By Jack Smith
She can see it in their eyes.
That's the first sign Lacy Lewis often looks for when she meets student-athletes looking for careers in her field.
Lewis, senior vice president of finance for Cox Enterprises, knew she was going to hire former Auburn soccer player Jordan Miller minutes after meeting her at a WINGS mentoring event.
WINGS, an acronym for Women Inspiring & Nurturing Greatness in student-athletes, was launched in 2009. The program's purpose is to support women's athletics at Auburn to make the entire student-athlete experience better, from the time young women get to campus until they graduate and move on to the real world.
Increasing the WINGS membership was one of the key goals announced by Athletics Director Jay Jacobs last year as part of his "16 for '16" initiative outlining strategic priorities and goals for the year. Mission accomplished. Jacobs' "16 for '16" goals for WINGS were achieved, and the organization continues to help put young women like Miller on the path to successful careers.
WINGS now boasts well over 100 members. It also provides supplementary funds from donations and member dues to support women's sports at Auburn.
"We have many outstanding female student-athletes at Auburn who perform at the highest level athletically and academically," Jacobs said. "The great work WINGS has done under the leadership of Meredith Jenkins and so many incredible volunteers is making a difference in the lives of these young women who are preparing for the real world. I'm excited to see the progress that has been made under WINGS."
An eye for talent
Lewis, an Auburn graduate who got involved with WINGS not long after it was formed, said she knew Miller had what it takes as soon as they met at the mentoring event.
"I knew immediately she was going to be successful," Lewis said. "It was the way she carried herself, it was the questions she asked. It was how she interacted with me and with others in small groups. It was all of those things."
Miller ended up earning a coveted internship at Cox and now works for Georgia Pacific, a rising star in the making. The Atlanta native credits WINGS for opening doors and helping her build a network of impressive professional women she can contact for advice.
"The WINGS program has helped me establish my career path," Miller said. "It's been great to extend my network and it has helped me find women in corporate America I can reach out to about things I am focusing on or having challenges with. Women empowering women is what it's all about."
Miller studied supply chain management at Auburn. She currently works in GP's procurement department as an asset disposition manager. She has her sights set on a career in marketing or brand management.
Either way, she credits WINGS and her experiences as an Auburn student-athlete for showing her anything is possible. It is a gift she one day hopes to pay forward.
"If I can one day be a Lacy Lewis for someone else, especially a student-athlete, I think that would be the greatest return and very rewarding for me," Miller said.
Lewis said she participates in WINGS for two reasons. She has been the beneficiary of mentoring throughout her career. It is one reason she is at the top of her field at a major corporation like Cox Enterprises. And she just loves Auburn--Auburn Athletics, the College of Business where she now sits on a volunteer board and the student-athletes she has met and mentored at WINGS mentoring sessions.
At those well-attended events, Lewis and other mentors break out into small groups with student-athletes interested in their fields. They might help athletes learn about career opportunities, review their resumes or coach them up for interviews.
Lewis frequently provides her business card, and many student-athletes take her up on the offer to provide guidance when they get close to graduation or search for internships.
Companies like Cox are always looking for talent, and Lewis turns to athletes whenever she can. They are attractive candidates because they possess the skill set, intangible traits and work ethic companies need to compete.
"The reason I like to hire college athletes is they understand how to manage their time and they understand how to be a member of a team," Lewis said. "They are normally very competitive and goal driven. If I ever have the opportunity, I look for college athletes to hire."
Lewis said she gets just as much as she gives from WINGS. The chance to meet and help bright-eyed female student-athletes inspires her.
"I always leave those meetings energized," she said. "There is such excitement and a little bit of fear of the unknown, but mostly excitement in these young ladies. They are smart, and their entire careers are ahead of them. You can see it in their eyes."
Lewis does more than provide career advice to the young women she meets. She tells them how much she cares about Auburn and makes sure they know WINGS did not happen by accident.
"In every one of the meetings I have with student-athletes, I tell them to thank (Senior Woman Administrator and Executive Associate AD) Meredith Jenkins, because this is a tremendous organization she and others have put together. The student-athletes are very fortunate to have access to this impressive group of members."
Former All-American softball player Emily Carosone has experienced the benefits of WINGS first-hand.
After spending her whole life working on her game to become one of the best softball players in the country, Carosone turned her attention from the diamond to the real world after leading Auburn to consecutive Women's College World Series appearances.
It's not always an easy transition for elite athletes who have dedicated their entire lives to being the best in their sport.
"I don't think people realize as a female athlete how difficult it is to go from softball every day of your life to having to find a job," Carosone said. "Besides school, softball was my main focus every day of my life from the time I was nine until I was 23. I'm a pro softball player now and I play over the summer, but I can't make a living off softball. I have to have something else that I can do."
The Florida native and former Academic "Top Tiger" may one day pursue a Ph.D. in Industrial Organization. But the outgoing former second baseman has also felt the pull of the game she loves.
Carosone credits the best mentor she has ever had, Hall of Fame Coach Clint Myers, with sparking her interest in coaching.
"There are so many things I have learned from Coach Myers," Carosone said. "His motto is greatness is a way of life. That's inscribed in every ring I've ever gotten from him. He taught us to be great in anything we do in school or life. He is a great mentor and coach, so I've had the opportunity to learn from the best."
Carosone also learned the importance of personally investing in players from Myers. One of her classes at Auburn offered extra credit to students who brought in guest speakers over the age of 50. Myers was the first person she considered. He quickly accepted.
Carosone said she knew exactly where to sit after introducing her popular guest.
"I had to sit on the front row or he would think I'm not paying attention," she said, laughing at the memory.
The star softball player beamed as her head coach dazzled her classmates.
"I just remember being so proud that he was my coach while he was up there answering questions," Carosone said, beaming at the memory. "He had meetings that day and was really busy, but he cared about me as a student-athlete enough to make time to do it. All of these college kids were looking up to this amazing coach and really enjoying his talk, and I remember thinking I get the privilege to learn from him every day."
Carosone does not yet know where her career path will ultimately take her, but she has a good jump on the competition--as you might expect from an All-American. She is spending this entire year interning with Auburn Athletics in a position funded by WINGS.
After interning in event operations all fall, even working the phones in the Jordan-Hare Stadium control room where issues are reported and turned over to the right staffers quicker than a double-play ball, Carosone is now learning the behind-the-scenes work required to keep Auburn softball going under Director of Operations Megan Reynolds.
Whatever she ends up doing for a career, Carosone says the experience made possible by the WINGS internship has been priceless.
"This program is helping athletes like me make a future for ourselves," she said. "I really don't know where I would be or what I would be doing without WINGS."
A vision with WINGS
Jenkins, who got her start in Sports Information as the first female football SID in the Southeastern Conference, says her work with WINGS is some of the most fulfilling she has done in a career spanning two decades.
She was the driving force behind the vision for WINGS. Her passion for its purpose came largely from the countless exit interviews she has conducted with student-athletes in sports she oversees as an administrator.
"I was doing a lot of exit interviews, and so many of the student-athletes would say I majored in this but I really don't know what I want to do. I thought it would really help them if they had a connection with someone in their field."
Jenkins said WINGS took flight with involvement of Dr. Jane Moore, Susan Housel and Kay Hargrave.
"They helped shape the vision and worked tirelessly to recruit members and share the goals of WINGS," Jenkins said.
WINGS was also a way to supplement funding for women's sports competing in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
"Although our programs are funded extremely well, every year there were things that we came up with that needed additional funding," Jenkins said. "WINGS has been able to help almost every women's sport, thanks to our members."
WINGS has funded several graduate assistantships in Athletics, which have allowed former student-athletes to gain invaluable work experience. The program has also funded various needs for each of Auburn's 12 women's sports, including providing new carpet and other locker room upgrades, fencing, equipment and facility graphics.
WINGS has also supported programs to aid with career development by assisting with career fairs and funding for an Internet-based networking program. Those efforts tie directly to Jacobs' strategic goals of ensuring student-athletes graduate-and leave Auburn prepared for successful lives and careers.
In all, the total revenue generated by WINGS since its founding in 2009 is approaching $1.5 million.
The future only looks brighter as WINGS recruits more members to boost women's sports at Auburn, many of which have competed at the highest levels in school history the past several years.
"I would encourage anyone who wants to have a lasting impact on our women's sports and more importantly our female student-athletes as they prepare for the game of life to get involved and support WINGS," Jenkins said. "This program is making a difference, and I'm proud to be a part of it."