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New York Jets linebacker and Wharton alumnus Brandon Copeland, who has three sacks on the year, will return to Penn next semester to teach a class in the Urban Studies Department. (Photo from the New York Jets)

In some ways, what Penn football alumnus and current NFL player Brandon Copeland will be doing in the spring isn’t that unique at all — he’s just going back to school. 

Especially in the current era of big-time college athletics, where every year dozens of basketball and football players leave college early to pursue athletic careers, instances of NBA and NFL players returning to get their undergraduate diplomas aren't unheard of. Rarer still is the athlete who decides to pursue an advanced degree after his athletic career ends, but even those stories arise from time to time, like in last May when two-time Super Bowl champion Justin Tuck received his MBA from Wharton before getting hired as a wealth advisor at Goldman Sachs.

But very few athletes — if any — have come back to the classroom the way that Copeland intends to: at the front of it. Come Monday afternoons next semester, though, that’s exactly where the 2013 Wharton grad will be as he co-teaches a seminar course titled “Inequity and Empowerment: Urban Financial Literacy,” alongside Dr. Brian Peterson. 

Copeland said he had been trying to get this class introduced for several years, but the idea was put into motion when he pitched it to Peterson, the director of Penn’s Makuu Black Cultural Center, at an alumni reunion event last spring. Despite now being in the midst of a breakout season, in which he’s started all but one game for the New York Jets at linebacker, Copeland hasn’t shied away from his responsibilities as a professor.

“For the amount of time that [Copeland] has to spend prepping for games, staying in shape, and training camps and all that, he’s really prioritizing it. He’s handling all aspects of everything he has to do, so he’s definitely serious about his playing career, but you know he’ll carve out ten minutes for a check in,” Peterson says. “It wasn’t like he had this idea but ‘I’m too busy’…We talk pretty much every other day, either text message or email or phone call.”

Copeland’s insistence on taking an active role in planning and designing the course comes even as he continues to add to his resume various other off-the-field ventures in real estate and on Wall Street.

Photo from the New York Jets

“It’s very important for me to come back and make this class what I think it can be and what it has the potential to be,” Copeland said. “When someone else tries to do it, they may butcher my vision for it.”

The course, which is listed under Penn’s Urban Studies Department, will aim to improve students’ own financial awareness while also examining the systemic forces that have contributed to America’s wealth gaps.

According to Penn InTouch, enrollment is capped at 20 students. Throughout the semester, Copeland and Peterson hope to keep their students engaged in learning about topics like real estate, taxes, and retirement funds by bringing in guest speakers who Copeland has worked with in the past that can call on their expertise in various fields.

“There is no direct, definite answer to, ‘you should put money away for retirement right now or you should invest in the stock market right now,’” Copeland said. “At the end of the day, everybody’s situation and every scenario is totally different, no one knows. That’s why people have specializations.”

Both Copeland and Peterson also believe that improving financial literacy before entering the full-time workforce is extremely valuable.

“Had I [taken this course] 20 plus years ago, I might be in a different position now,” Peterson said with a chuckle.

“A lot of kids do make these decisions now,” Copeland added. “Even as a sophomore in college you might be making financial decisions and you can make a decision that can either help you or really set you back for years in your life, and so we just want to basically arm students with as much information as possible so that they’re prepared.”

Jonathan Pollack contributed reporting to this story.