The University of Georgia has become a powerhouse in academics and athletics, and perhaps few embody that more than Jason Edwards.
In the summer of 2020, a task force in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s kinesiology department began looking at ways to expand their diversity efforts through their curriculum and service and outreach opportunities. Out of those conversations, Edwards developed the UGA-Clarke County School District Sports Mentoring Program at Hilsman Middle School, where UGA students tutor and mentor the younger students and then work on developing their athletic skills.
“I’ve heard from the teachers and leaders that programs like what we’re doing are exactly ways that we can help counteract some of the challenges and hopefully offset them,” said Edwards, associate director of alumni relations in the Mary Frances Early College of Education.
His efforts to build better futures for middle school students in Clarke County were recognized recently with the President’s Fulfilling the Dream Award. Presented at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast, the award recognizes students, faculty, staff and community members who exemplify the words and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Edwards grew up in Florida “with a ball in my hand,” particularly in his high school years. He played football and lacrosse, as well as other recreational sports.
He took that love of sport and activity to the next level, earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from UGA. He returned to earn a master’s degree in sport pedagogy. Later this year, he’ll become a Triple Dawg, earning an Ed.D. in educational leadership.
“UGA was always a dream of mine,” he said.
Edwards had previously participated in a service-learning course and recognized how powerful it can be. He wanted to emulate something similar that provided a service to the Clarke County School District and let UGA students build a relationship with the younger students in a mutually beneficial way to connect with each other.
After the conversations within the college, Edwards went to the Clarke County School District’s director of partnerships and presented the idea of an after-school physical activity program that also incorporated academic work. The director suggested that working with middle school students would be a great way to help them better prepare for high school. The UGA-CCSD Sports Mentoring Program brings UGA students in the service-learning course to Hilsman Middle School twice a week for tutoring and then athletic skills development.
The program is now in its second year, and UGA President Jere W. Morehead committed funds to continue and expand the program.
Although Edwards is no longer teaching the course in his current position, he’s staying involved. In fact, it’s serving as the focus of his dissertation on how higher education can connect with K-12 schools. He’s collecting data, observing the program and taking field notes on its strengths and weaknesses.
The program benefits both sets of students. It gives UGA mentors a chance to go outside campus in a diverse setting and learn about their community, which can be eye-opening. In turn, Hilsman students learn more about UGA and how to get started and feel more confident academically. In addition, it improves the connection and communication between UGA and the Clarke County School District.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily groundbreaking, and I don’t think it’s reinventing the wheel, but what I do think is that it takes someone to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea and really want to help,’” he said.
For Edwards, fulfilling King’s dream means creating a path forward. Each person can give back the same opportunities they’ve had in some way.
“Every one of us can take what we’re passionate about and take Dr. King’s mindset of what am I doing for others,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help UGA make its mark. Obviously, we want to be a state and national and global leader, but we also need to be leader in our local community.”