Stephens ’22 Leads by Example: “Don’t Change a Thing”

Basketball player shooting a basket.

Jake Stephens ’22 takes a shot against Gardner-Webb during the Dec. 11, 2021, game in Cameron Hall. During his four years at the Institute, the team captain has made big impacts on and off the court.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

Standing tall as a VMI cadet isn’t a problem for Jake Stephens ’22. The computer science major from Bunker Hill, West Virginia, measures in at 6 feet, 11 inches—currently the tallest cadet in the Corps, after growing approximately 4 inches during his college years. That’s after growing 4 inches during his years at Musselman High School. This captain of the Keydet basketball team was named the Southern Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week for the fourth time during the 2021-22 season in mid-February and scored his 1,000th point at the home game Dec. 11, 2021. He is a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.

After graduating from VMI, Stephens hopes to continue playing basketball in some capacity. Each NCAA fall and winter athlete in all three division levels was given an additional year of eligibility due to the season-altering COVID-19 pandemic, whether the team competed or not. “I plan on playing basketball as long as I can,” said Stephens. “When I’m not playing, watching, or thinking [about] basketball, I usually like to listen to sports podcasts.”

Dan Earl, head coach of the VMI basketball team since 2015, has always been impressed by Stephens’ character and work ethic, even down to the snacks Stephens chooses on road trips. “In the summer, I’ll be on my porch, and I see Jake running sprints on the track at night. He’s a self-made player,” Earl said. He also hopes Stephens will continue playing the sport. “The stats speak for themselves. He’ll be able to play for a while if that’s what he wants to do. The door is open for him.”

Positive relationships have guided Stephens during his cadetship. The Piegari and Coleman families gave him homes away from home as host families. “I’m just so thankful that they came into my life because I am not sure I could’ve made it without them. I really can’t thank them enough,” he said.

He hopes anyone arriving to VMI could have a similar support system. “The more you put yourself out there and get involved, the more fun you will have here. If I could go back in time, I think a younger me would greatly benefit from that. Make friends, join clubs, put yourself out there, and in the end, it will all be worth it because of those friendships you’ve made.”

Besides being well-known on the court, and maybe giving the VMI tailor shop a bit of a challenge, Stephens carries himself well in all aspects of VMI life and is frequently described as humble, kind, and sincere. In class, he’s often quiet but gains the respect of both faculty members and his classmates. “He leads by example,” said Col. Holly Richardson, Ph.D., professor of physical education. “Nobody wants to jump in the swimming pool at [8 a.m.] every Monday morning for 15 weeks. Jake was the one to lead the pack into the pool. He gives his best.”

A professor within Stephens’ computer and information sciences major, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey G. Smith Jr. ’79, Ph.D., has seen Stephens develop through his cadetship, starting in spring semester in 2019. Stephens sat in the corner of Smith’s classroom in a fashion described by Smith as “leisurely extending the longest legs of any computer science major on record.” But it didn’t take long for his dynamic leadership capabilities to shine.

Stephens wasn’t loud or overpowering, simply “speaking sparingly, but with uncommon and unassuming clarity,” Smith said.

Smith recalls a time when he asked cadets to provide feedback on his course, and Stephens provided a list of recommendations on a yellow piece of paper after several other classmates shared their feedback verbally. While Stephens had provided guidance on how the course could be better, he reminded Smith not to take out the parts that make it all worthwhile. The written list wrapped up with “don’t change a thing.”

“His teachers, coaches, and classmates would tell Jake to heed his own advice,” said Smith. “When it comes to things like character, courage, humor, effort, and empathy, ‘don’t change a thing.’”

Earl wants to make sure he says “thank you” to Stephens. “He’s got a great way about him. He represents VMI the right way. He’s a phenomenal young man, and I’m honored to have coached him.”

“This is only the beginning for Jake,” Richardson expressed. “He is sure to have a successful future. No doubt Jake will touch people’s lives for the good. He impacted mine.”

  • Maj. Michelle Ellwood VMI Communications & Marketing