Degree Completion Stories
Former Gamecock All-American infielder Drew Meyer never had a doubt that he would earn his degree from South Carolina. After a nine year professional baseball career, he came back to school in 2011 through the Carolina Degree Completion Program, earned straight A’s over the next year and a half and discovered a professional network of fellow Gamecocks that helped him start his new life after athletics.
“I’d tell any athlete who didn’t graduate, do everything you can to finish your degree and be proud of it,” Meyer said. “You have to have your degree to be successful out there in the business world. It’s a sense of pride and accomplishment for me. It was something special to walk across that stage even though it was years later. It doesn’t matter when you get it done.”
The Carolina Degree Completion Program is part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise and is for student-athletes who left the university in good academic standing to pursue a professional career, or did not complete their degree due to personal circumstances. The program allows those former student-athletes to apply to be readmitted to the university and come back to campus to finish their degree.
“There are a lot of people out there who may not have the opportunity that we have at South Carolina,” Meyer said. “The university and the people there are there to help us. It’s important to them. They want every student-athlete to graduate.”
The Charleston native is currently working for Federated Insurance in the Simpsonville and Greenville, S.C., area. Before he found success in the business world, Meyer saw plenty of success on the baseball field, helping the Gamecocks win SEC Championships in 2000 and 2002. The 2002 team also reached the championship game of the College World Series. He earned All-SEC honors twice and earned second-team All-America honors in 2002. After three seasons with the Gamecocks, he was drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Texas Rangers.
I felt that getting my degree would play a big part of finding those opportunities in the future in the business world. It was important to me to finish it for a sense of pride, but I also needed it to do what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.Drew Meyer
Meyer returned to South Carolina in 2011 to finish his course work and also served as a student assistant for the baseball program during the 2012 season. Meyer knew he couldn’t play baseball forever, and he saw other former professional baseball players without degrees get into careers that didn’t have the future he would like to have for his family.
“Before I even got to college, I had an opportunity to turn professional coming out of high school,” Meyer said. “There was just always something for me that wanted to be a college graduate, especially at the University of South Carolina. That’s always been a goal and a dream of mine. I always had a passion for business, and I felt that getting my degree would play a big part of finding those opportunities in the future in the business world. It was important to me to finish it for a sense of pride, but I also needed it to do what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Meyer said that even though he was a decade older than most of his classmates when he returned to school, he didn’t have difficulty adjusting to life as a student again. He dedicated himself to being an all-star in the classroom.
“Getting used to studying for tests was a little bit of a challenge, but I’ve always been very competitive so that was something I thrived on,” Meyer said. “When I was in school playing baseball, my focus was on baseball. I wanted to win games and put myself in a position to be taken high in the draft. Looking back, I wish I had done it differently, but when I came back, I told myself that I’m going to try to get A’s in my classes. I ended up getting two A’s that first summer, and from then on I told myself that anything less than that is unacceptable.”
Meyer needed 15 classes to graduate, and aced them all.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” Meyer said. “I was proud of that. I couldn’t use the excuse of having baseball and weights and all those other things. I didn’t have any other outside distractions either. My wife and I were living in a house and didn’t have too much else going on other than helping out the team a little bit and trying to get my studies done.”
While his own hard work was among the keys to that success, Meyer felt like he had access to all of the tools necessary to help him finish what he had started in school.
“I came back and the Dodie (Academic Enrichment Center) was done,” Meyer said. “That place was just so big and full of resources. I leaned on my academic advisor a lot in scheduling classes. They did a great job of letting me know that there were tutors available if I needed it. That’s a heck of deal. Other students would have to pay a great deal of money to get that kind of assistance.”
Prior to graduating in December of 2012, he approached Coach Tanner about how to make some contacts in the business world, and a networking path with fellow Gamecocks led to him finding the right opportunity.
“One of the reasons I got out of professional baseball is because I wanted to settle down and have a family,” Meyer said. “Coach Tanner put me in touch with former Carolina baseball player, Bryon Jeffcoat. I liked what I heard when I spoke to him, and later interviewed for a job. So here I am. I’m selling commercial insurance. Another former Gamecock, Lee Gronkiewicz, also works for the company. So we’ve got three former players here in the same company. We even have a former Clemson player too. We have a good time throwing jabs at each other.”
Speaking from experience, Meyer understands the importance of career networking.
“It’s huge,” Meyer said. “I referred one of our old equipment managers to our company as well, and now he’s training in our company. People from our baseball program helped me out, and now I’m trying to pass it on. So much of business and sales is referrals and knowing the right people. I’m looking to expand that network.”
Looking back, Meyer credits South Carolina with not only helping him achieve his dreams on the field, but off the field as well.
“I really felt like the university had a hand in my success,” Meyer said. “They wanted me to be successful just as much as I did. They really want to look out for you during your playing career and afterwards. The university has a great network to help you out with anything you need to be successful.
“Coach Tanner has been a big influence in my life,” Meyer added. “He’s always been a big mentor for me because he has always done things the right way. He always did things with integrity. It’s what you strive to be. I still talk to a lot of the guys I played with all the time. We have a special bond. We get together and do our best Coach Tanner or (former assistant) Coach (Jim) Toman impressions and have fun. It’s like we never left. We practiced hard, but we knew how to have a good time.”
Meyer was inducted into the USC Association of Lettermen’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. He and his wife, Christy, are enjoying life with their two-year-old son, Hudson.
Story by Brad Muller
Not every student-athlete finishes school, but now they have a chance. The University of South Carolina gives student-athletes a second chance to come back and earn that diploma through the Carolina Degree Completion Program, which is part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise.
“We provide funding,” said Maria Hickman, Associate Athletics Director for Academics and Student Development. “Each student is eligible for room, board, books, and tuition. They have all of the resources we offer to our undergraduate students such as tutoring, laptops, and use of the Dodie Academic Enrichment Center. Everything is available to them just like it was before they left. We’re committed to them when they get here, and we’ll always be here for them.”
The degree completion program is for student-athletes who left the university in good academic standing to pursue a professional career, or did not complete their degree due to personal circumstances. The program allows those former student-athletes to apply to be readmitted to come back to campus and finish their degree. Eighteen former student-athletes have already earned their degree since the program was implemented five years ago, including former basketball player Brandon Wallace who earned his Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management degree in December after leaving school in 2007 for a professional playing career with the Boston Celtics as well as overseas.
“On a personal level, I had always promised my mom (Terrie) that I would finish my degree,” Wallace said. “I definitely wanted to make good on that promise, and being that I was so close to getting my degree when I left, it was only right that I found time to come back and finish.”
A program-record 12 former student-athletes are currently enrolled. The program, in essence, gives them a chance to regain their scholarship while not having to worry about practices, film sessions, workouts and other demands placed on student-athletes. Funding for the program is built into the budget and there is some funding available from the NCAA.
“The returning student-athletes had to previously receive aid, but for the equivalency sports, it doesn’t matter what percentage of a scholarship they received,” Hickman said. “They didn’t have to be on a full scholarship, but when they return, their aid is determined after completing the Carolina Degree Completion application.”
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the program is that it has enjoyed a 100% graduation rate for all of those who have come back to school.Leroy Dixon also earned his degree in December in criminal justice after leaving school one year shy of graduation in 2006 to pursue a professional track career.
“It’s very important because student-athletes don’t always make the best choices at a young age because we can get caught up in the hype and excitement,” Dixon said. “We don’t always think about our long-term future. I’m very appreciative of the program. This means a lot to me. Nobody can ever take the degree away from me. Winning medals is great, but this allows me to do more when I’m done running.”
More student-athletes are finding out about the program simply by staying in touch with former teammates and coaches, and the graduates are paying it forward by telling others as well.
“Everyone I talk to that I played with, I talk to them about it,” Wallace said. “I encourage any of those guys who didn’t finish to come back and find time to take classes and finish. That degree will take you a long way because you can’t play basketball forever.”
I rank getting my degree right up there at the top with my athletic accomplishments.Brandon Wallace
Dixon was living in Los Angeles, but he decided to come back in 2013 after sending a text to his former coach at South Carolina, Curtis Frye.
“I texted him to wish him Happy Father’s Day,” Dixon said. “He wrote back and told me to call him. He said he needed me to come back and finish my degree. He told me it was important. As a mentor, he was advising me to come back and get it and told me how the university would help me get it done. It made sense because there were no track and field championships that year, and I had a year to finish. Now I’m done so I can focus on the World Championships in August and the Olympics in 2016.”
Other students within a few hours of Columbia will drive back to campus two or three times per week to take their classes.
“It’s quite impressive what they do,” said Al Daniel, Coordinator of Student-Athlete Development. “As they’ve gotten older, you can see more maturity in a lot of them because this is something they promised somebody they would do. So they’re just more serious when they get back into the program. They see the benefit of it now and they’re a lot more focused.”
“Just to see the difference in their grades is quite something,” Hickman added. “Some of them, who perhaps didn’t take their grades as seriously before, or were more focused on athletics when they were here, have done so much better. Some of them have 4.0 grade point averages when they come back.”
Adjusting to college life without having to attend all of the team functions makes it a smooth transition for some, but others still have challenges.
“The funny this is that it was a whole lot easier than I remember going the first time through,” Wallace said. “Without basketball practice and all of those other obligations, it was pretty easy. A lot had changed on campus. The Dodie (Academic Enrichment Center) was amazing. Going from a 22 year old student to a 29 year old student, my priorities were definitely more in line this time.”
“It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do,” Dixon said. “It humbled me and taught me that nobody is better than anyone else. It taught me how to be more self-sufficient. There is a lot more training at the professional level, so I still had to do that and go to class. There were moments where I wanted to give up, but with the help of Al Daniel and Maria Hickman and everyone around the Dodie, they gave me the energy to want to finish.”
Wallace and Dixon enjoyed athletics success after leaving South Carolina, but they now also have the satisfaction of finishing what they started.
“Graduation was an awesome day,” Wallace said. “I got to see my mom smile. Any time you can make good on a promise to your parents, it’s amazing. My whole family was there to see it: mom, dad, and my two boys. My kids aren’t old enough to understand now, but once they get to that age, I can show them what’s possible. I rank getting my degree right up there at the top with my athletic accomplishments. The ring that you get from the Athletics Department when you graduate is one of the most prized possessions beyond any state championship or NIT championships I had in basketball. This is the most valuable one I have.”
Story by Brad Muller
Finishing what they started is important to former South Carolina football student-athletes Marcus Lattimore, Fred Bennett, and Darian Stewart. It’s important to many other Gamecocks as well as those student-athletes who chose to leave school early for personal reasons or to pursue professional sports careers are coming back to campus thanks to the Carolina Degree Completion Program, which is part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise.
“I knew I wanted to finish my degree because that would set me up for success,” Lattimore said. “It was important to me and to my mom. You have a better chance of being successful if you have a degree in your hand, and I knew that.”
“I don’t want to just get my degree; I want to use it,” said Bennett. “I might want to go into the restaurant business or maybe get into the hotel business. It’s up in the air right now. I have other aspirations too, but I definitely want to do something in the hospitality industry.”
Each has his own reason for leaving and for coming back. Bennett played defensive back for the Gamecocks from 2003-06 before being selected by the Houston Texans in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in 2007 and has since found a home with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. He finished his last class this spring and will do an internship over the summer to complete degree requirements from the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management.
Stewart recently signed to play with the Denver Broncos this season. He played in the defensive backfield for the Gamecocks from 2006-09 before signing with St. Louis Rams in 2010. He came back and earned his degree in retail management in 2012.
“It’s a great achievement,” Stewart said. “It’s a weight off your shoulders and prepares you for the long run. The NFL sometimes stands for `Not For Long.’ You definitely want to have something to fall back on when football is over.”
Lattimore was one of the nation’s top running backs, playing for South Carolina from 2010-12. After the second of two major knee injuries cut short his junior season, he was drafted in 2013 by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round. Following nearly two years or rehabilitation, he retired from the NFL last November and came back to campus to finish his course work and has two semesters to go.
“When I decided to leave and enter the NFL draft, my academic advisor, Maria Hickman, Coach (Steve) Spurrier, and (Athletics Director) Ray Tanner were all supportive of my decision,” Lattimore said. “They said that when I was done playing football, they were going to take care of me so I could come back and finish. I knew that coming in, so when I did decide to retire, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was to go back to my home state, my university, and get my degree. I knew I would be welcomed. Everything has been first class.”
The program allows those former student-athletes who left the university in good academic standing to apply to be readmitted to come back to campus and finish their degree. Nearly 20 former student-athletes have already earned their degree since the program was implemented five years ago. Each student is eligible for room, board, books, and tuition and has access to all of the resources offered to undergraduate students such as tutoring, laptops, and use of the Dodie Academic Enrichment Center.
“You are treated just like you were when you were a student-athlete,” Lattimore said. “You’ve got all the help you need. It’s just setting you up for success if you finish your degree. I definitely encourage others to do it. You have access to the Dodie, the cafeteria, the academic advisors and of course your past coaches love to see you. You can spread some knowledge to the guys playing in the sport you played, and it’s a great opportunity to network.”
“Some classes were a challenge, but it was in my heart that this was what I wanted to do so this made it easier for me,” Bennett said. “It’s been fun meeting some of the new kids around here and talking about what it was like back in the day when I was here playing.”
I know my purpose, and that is to inspire these kids because I am a South Carolina kid. They grew up just like me, so that’s my job in life. I can’t let them down.Marcus Lattimore
A common thread among the student-athletes is that they are glad to put in the work in order to obtain their degree.
“I was able to meet with a couple of tutors,” Stewart said. “They helped me out a lot. It can definitely be an adjustment to come back to school. I knew what I wanted to accomplish though, and just stuck with it. I was willing to give up that time to do it, and it was worth it.”
While coming back to school can be an adjustment, not having daily practices, workouts and team meetings as they did when they played for the garnet and black took some getting used to as well.
“I feel like I’m more engaged now,” Lattimore said. “I’m more anxious to learn. I had good grades before, but now I’m more engaged and have better grades. It’s a full load when you’re a student-athlete. I do miss having that schedule though. That’s the luxury of being a student-athlete – you have this whole path laid out for you. You know you have work out, you have to eat right, you have to play the game, and you have to do your studies. That stopped drastically, so you have to find a way to put yourself back on a good schedule.”
A program-record 12 former student-athletes were enrolled for the 2015 spring semester. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the program is that it has enjoyed a 100 percent graduation rate for all of those who have come back to school.
“Nothing bad can come from coming back to get your degree,” Bennett said. “I want to encourage players to come back and get their degree so they’ll have something to fall back on in case football doesn’t work out the way you planned.”
They all agree that finishing school enhances them as role models for their families as well as youngsters around the country.
“When you get out of college, you want to have something else to go in to,” Stewart said. “I want to teach other kids what I know. I want to give back to younger people, especially on the high school level.”
“It’s only about one percent that make it as a professional in the sport that you play,” Lattimore said. “Kids in South Carolina look up to me. I think I did things the right way, and I don’t take that lightly. I take that with full responsibility. I know my purpose, and that is to inspire these kids because I am a South Carolina kid. They grew up just like me, so that’s my job in life. I can’t let them down.”
As for walking across the stage with a diploma, that’s as good as anything they’ve done on the field.
“It will be amazing,” Lattimore said. “It will be just like getting drafted, signing to play at Carolina, beating Georgia, or beating Alabama. It will be that same feeling because it’s something I’ve worked for. I work hard in everything that I do, and when you put that hard work in and see it pay off, it’s just an amazing feeling.”
Story by Brad Muller