The pre-kindergarten classroom belonging to Britt Hoefs is awash in color. Bookcases brimming with books are nestled in one corner, while children's artwork hangs neatly on an easel. Across the room, recently-hatched ducklings and chicks chirp happily, eagerly awaiting the moment students will return to continue raising them for their eventual release into the wild. Nearly every available inch of wall and shelf space is filled with everything from A-B-Cs and numbers to shapes and animals.
The classroom has the appearance of a space occupied by a veteran teacher, someone who has perfected the craft after decades of experience. Instead, Hoefs, a swimmer at Texas A&M in the 1980s, is only in her second year as a full-time teacher at Forest Ridge Elementary in College Station.
In fact, it wasn't until December 2013 that Hoefs earned her college degree.
However, one glimpse around the classroom makes it strikingly clear that Hoefs is someone who loves her daily task of teaching. Certainly, her room is a happy place for all who enter.
Recently, Hoefs and a visitor sat at a tiny table in the middle of the room and exchanged pleasantries. A few moments later, emotions welled up in Hoefs' face and eyes. She paused, retrieved a tissue from a nearby table and collected her thoughts.
While her voice trembled slightly, her heartfelt words inflected the unmistakable pride and joy she lives as a teacher.
"Without that scholarship, I never would have been able to go back to A&M and finish," said Hoefs (pronounced "Hayfs"). "It took me 30 years from start to finish, so it was a long journey."
A Graduate at Last
Earning a college diploma was a three-decade process for College Station's Britt Hoefs. Hoefs left Texas A&M early to pursue a successful business opportunity, but always regretted not having her degree. Thanks to support from the A&M athletic department, she returned to the university recently and graduated in 2013. Hoefs is now a teacher in a local school district.
Hoefs unconventional journey to graduating is thanks in large part to a life-altering initiative in which the A&M athletic department encourages former student-athletes who never graduated to return to campus and earn a diploma.
The program began in 2013 and is administered by Garry Gibson, an assistant athletic director in academic support services, as well as associate athletic director for student-athlete services Mona Osborne. To participate, former student-athletes are required to meet two prerequisites: they must be within 45 credit hours of graduation, and they must have been in good standing with the university at the time they left school.
It involves much more than simply helping former athletes re-enroll in school. The department has committed to paying for books, tuition and fees--and in some cases, housing expenses--for qualifying former student-athletes. In essence, they are still considered a scholarship athlete. It is a shining example of how Texas A&M athletics is fully committed to ensuring its athletes have all the resources necessary to earn a college degree.
When the program was first unveiled four years ago, Gibson heard from student-athletes as far back as the 1960s.
Some left school to pursue a professional career. Others had families. For Hoefs, a butterfly specialist in the pool who once helped A&M to a top-15 NCAA finish, a successful business venture prompted her to leave. Almost 20 years after withdrawing from A&M, Hoefs began considering what it would take to finish her education. Talks with advisors revealed some unfortunate news: she would have to start from scratch and retake every credit hour. Unfazed, Hoefs began taking night classes each semester at nearby Blinn College.
Six years later, she learned of the athletic department's program, met with Gibson and began taking classes at A&M in the summer of 2012. By the end of 2013, Hoefs graduated with a degree in education.
"Not completing my degree was one of the only regrets I had in life, and it was so important to me to finish what I started at A&M," Hoefs said. "There were many easier routes that would have gotten me a degree much quicker, but it wouldn't have been an A&M degree. With the additional responsibilities I took on in my life I never would have been able to afford to return to school and complete my degree. This program was a godsend. Without it I would not be here doing what I love and have a true passion for. I was voted Forest Ridge Elementary teacher of the year this year, so I like to think that my education at A&M prepared me to be the best teacher that I could be to make a lasting impact on young minds to propel them forward in school and life."
The degree completion program appeals to younger former student-athletes, too.
Men's tennis star Jeremy Efferding left A&M after the 2015 season in which the Aggies claimed the SEC regular season and tournament titles. The team scorched into the NCAA Tournament, where the Boca Raton, Fla., native helped A&M advance all the way to the Elite Eight.
Efferding decided to ride that momentum into the professional ranks and soon found himself playing tennis throughout Europe. But last year he learned he would have to undergo back surgery that would keep him out of competition for a year.
Efferding was well aware of A&M's degree completion program when he set out on the pro tour, so he quickly placed a call back to Aggieland. He returned to classes last fall and will graduate in May with a degree in university studies.
"One thing the A&M coaches and everyone I met with during the recruiting process told me was that they wanted to put me in the best position to succeed," Efferding said. "They made it clear that I could come here to represent A&M tennis, but if I chose to go play professionally before I finished, they would always be here to help later in life. They made it clear they wanted me to graduate, and that was really encouraging. I'm an out-of-state student and out-of-state tuition is very high, so if I didn't have my scholarship, the loans would crush me. I owe a big debt of gratitude to A&M for giving me such a wonderful opportunity."
Back to the Court
Former tennis star Jeremy Efferding departed A&M to play professional tennis without a degree, but he returned last fall after a back injury sidelined him for 12 months. In addition to earning his diploma this spring, Efferding also returned to the courts of the Mitchell Tennis Center as a volunteer student coach for the A&M women's tennis team.
Efferding's opportunities didn't stop there.
Women's tennis coach Mark Weaver allowed Efferding to join his program as a student assistant coach while he finished his school work. Efferding had previously planned to pursue a lengthy pro career, but his time working with the Aggie women has opened the possibility of a completely different career path when his playing days are done.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," Efferding said. "Coaching collegiate tennis is very different than coaching juniors or even professional tennis. In (junior tennis), you aren't allowed to coach between points or say anything during the match. I'm way more engaged here, and I feel like I have a much stronger impact on the players than I would if I was coaching juniors. It almost feels like I'm back on the court again, playing through them. I never thought I'd enjoy it, but I have fallen in love with it."
According to Gibson, Efferding is one of three former student-athletes who will graduate this semester after participating in the program. The initiative has touched athletes from several sports, including football, baseball, basketball, soccer and swimming.
In many ways, Gibson is an ideal person to lead the program. A Kentucky native, he attended Moorehead State before withdrawing early to join the Marines. Gibson retired from the military 21 years later and landed a job at Vanderbilt. He decided to finish his degree and began taking classes at Austin Peay State University, located an hour outside of Nashville, Tenn.
Gibson certainly appreciates the hard work it takes to graduate later in life. His final semester included a staggering 26 credit hours, all while he was working a fulltime job.
"I wouldn't tell my regular students this, but I'm more excited for the returning students than I am for the traditional students," said Gibson, who also advises current athletes from soccer, men's tennis, men's golf and women's golf. "I know what it's like to come back and have to try and pass college calculus. My wife used to have wake me up every morning because I would fall asleep in my chair reading or writing. But I got it done. It can be done."
Thanks to an athletic department--and thousands of 12th Man Foundation donors who invest generously in the academic success of its student-athletes--many returning students will be able to follow suit and earn a life-changing college degree.
"This type of support is not common (around the country)," Gibson said. "When Texas A&M says we are going to help you leave with a degree, we mean it. And if you don't graduate while you're here competing, when your playing career is over, we are still committed to helping you walk across the stage."
It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."