July 31, 2013
By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com
OXFORD, Miss. -- The Ole Miss athletic department recently wrapped up its inaugural year of "Rising to Excellence and Building Success" (REBS), a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen and transfers.
In its first year, 38 incoming student-athletes participated in the program, earned 222 credit hours and posted a cumulative GPA of 3.53, compared to a cumulative GPA of 3.13 for incoming student-athletes enrolled in summer classes in 2012.
REBS is a month-long orientation, one for each summer academic term, that facilitates the development of academic skills and orientation to responsible University life as the student-athlete transitions from high school to college.
"The REBS program was created and implemented by our FedEx Student-Athlete Success Center staff as a pathway for the best possible start to life as a student-athlete at Ole Miss," said Ross Bjork, Director of Athletics.
"We believe in providing the best environment for success in all facets of being a Rebel athlete and the REBS program will provide our young men and women the proper tools to succeed in the classroom and socially at the highest level. It has been a rewarding experience for all the instructors who have been involved but most importantly our student-athletes have a great foundation for the rest of their career at Ole Miss and beyond."
The program consists of a large lecture, followed by breakout sessions that reinforce the lectures. The variety of topics and presenters represents the many facets of the Ole Miss community. Some of the highlights were two visits to the Boys & Girls Club of Oxford and a lecture from Athletics Director Ross Bjork on personal branding.
"What we love about it is you can simultaneously see a light bulb go off in their head when they learned something that they did not know," said Derek Cowherd, Senior Associate A.D. for Academic Support. "When you see them fall in line and do what we ask, and have a healthy attitude toward it, and show up every day ready to work hard."
Cowherd and April Thompson, Director of Academic Enrichment, were at the forefront of the program's creation.
When Cowherd came to Ole Miss from LSU in May 2012, he had several meetings with his staff, and he said one of their core concerns was how much you had to teach the student-athlete between classes, and how they wished they had an orientation, or a class, to build the skills necessary for a student-athlete.
He met with Thompson, and the more they talked, the more needs that arose during the year. He said it was obvious a summer bridge program was needed, so they created REBS, then reached out to Athletic and University leadership to develop the program.
"It's a program that is run in some format at a lot of universities," Thompson said. "But here, we're trying to get the experts of campus involved, so the student-athletes are comfortable with our facility, with college in general and being able to know who to talk to campus, and where to go for support on campus, not just in athletics."
Another facet of REBS is EDHE 105, the academic component of the First Year Experience at the University, which is part of the academic coursework for many student-athletes. The course shares a similar purpose and learning objectives with the REBS program, but for the general student population.
Cowherd said they worked with Dr. Linda Chitwood, Provost/VC for Academic Affairs, and Dewey Knight, Associate Director of the First Year Experience, then designed REBS to supplement the EDHE 105 curriculum.
Team and individual workouts are also part of a regular day for a student-athlete in the summer, and Cowherd said the coaches, across all sports, bought into the program from Day 1.
"We're excited to see the student-athletes take pride in their work and get stronger academically," Cowherd said. "I have always heard the coaches say that you win your championships in the offseason. We're winning in the summer by starting it this way.
"If they start off with a strong GPA and six hours under their belt, understanding what professors are going to expect of them, and where the classes are, that's not a stress they will have in the fall. They gain confidence more than anything, and they will know where to go for help. It's all a win-win for this program."
With the conclusion of the REBS program, the student-athlete now progresses to the enrichment program, where they will work with an academic counselor and learning specialist throughout the academic year and reiterate the academic and life skills from the REBS program.
"We'll follow their progress for all four years because our number one goal is graduation," Cowherd said. It always has been, but we want to do graduate our student-athletes at a higher rate and provide a better experience."
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller