category: Alumni

From Mossy Creek to the Ivy League

Samantha Gudger, '17

by Mark Brown, courtesy of The Standard Banner

Just 18 days after Samantha Gudger worked her last shift as a Food City grocery cashier in Jefferson City, she began her new job. As of August 2, she is the director of operations for Princeton University’s cross country and track and field teams.

Her duties will encompass travel management, social media coordination, equipment management for home meets, recruitment logistics, “And,” she said, “I guess whatever else pops up that the coaches need to have done.

It’s a far cry from how she felt in her second year in Jefferson City, as a Carson-Newman University sophomore track athlete who felt the walls closing in with a hip injury.

“At first I thought it was the end of the world. It was, ‘Oh no, I can’t compete. I’m going to have to miss a season. But I still felt like I was part of the team, so I went to practice and meets.”

Her track coach, and later her grad school boss, David Needs said her abilities and intrinsic willingness to do the next thing has been evident all along.

“Coach Needs said, ‘Hey, I think this is something you would be good at so he started teaching me the side of operation,” said Gudger a few days before her transition to New Jersey. “I started doing that and learning it during the year I couldn’t compete and, then once I was cleared and could compete again in the following season, I still helped him out again and just continued to learn more and more.”

Gudger’s external vision and initiative speaks volumes, the coach said.

“A lot of kids, when they get injured, they really spend their time concentrating on rehab and everything else. But Samantha – even though she was out for the season – she found ways to contribute, to invest in her teammates and the team.”

He said she traveled to the Penn Relays and became the team’s photographer and morphed into being the team’s functional manager when she saw a need.

Within two months Gudger fully understood what was necessary logistically and was taking it on with aplomb, he recalled. And though her rehab was progressing positively, he saw something that might have a different sort of legs, a professional career.  

“I told her, ‘You know, Samantha, you have a gift for organization and for being thorough. Let’s look at the operations part of this track thing.’ And we did.

“I’ve been head track coach since 1998 and I have never let anybody else do it (logistics administration),” he said. “It’s such a key component in how we travel, what we do and that we do it all the right way. And, being an old military guy, well, there’s just a certain way to do it.”

Having shopped C-N academic’s curriculum for the optimal major, Gudger said she settled on youth athletics and recreation her undergrad degree. She graduated in 2018, stayed for her master’s in education with an emphasis in coaching and was Needs’ graduate assistant.

A Tennessee native from Bristol, Gudger was a national qualifier in the long jump and was part of the school’s record holding squad in the 4 x 400 meter. She also ran hurdles and high jumped, all of which factor in Needs’ assessment of Princeton’s new administrator as, “A Swiss Army knife for us. Wherever we needed help she was certainly willing to be part of that.”

Gudger said C-N has fostered her growth and development since she arrived on campus as a freshman in 2014.

“(E)veryone at Carson Newman is family,” she extolled “It’s so cliché, because when you come and visit they tell you, ‘Oh, it’s like a family but I can tell you from my own experience that it definitely is.

“Getting to see coaches’ kids grow up and babysit them and be around them at practice… Plus, being able to have an influence on them, that’s a big part of my life here.

While it initially seemed odd to be grateful for getting hurt, she said the situation has taught her quite a bit.

“Without it, I wouldn’t have had any experience in operations because that’s what started it… I tried to make sure everybody had what they needed; was my way to be able to contribute to the team. I couldn’t contribute by getting points but I could in that way.”

The idea of contributing is part of her long-term goals as well, given that the Emerald Youth Foundation volunteer wants to develop programs to infuse hope with methodology for helping young people achieve their dreams.  

“It might take 30 years, but that’s what I want to do. Matthew 5:16 says, ‘In everything we do we show that our light shines so other people see it and want to glorify God.’ There’s a lot of kids who do not have people who are there for them and really help them to dig in and refine their skills for their future.”

Dr. Kim Hawkins, dean of C-N’s School of Education and Counseling, said she became a Gudger champion from the time she met her.

“Princeton is getting the full package with Sam– engaging personality, absolutely brilliant – you name it; she’s got it. Her love of the sport combined with her mental acuity, her ability to organize, and her outstanding people skills make her the ideal candidate for such a position.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I don’t know where I’d be without Carson Newman,” Gudger said. “Getting to come here and run track on scholarship definitely opened a lot of doors for me.”

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