First-year student-athletes at Mercer University are learning how a little bit of community involvement can make a big impact. 

This semester, the 125 students in Matt Brownback’s life skills (LSK) course have the option to work on projects for the United Way’s Read United program or the Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital.

Mercer freshman athletes are required to take a life skills class that focuses on time management and adjusting to college life in the fall and one that focuses on community service in the spring semester. 

“The reason we started this … the freshmen come here, and all they know is life on campus. I want to push students to get outside of their comfort zone and out into the community,” said Brownback, who is the assistant athletic director of student support services and has been teaching these courses for five years. 

Matt Brownback

In the past, his students did weekly reading or math tutoring with children in local schools. That wasn’t an option this year with COVID-19, so they are filming read-aloud videos that will be distributed to the schools. Working in groups or pairs, the student-athletes will make three to five videos throughout the semester. Brownback is also working on organizing some live virtual class readings. 

“I want them to see that their platform as student-athletes is far-reaching,” Brownback said. “We always talk about the ripple effect. They’re only required to do an hour of service a week. That small, short one hour of their week may not seem like a lot, but it can have a big impact.”

A former middle school English teacher, Brownback said improving literacy skills in children is very important to him. He has seen tremendous growth in reading proficiency for third-graders that Mercer students have tutored. 

With hospital visitation restricted due to the pandemic, Brownback also wanted to find a way to brighten the days of children who are going through a lot. Some of his students will record read-aloud videos of specific books the hospital has chosen. The videos will include introductions from the athletes to make them more personal. 

The books will be given to pediatric patients along with a card that allows them to access the accompanying videos online, so they can read along. The athletes also will assemble activity kits with games and crafts that will be distributed to children in the hospital. 

“By offering LSK as a service-learning course, Mr. Brownback is introducing these freshmen to the importance of being leaders in service in the community. As a result, his freshmen make an incredible impact on our local Macon community, not only in this course but throughout their time as Mercer student-athletes,” said Dr. Kathy Kloepper, vice provost of engaged learning and director of Research That Reaches Out

“When service opportunities are integrated into course experiences, students help others while also reflecting on their own strengths and areas for improvement. Service-learning courses help students grow as scholars and citizens, and we are so proud of our student-athletes for their commitment to service.”

Student-athletes should use their platform to help other people, and this class has provided some great ways for Mercer students to connect with the local community, said freshman Eliza Snyder, a shooting guard on the women’s basketball team and a biology major.

Snyder has opted to get involved in both service projects for the class. She hopes to help strengthen children’s reading skills and make their day better through the video project. The craft aspect of the activity kits she’ll help assemble is personal to her.

“I just want to help in any way I can, honestly,” she said. “My dad was diagnosed with dementia in June, so it’s been a crazy year for me. Whenever I get sad, I always do crafts. I thought that would be really cool to put together those kits for kids to be able to do crafts if they’re having a hard time.”


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