East Mississippi advisor’s challenge brings national academic honor

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 29, 2018

MERIDIAN, Miss. (AP) — One of Abby Jenkins’ first interactions as East Mississippi Community College’s new athletic academic advisor last year was a conversation she had with the football team during a meeting.

In the year before her arrival, the Lions were winners of 11 games and the Mississippi Bowl, further solidifying East Mississippi’s status as the National Junior College Athletic Association’s premier program.

Although the football credentials were impressive, Jenkins felt the team was capable of achieving academic milestones. So during that meeting, she offered a challenge to the team.

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“I stood there and said, ‘How cool would it be to be able to say that you were the national champions on the field and in the classroom?’” Jenkins recalled. “At that point, I expected the field part probably to happen, but I thought this both won’t happen. If it inspired them to get it up to a 2.9, next year we’ll do a 3.0. I’ll have to be OK with that.”

In June, East Mississippi was named the NJCAA’s Football Academic Team of the Year after posting a 3.01 composite grade-point average. East Mississippi became the first NJCAA school to win a football national championship and an academic national championship in the same year, meeting Jenkins’ challenge.

Jenkins’ roots don’t span far from Scooba.

She grew up in Neshoba County and graduated from Leake Academy in 2000 before earning a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College in 2004. After receiving a master’s degree in education in school counseling from the University of West Alabama she returned home to join the Philadelphia Public School District as a counselor in 2009.

Jenkins admits to watching Netflix’s blockbuster “Last Chance U” docu-series, and the interactions between former athletic academic advisor Brittany Wagner and her student-athletes appealed to her.

“I’m tired of the “Last Chance U” stigma, but I have to mention it because that’s how I did technically learn about it,” Jenkins said. “I saw “Last Chance U,” and in public school right now, there’s just so much testing and all these different pathways. And for the counselors, there’s just a lot of work that keeps you from actually getting to work with students — a lot of paperwork, a lot of testing and all of that.”

Former East Mississippi offensive coordinator Marcus Wood Sr.’s son, Marc, was a senior at Philadelphia High School at the time. In passing, Jenkins playfully mentioned her interest in the job.

“I just casually, jokingly mentioned to him, ‘Tell your dad if that lady ever leaves her job, I would love to apply for it,’ not thinking that she was going anywhere,” Jenkins said. “About a month later, he came in and said, ‘Ms. Jenkins, that job’s posted. You should apply for it.’”

Jenkins did so and began the lengthy application process. She was eventually offered the position.

“It was a very tough decision because I loved Philadelphia and I wasn’t looking to leave Philadelphia,” Jenkins said. “But I felt like I needed a new scenery, just because I had been doing the same thing for eight years, and the demands of state testing and all that kind of stuff just gets to you year after year when you want to help kids more than you want to do paperwork.”

Upon her arrival in Scooba, Jenkins didn’t tarry in getting the more than 50 East Mississippi football players in sync academically. For the Lions to be eligible for NJCAA academic honors consideration for the 2017-18 academic year, the team had to raise its composite grade-point average from 2.88 to the 3.0 threshold.

Former Lions defensive lineman and current Ohio Bobcat Cole Baker graduated from Clay-Chalkville High School in Birmingham, Alabama, with a 4.26 grade-point average. Despite Baker’s sterling academic credentials, he admitted to being a bit intimidated by Jenkins’ bluntness during her initial team meeting.

“At first, I was kind of scared of her because she came in head high and voice stern telling us the way it was,” Baker said, jokingly. “But the further along we got into the semester, the more you could tell she was passionate about the work she’s done, and I think it shows with the numbers that she’s put up.”

D.J. Clayton was a freshman wide receiver at East Mississippi last season. Before arriving in Scooba, Clayton graduated from Kemper County High School with a 3.5 grade-point average. He commented on Jenkins’ impact.

“When she first started, she came in confident and she looked like she was ready to take over the role of being an academic leader,” said Clayton, a Phi Theta Kappa member. “She came in, was confident, and was ready to roll and willing to help with anything we needed her to. We knew she was serious, so we never took her for granted or anything like that.”

Jenkins is tasked with arranging more than 150 student-athletes’ class schedules, monitoring grades, serving as a liaison between players and coaches and a number of additional academic support duties.

But her time isn’t spent exclusively with players who grapple academically.

“For my students who don’t struggle, I have a lot of meetings with them to keep them pushed to not just be content with a B when they can make an A,” Jenkins said. “So I bring them in and try to challenge them to do better than what they’re doing. Meeting with students a lot is a large part of my day.”

Because of Netflix, East Mississippi is synonymous with “Last Chance U”, which can be a blessing and a curse. While the show has brought worldwide acclaim to Scooba, that fame, according to Jenkins, has also created inaccurate perceptions about the football program’s out-of-state students. The Lions featured eight out-of-state students on their roster last year, and each of them proved more than capable in the classroom.

“All of our out-of-state students that we had this year, which most of them have graduated, all of them were just high GPA kids,” Jenkins said. “They came in with high GPAs, which is kind of rare — people kind of expect us to be getting kids from out of state from Division I schools who have lower GPAs.”

Jenkins used a different approach with each football player.

“If I had kids with a 3.7 or 3.8 border, I called them in and was like, ‘Look, see how close you are to a 4.0?’ And I would do the same thing with my 3.3s and 3.4s, because you have to have a 3.5 to be in Phi Theta Kappa, and once you get that Phi Theta Kappa scholarship, a school wanting them for football, if they have two people equal in skill and one has Phi Theta Kappa and one doesn’t, they’re going with the Phi Theta Kappa student because they can spread their resources out thicker with that kind of scholarship.”

Working against Jenkins and the Lions football program were the sweeping budgets cuts across Mississippi’s community college system last year.

East Mississippi dissolved its women’s soccer and men’s golf programs as a result, and student tutorial services were negatively impacted. Despite the losses in those services, East Mississippi Associate Dean of Instruction James Rush said the school’s faculty coalesced around its students.

“Last year, we went through some tough times as far as the budget was concerned,” Rush said. “But the faculty in some of the key areas were willing to step in and even provide tutorial services for our students. They felt, even though we were going through a tough place in a tough budget year, our students needed our support, and the faculty were there for the students.”

Throughout the year, Rush said it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see faculty members eating lunch in their offices while working with students.

“The faculty was willing to say, ‘We will pitch in to cover that shortfall because we believe in our students,’” Rush said. “They were willing to do it. Even though they could have presented a different picture, they did not. And to me, that speaks to their commitment to student success.”

Football coach Buddy Stephens has amassed 93 wins, he boasts a career winning percentage of .879 and is a four-time NJCAA national champion during his time in Scooba. Suffice it to say he’s experienced his share of banner moments. But winning national football team of the year academic honors carried added significance to him, as the title is something the entire school helped to make possible.

“I was as proud of that as I was winning the national championship, legitimately,” Stephens said. “That just meant so much to everybody. Winning a national championship means a lot to your school, but winning an academic national championship, that’s our teachers and our administration — that’s them winning a national championship. This is our faculty and our staff, and this is a testament to them and how hard they worked not only with our athletes but with all of our students.”

Stephens recounted the many years of being close to achieving the 3.0 threshold, only to fall just short. He credited his players’ determination and the guidance of Jenkins for the breakthrough.

“You can’t say enough about Abby Jenkins and how hard she worked on this,” Stephens said. “For her to be named national champion in her first year as the academic coach, she just has such a great demeanor with the kids. She has a sympathetic ear, but at the same time, she treats those kids like they’re hers. She just does a fantastic job of making sure that our kids are held accountable off the field, in the classroom, in the hallways, and she just does a fantastic job.