It was a day that Tyler Swafford won’t soon forget.
But Saturday, Nov. 19, will pale in comparison as the Eastern Kentucky University Honors Scholar/starting quarterback looks back on his years on the Richmond campus and ahead to the 2017-18 academic year as a Mitchell Scholar at University College Dublin in Ireland.
After interviewing for the prestigious, nationally competitive scholarship at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., Swafford jumped on a shuttle headed for Manassas Regional Airport. From there he boarded a small plane bound for Central Kentucky Regional Airport (formerly Madison Airport) just south of Richmond. Strong headwinds buffeted the flight, and Swafford arrived in Kentucky at 12:40 p.m., just 80 minutes before he was to take the field as the Colonels’ quarterback against league rival Eastern Illinois.
EKU lost its season finale on the gridiron, but Swafford, a senior globalization and international affairs major from Franklin, Tennessee, learned later in the day that, out of more than 320 applicants, he was one of 12 who would comprise the 2018 class of George J. Mitchell Scholars. Swafford is EKU’s first Mitchell Scholar, and the first from a public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth (and second from any Kentucky college or university) in the nearly 20-year history of the program.
“I do not believe there has ever been a student-athlete at EKU who has shown such vigor in both academics and athletics in a single day,” said EKU President Michael Benson, who provided the nomination letter from the institution, coached Swafford before his final interview and worked with EKU Board of Regents Chair Craig Turner to secure transportation back to campus once the NCAA approved of the special arrangement. “I knew from the moment I met Tyler as a freshman that he was a young man marked for great things, given his intellect, his work ethic, and his ability to relate to others. I also saw in Tyler someone who would thrive in an international studies environment, given his own perspective and worldview.”
The EKU president should know. Earlier in his life, he was selected as a Rotary Scholar to study Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford in England. “Tyler will meet people who will change his life and will remain his friends forever. He is in for a truly transformational experience.”
Swafford, who will study geopolitics and global economy in Dublin, plans to pursue a career as an international human rights attorney after he graduates in May 2017. Two experiences at EKU – one as a member of the Honors Program and the other as a member of the football team – galvanized his career choice. He was part of the University’s Honors delegation to the Salzburg Global Citizenship Seminar this past May, an experience that included a “profound” trip to the Dachau concentration camp. EKU Honors Director Dr. David Coleman “then worked closely with me on an independent research project on the evolution of human rights law, from the Nuremberg Trials through the present-day International Criminal Court. That helped me familiarize myself with a possible career option.”
In May 2015, Swafford joined 19 football teammates and three coaches to serve with the Hands and Feet Project (https://goo.gl/R7TP8k) in quake-ravaged Haiti, where he was “deeply impacted” by the Haitians’ “innocent love for life, sports and people” and came to realize “just how blessed we as Americans are.”
This past summer, Swafford helped resettle a family of six Syrian refugees through Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
Coleman ranked Swafford, who boasts a perfect 4.0 GPA, “among the most insightful and hardest working students in the EKU Honors Program. In addition to epitomizing scholarly excellence, Tyler has demonstrated in multiple ways his deep concern for human rights issues and service to humanity. I am confident that he is going to make an enormously positive impact on our world.”
Head football coach Mark Elder said Swafford “embodies all the values you look for in a student-athlete. He excels as a student, and is a true competitor on the field. I’m very proud of what he has accomplished in both aspects, and he has a very bright future ahead of him.”
Swafford was quick to credit his football coaches and academic mentors for their assistance with the scholarship and all his past and future opportunities and his football teammates for their support.
“We would not have been able to pull this off without the blessing and full support of Coach Elder and his staff, as well as the support and generosity of the EKU administration, especially President Benson and Chair Turner. Their commitment never wavered, and I am grateful for it.
“I can’t say enough about (Dr.) Minh (Nguyen),” coordinator of the University’s Office of National and International Scholarships and Fellowships, as well as professor of philosophy, director of the Asian Studies Program and associate director of the Honors Program. “I couldn’t have done any of this without his persistence, knowledge and, most of all, care. Dr. Coleman was equally as helpful. He’s the one who first sat down with me last February to discuss the possibility of one of these prestigious post-grad scholarships. The Honors Program challenges all of its students to realize their full potential. I’ve taken some really interesting classes and learned from some great professors.”
Swafford also cited the support of Dr. Kerem Kalkan, assistant professor of government and his Honors thesis mentor, and all those who wrote letters of recommendation, including his former offensive coordinator Dane Damron. John Strada, senior lecturer in communication studies, also assisted with the interview preparation.
“Above all,” Swafford added, “I am grateful to the Lord for giving me this opportunity. He has placed the right people in my life to prepare me for something like this: my parents (Tony and Tara Swafford), who “have always been there for me and pushed me to be my best in all that I do”; friends; coaches; and professors. This is a collective accomplishment. It is no individual honor. I know I will be representing my family, friends, school and home community when I am in Ireland, and that is not something that I’ll take lightly.”
The former all-state quarterback in Tennessee chose Eastern after receiving a football scholarship offer from the school. “That’s when I visited EKU and committed to play,” Swafford said. As a redshirt sophomore this year, Swafford started four games and threw for a total of 940 yards and five touchdown passes. He also scored a rushing touchdown.
Having balanced athletics and academics with a combination of hard work, self-discipline and “a great deal of help,” Swafford is in good company as an academically successful student-athlete at EKU. The Spring 2016 GPA for EKU student-athletes was 3.179, an all-time high for the University and the ninth consecutive semester of at least 3.00. “I think that is indicative of the school’s commitment to both areas,” he said.
The Mitchell Scholarship Program, sponsored by the US-Ireland Alliance and named for a long-time distinguished U.S. senator and statesman, is designed to introduce and connect generations of future American leaders to the island of Ireland. Applicants are judged on three criteria: academic excellence, exemplary leadership and a sustained commitment to community and public service. The program provides tuition, accommodation, a stipend for living expenses and travel.
Sen. Mitchell served as chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. In 1995, he served as a special adviser to President Bill Clinton on Ireland, and from 1996 to 2000 he served as the Independent Chairman of the Northern Ireland Peace Talks. Under his leadership, the Good Friday Agreement, a historic accord ending decades of conflict, was agreed to by the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom and the political parties of Northern Ireland. For his service in Northern Ireland, Mitchell received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Government; the Philadelphia Liberty Medal; the Truman Institute Peace Prize; and the United Nations (UNESCO) Peace Prize.
For more information about the Mitchell Scholarship and this year’s recipients, visit http://www.us-irelandalliance.org/content/657/en/.
The University's Office of National and International Scholarships and Fellowships, housed in EKU Honors, assists students with the deliberation and application process. The Office offers individual advising assistance to all EKU students in determining appropriate fellowships or scholarships to pursue, coordinating application materials, selecting recommenders, preparing compelling personal statements, developing project proposals or proposed programs of study, and interviewing. For more information, contact Coordinator Dr. Minh Nguyen at 622-8667 or email@example.com.