Freeze Frame

Finishing What They Started: Degree Completion Program Helps Former Student-Athletes Thrive after Competition

With their competitive playing days behind them, former Hurricane student-athletes are returning to the Coral Gables campus to complete their degrees, earning the one tool that will help them succeed for their rest of their lives.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News

Earl Little left for the NFL before completing his UM degree.

Former UM student-athlete Earl Little played safety for three NFL teams. When his professional career ended, he returned to UM to complete his studies and is now the head football coach at Miami Jackson High School—a position he could not have attained without a college degree. Photo by Andrew Innerarity.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 16, 2014) – As much as Earl Little knew that football was a way out of Liberty City’s crime-ridden James E. Scott housing projects, he also understood that a professional career in the sport would be fleeting and that he would need something more tangible to sustain him long after his playing days in cleats and shoulder pads had ended.

So when the final whistle blew on a nine-year NFL career that included stints with the New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers, Little, who played a position—safety—regarded as the quarterback of the defense, made the call of his life. He telephoned the University of Miami, where he starred as a defensive back from 1993 to 1997, to find out what it would take to complete his degree.

“God blessed me with incredible athletic talent,” said Little, who, coming out of North Miami High School in 1992 was recruited by college football powers such as Notre Dame, Michigan, and USC. “But knowing the attrition and injury rate of the NFL, I knew I couldn’t play in the league for very long. I needed to have that piece of paper.”

It turned out Little was just one course shy of earning his degree. He quickly reenrolled at UM, registered for a statistics course, and graduated in a semester, fulfilling a promise he made to himself and his mother, Mamie Morris, who had always stressed the importance of education to her six children.

Little is now the head football coach at Jackson High School in Miami’s Allapattah community. He is also among a growing number of former UM student-athletes who, for various reasons, left school without completing their degrees but are now returning to finish what they started. Helping them accomplish that goal is the University of Miami Athletics Degree Completion Program, an initiative that invites former scholarship athletes to return to the U to complete their degrees, providing them with tuition reimbursement.

“While we want our student-athletes to compete at the highest level, we also want them to achieve academically, whether it’s going for a Rhodes scholarship or trying to get into medical or law school,” said David Wyman, associate athletic director for academic services and assistant dean of undergraduate education. “A future in professional sports is guaranteed to no one. Only a select few make it, and when they do, it doesn’t last forever. They must be able to transition into something else, and a college degree gives them that opportunity.”

Octavia Blue, who left UM in 1998 to play in the WNBA, knows that better than anyone. After her professional basketball career ended, Blue wanted to go into coaching, but she needed a college degree to land a job with a Division I program. She emailed UM President Donna E. Shalala for help. “She stepped right in and helped make it all happen, making sure the right people got in touch with me about finishing school,” Blue said of Shalala’s assistance.

Today, Blue has her sociology degree and a position as an assistant on the Miami women’s basketball squad, working with head coach Katie Meier to inspire young women to use education as a tool to advance. “I didn’t go to UM just to play basketball, and obviously for me to attain some of the goals I wanted in life I needed a degree. So that was always the plan,” said Blue. “The WNBA is great, but it’s not a league where I was going to be filthy rich and wouldn’t have to work again. I owed it to myself to get my degree.”

Since Shalala began enthusiastically supporting the athletic degree completion program in 2006, at least 18 other ’Canes like Blue and Little have come back to complete their studies. Many have been baseball players, like catcher Charles Johnson, who departed early for the Major Leagues, eventually helping the Florida Marlins win a World Series. But they come from all sports, from football and basketball to tennis and track and field.

Wyman said the program solidifies UM’s already strong reputation as a school committed to the success of its student-athletes on and off the playing field. Last year, Miami recorded a 92 percent graduation success rate for its athletes, placing it in a tie for third among Atlantic Coast Conference schools and tenth overall among FBS institutions.

Director of Athletics Blake James calls the initiative a trendsetter at a time when the NCAA and schools are being criticized for not doing more for student-athletes. “We’re definitely at the forefront,” said James. “Given everything that is going on publicly regarding scholarships, potential pay for play, and all the things playing out in the court system, we’re seeing more and more institutions step up and provide this opportunity for their student-athletes, which again I think is such a great credit to the vision and commitment President Shalala has had for student-athletes at the University of Miami for so many years.”

It was Shalala who helped Audra Cohen return to UM to finish her degree after the former NCAA singles champion and No. 1-ranked collegiate women’s tennis player in the U.S. left Miami to turn pro in 2007. “Without her initiative in helping me, I would be three steps behind in life,” said Cohen.

Little doesn’t use stories of his NFL career to motivate the high school players he coaches. He uses his college degree, which he says made his mom happier than the day he bought her a house with some of his NFL earnings.

“Even if I had lost everything I earned through the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears expended in the NFL,” said Little, “I knew I always had my degree to fall back on.”


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Coral Gables City Commission Proclaims September 17 ‘Norman C. Parsons, Jr. Day’

UM News

Norm Parsons (holding microphone and plaque) is honored at a recent Coral Gables city commission meeting by, from left, Commissioner Frank C. Quesada, Mayor Jim Cason, Vice Mayor William "Bill" Kerdyk, Jr., Commissioner Patricia Keon, and Commissioner Vine Lago.

Norm Parsons (holding plaque) is honored at a recent Coral Gables city commission meeting by, from left, Commissioner Frank C. Quesada, Mayor Jim Cason, Vice Mayor William “Bill” Kerdyk, Jr., Commissioner Patricia Keon, and Commissioner Vine Lago.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 11, 2014) – By ensuring the smooth and seamless operation of the University of Miami’s 138,000-square-foot Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center for 18 years, Norman C. Parsons, Jr. undoubtedly helped thousands of faculty, staff, students and visitors start or finish their day on a positive note. Now, the man whose name has become synonymous with “wellness” over his 43 years at the University will have a day to call his own. Read the full story

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Data Visualizations ‘Worth Millions of Words’ Debuts at UM

Places & Spaces, a traveling exhibition of 100 maps that present data in visually stunning formats, opens at UM.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News 

Fifty data visualizations are now on display at the School of Architecture's Stanley and Jewell Glasgow Hall, where UM students, faculty, staff, and visitors got the opportunity to examine some of the works at the Places & Spaces exhibition opening.

Fifty data visualizations are now on display at the School of Architecture’s Stanley and Jewell Glasgow Hall, where UM students, faculty, staff, and visitors got the opportunity to examine some of the works at the Places & Spaces exhibition opening.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 5, 2014) – From a visual guide that shows how your federal tax dollars are spent, to an interactive chart capable of simulating a naked-eye view of the sky from anywhere on Earth, Places & Spaces: Mapping Science debuted on the University of Miami campus Thursday evening, showcasing 100 maps that present data in visually stunning formats. Read the full story

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Bird’s Eye View of the U

About 1,000 University of Miami freshmen, transfer, commuter, and international students assembled on the Foote Green to form a giant U that would have made even Robert Ripley proud.

UM News

Big U on CampusCORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 26, 2014) – The call for assistance went out on social media weeks before the start of the 2014-15 academic year: The University of Miami’s newest Hurricanes were needed for a special project of jumbo-sized proportions. The word spread so quickly that by the time New Student Orientation rolled around, UM’s office of Orientation and Commuter Student Involvement had more than enough able bodies on hand to accomplish a feat that would have made even Robert Ripley proud.

Braving another warm South Florida day, about 1,000 freshmen, transfer, commuter, and international students assembled August 23 on the Foote Green to form an oversized split U, the iconic symbol of their beloved University. Many of the students arrived in groups, coming together like a giant school of fish to shape themselves into a U that was 18 times larger than the metal statue of the logo that stands on the lawn near the UM Rock.

Making it happen was no easy task, though. “I knew we had to be exact on the measurements,” said Lexi Matiash, director of commencement and special projects, who handled the logistics for the project.

Matiash first recorded the dimensions of the University’s metal U statue, scaling up her measurements and then using stakes and ropes to form an outline of a U on the Foote Green. She then used four cans of orange spray paint to trace the U’s outline. In all, the setup process, even with the help of a professional production company of riggers, took about four hours. When students started to arrive, they merely had to fall in place—on the left side of the U if they were clad in orange T-shirts, on the right if they wore green. And of course UM mascot Sebastian the Ibis showed up. No word yet from Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

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Reboot: Artist Transforms Tech into Art

By Meredith Camel
UM News


Miami artist Patricia Van Dalen transforms a motherboard into a piece of a mural that now hangs in the main office of the Center for Computational Science.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 21, 2014) —When Miami artist Patricia Van Dalen saw the motherboards, microprocessors, and heat sinks in storage at the University’s Center for Computational Science (CCS), she didn’t see an electronics graveyard.

“Instead I saw a ‘liveyard,’ with endless possibility,” she says.

The components are the remnants of CCS’s first IBM-built Pegasus supercomputer, disassembled in 2013 to make way for Pegasus 2, which is five times faster than its predecessor. Now the hardware enjoys a second life as part of Data Hall, an art installation that adds color and kinetic energy to CCS’s main office on the sixth floor of Gables One Tower.

Van Dalen’s recent works include Natural Intersections, a vast network of bright pink ribbons at The Kampong, and her homage to power grids and wires in High Voltage, an Art Basel satellite exhibit. Sawsan Khuri, CCS director of engagement and assistant research professor in the Department of Computer Science, recommended Van Dalen for a commissioned work at CCS after taking note of the artist’s approach to mapping connections in science and nature.

Data Hall was installed last week

Data Hall, which was installed last week, will be on long-term display on the sixth floor of Gables One Tower.

Data Hall begins on one wall and wraps around to the adjacent corridor, each motherboard a canvas for zigs and zags of blue, yellow, red, and green plastic lacings. Van Dalen built this color palette using only those hues found in the wires and data cables of Pegasus. Her goal was to infuse the boards with the lively spirit of data processing, reminding observers that these components once carried trillions of data per second on investigations of the human genome, cancer, engineering, music, climate, and more. Data Hall may seem like a mixed media sculpture, but for the artist it’s a mural.

“These are drawings,” Van Dalen explains. “It’s me painting without a brush—applying color and establishing a sense of balance with the direction of the lines. At one point they all seemed to have too much personality, like a screaming teenager. So I added white vertical and horizontal lines to create boundaries.”

Van Dalen will return to campus October 2 to speak on a panel with fellow artists Nela Ochoa and Xavier Cortada about how science inspires their art. The panel is part of Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, a scientific visualization exhibition of images that prompt discussion about the meaning of data and the art of info graphics, hosted at the University of Miami during the fall 2014 semester.

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