OXFORD, Miss. – There probably isn’t much more LeBron James can learn about basketball, but the sports megastar’s nonprofit foundation is looking for lessons from the University of Mississippi about ways to help students excel in college.
The LeBron James Family Foundation has established the “I PROMISE Institute” as a resource for its future students on the University of Akron campus. James, who attended Akron public schools and is passionate about education, implemented his “Wheels for Education” and “Akron I PROMISE Network” initiatives to work with kids there who are least likely to earn a high school diploma, much less attend college, to help them do both.
James, through a partnership between his foundation and the university, has guaranteed four-year, full-ride scholarships for all its eligible students.
The original class of I Promise students is about to enter high school, and in four years will be college students, many of them the first in their families to do so. The I PROMISE Institute at Akron will be dedicated to researching best practices, implementing academic interventions and providing around-the-clock support for Akron college students.
“When we first started this program, I wanted my kids to graduate from high school,” James said. “But the more we grow as a foundation, the more we find can be done to give our kids the best chance to be successful.
“We don’t just want our kids to get to college; we want them to graduate from college. And we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to help them do that.”
Paul Herold, who recently retired from the University of Akron, is doing research on behalf of the foundation at universities to learn about ways to maximize the I Promise program’s impact. Herold recently visited Ole Miss to learn more about the student success programs in place.
After a day-and-a-half of meeting with students, faculty and administrators, he was impressed with the university’s programs as well as its students.
“They’re lucky to go to school here,” Herold said. “This university has its act together and is very student-centered. The student affairs structure is exceptional, as is the way everyone across campus buys into it.
“Any university in the country would be pleased to serve students as well as Ole Miss does.”
There is a close Ole Miss connection to the I Promise Network. Herold and Brandi Hephner LaBanc, UM vice chancellor for student affairs and a University of Akron graduate, are on the I Promise Institute Bureau, a governing board of higher education professionals.
“It is a true honor that the LeBron James Family Foundation identified our campus as having aspirational practices with respect to access and student support,” Hephner LaBanc said. “I am proud of the work of our campus community and thrilled to be a part of telling our stories so other students can benefit from similar programs.”
LJFF’s Wheels for Education and Akron I PROMISE Network programs were created to help raise graduation rates in Akron public schools over the long term.
“LeBron’s focus is on increasing graduation rates among the kids who are least likely to graduate,” Herold said. “His program reaches out to Akron kids who are like him, facing serious challenges as they try to complete their education.”
With the addition of the I PROMISE Institute, that commitment continues through college graduation rates for LJFF’s inner-city students at Akron.
The I PROMISE Institute will be a home base for all future high school Akron I PROMISE Network students, acclimating them to life on a college campus while offering programming for students, parents and their families about navigating the college experience. The creation of the I PROMISE Institute is funded in part by Sprite, which James has worked with since 2003.
The process of formulating the I PROMISE Institute is urgent now, as students will be enrolled in college in just a few short years, said Michele Campbell, the foundation’s executive director.
“For many of our kids, they are the first in their families to attend college, so we want to create a familiar, encouraging environment on campus where they feel safe and supported,” Campbell said. “We believe we have the academics and the experts in place to ensure the I PROMISE Institute will be a valuable and impactful resource for our students.”
Herold met with a group of Ole Miss students in the Lyceum. They discussed experiences on campus with several programs, some of which could shape programs I Promise creates over the next few years.
Ieshia Mosley, a junior accounting major from Horn Lake, pointed to her experience with UM’s Students First, which is for first-generation students. The organization helps students create friendships, improve interpersonal skills, hone study habits and learn other keys to a successful college experience.
She said the community atmosphere within the group, as well as her mentor there, helped her succeed.
“Because I was the first person in my family to go to college, I wasn’t able to go to my family with some of the questions that I had,” Mosley said. “But in the organization, I was able to relate to other students who were going through things similar to what I was going through. I was able to get a mentor to go to when I didn’t understand something. I still have those relationships.”
Rashad Newsom, a senior integrated marketing communications major from Senatobia, was involved with Students First. He was also involved in the Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent when he was in high school, and after coming to Ole Miss, he became a MOST mentor to a high school student.
Newsom also was in the university’s Foundations for Academic Success Track program, which helps first-year students transition from high school to college. He later became a FASTrack mentor.
He credits his involvement in many student organizations with helping him make the grade, but also with helping him handle the pressures of being a college student.
“Different organizations have kept me both humble and well-grounded while I’ve been here,” Newsom said.