Stith – Women’s Soccer
Stith, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., graduated from UVA in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs. She spent about four-and-a-half years working in the investment industry for Brown Advisory. Stith is now in her first year in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
Shawn Moore – Football
Moore grew up in Martinsville and enrolled at UVA in 1986. He graduated in 1990 with a degree in psychology. Moore worked as an assistant football coach at UVA from 2010-12 and now works for a company that’s a licensee of Major League Baseball.
Breyana Mason _ Women’s Basketball
Mason has two degrees from UVA, a bachelor’s in American studies (2017) and a master’s from the Curry School of Education (2018). She is in her first season as the director of scouting & video services for UVA women’s basketball.
Ted Jeffries – Men’s Basketball
Jeffries, who grew up in the D.C. area and lives there now, graduated from UVA in 1993 with a bachelor’s in rhetoric and communication studies. He later worked for the Virginia Athletics Foundation and the UVA Alumni Association, where he raised money for minority scholarships at UVA.
Akil Mitchell – Men’s Basketball
Mitchell, who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., graduated from UVA in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in global culture and commerce. He is now playing professional basketball in France.
Jordan Lavender – Track & Field
Lavender, who is from Nashville, Tenn., graduated from UVA in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in media studies. Now based near Orlando, Fla., she’s pursuing a professional career in track & field.