Greeting the Future

April 26, 2015

At the University of Central Florida, support services do more than get student-athletes through college. They help today’s young people prepare for what lies ahead.

The following article appears in the April/May 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

By Jessica Reo

Jessica Reo is Senior Associate Athletics Director for Student Services at the University of Central Florida and a member of the Director of Athletics’ Executive Leadership Team. She can be reached at: [email protected]

At the NCAA Division I level, many institutions offer student-athletes an array of support services. From academic counseling to life skills programming, such initiatives are expected or required. But they vary greatly from school to school, depending on resources and goals.

Here at the University of Central Florida, we have spent the last several years upgrading our off-the-field offerings for our student-athletes. We have enhanced academic support services, developed a comprehensive leadership program, and introduced new ideas in career guidance. To do so, we’ve tapped into alumni and community resources and use fundraised dollars for our programs.

The results have been more than satisfying. Over the past 14 semesters, our athletes have produced an average GPA of 3.0 and a Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of 95 percent, which is best among public institutions. Our football program has posted extremely high GSR and APR rates as well, and earned our conference’s GPA award the past three years. Additionally, many UCF student-athletes are securing employment prior to graduation and getting accepted to graduate school.

FROM TOP TO BOTTOM

A key element of our success with student-athlete support is that it is a department-wide approach, championed by Director of Athletics Todd Stansbury. His focus on student-athlete welfare dictates our program’s structure and the emphasis we place on student services.

Across the country, athletic departments provide oversight of their academic and life skills/student services support programs in several different ways. Academic support programs are often housed within athletics, but our Academic Services for Student Athletes (ASSA) has a separate reporting line to the university. It works hand-in-hand with athletics, but has outside oversight, which ensures integrity.

In terms of life skills programs, some schools have one person who splits this duty with their academic support responsibility. Others include it within sports medicine programming. We have decided to dedicate two full-time staff members and a graduate assistant for programming in life-skills development and post-graduate opportunities. This guarantees attention for our student-athletes.

We also have developed a special group, called the Student-Athlete Welfare Committee, that ensures all departments are involved in the holistic care and development of our student-athletes. Comprised of staff members from strength and conditioning, sports medicine, student services, academic services for student-athletes, and athletics compliance, as well as our head team physician and faculty athletics representative, this group meets monthly to discuss the topics that impact our young people. Conversations include procedures, concerns about specific teams, national student-athlete trends, requests by outside entities for research opportunities, and new studies that have been released pertaining to student-athletes. These meetings are invaluable in understanding our athletes’ needs and how we can meet them.

The work of the Student-Athlete Welfare Committee and Todd Stansbury’s leadership also help put everyone on the same page regarding our approach to student-athlete growth. We want our athletic staff to treat each student-athlete as an individual and recognize that they are more than just the sport they play. Everyone works together to push our young people academically, personally, and athletically at every turn.

We promote a different outlook than many schools, touting graduation as the beginning, not the end of our student-athletes’ individual careers. The goal is that they will translate the academic and competitive lessons they’ve learned to professional abilities and characteristics that will be attractive to employers. We tell our student-athletes that everything they do should be in preparation for the day they leave this university with their degree.

Preaching this begins early—when future UCF student-athletes are still in high school. Student services plays an integral role in this, meeting individually with prospective student-athletes and their families on their official or unofficial visits as requested by our coaches to drive home this message.

Another important way athletic department leadership assists our program is through fundraising. Our director of athletics created a giving/sponsorship campaign specifically for student services with a tagline of, “First Round Draft Choice Programming.” Companies give dollars and work with our student services department to help athletes over their four years here. He has also created an academic based giving campaign called “Everyday Champions are UCF’s PRIDE”, which encourages donations based solely in philanthropy without any ties to donor points, tickets, or parking passes.

Recently, he has taken this a step further, starting a fundraising campaign in order to construct the Wayne Densch Center for Student-Athlete Leadership, which is slated to open in November and will house student services, academic services for student-athletes, and athletics compliance. It will give us the ability to showcase our student-athletes to prospective employers, provide our student-athletes with a quiet, modern place to study, and have an area for large group presentations, all in one location.

With dollars dedicated and solid goals for student services, our programming has few roadblocks. Our clear vision allows staff members to speak with one consistent and persistent voice to student-athletes, while continuing to put meaningful initiatives in place.

A LOT OF PRIDE

The anchor of our student services programming is called PRIDE (Preparation, Responsibility, Involvement, Degree, Excellence). Our student services department created the PRIDE acronym because we wanted our approach to be holistic in nature—to take into account all aspects of being a young person who is developing into an adult.

The programming that makes up PRIDE is called “Pages to Knights” and engages every student-athlete in foundational training. Freshmen student-athletes are required to meet once a month to discuss college transition topics such as: Tips to Be Successful Students, Social Networking, Mental Toughness, and Relationship Management. Because we have a new recruiting class each year, we re-use the topics and continue to develop the curriculum.

With all our programs, we spend a considerable amount of time researching speakers, only bringing in those we have seen in person or come with a very strong recommendation from peers. Most events are kept under one hour and we provide a meal. We understand our athletes have hectic schedules, so we try to keep our events under an hour and always offer a nutritious component. Inevitably, however, our student-athletes will spend time with the speaker after he or she has finished the presentation.

After that initial year, all student-athletes are invited to a large number of workshops. The themes move from college transition to career exploration and have included:

Career Panels: This is presented to sophomore student-athletes and allows former UCF student-athletes who have entered the workforce to share their wisdom and offer advice on what they wished they had known as college students. Current student-athletes can ask panelists specific questions about their transition from athlete to professional, working in an industry that may be of interest to them, or anything else. We encourage interaction by planting some questions ahead of time to break the ice.

Career and Major Exploration: Set up by our University’s Career Services Department, this is another session for sophomore student-athletes. It helps identify their interests and shows them how those can be tied to majors and potential careers. Student-athletes are invited to take a tour of the Career Services building and are shown the resources that the campus provides to all students. They are encouraged to come back regularly to discuss their futures with a staff member that has been assigned to our student-athlete population.

Networking Knights: Presented to junior and senior student-athletes, this program gives them the opportunity to learn the art of networking. We ask local professionals from various companies and industries to join us and talk to our student-athletes. We work hard to make this a real networking event—we ask the professionals to bring their business cards and student-athletes to bring their resumes. We require that each student-athlete meet, speak to, and gather a business card from three different individuals.

Mock Interviews: In this session, junior and senior student-athletes are immersed in 10-minute “speed” interviews. We invite local human resource professionals to conduct the interviews. We seat the HR reps in a large room at individual tables and have our student-athletes go from table to table. During the process, seven minutes of each interview are dedicated to questions and three minutes are for feedback.

Resume Construction/Critique: Student-athletes are encouraged to bring a resume and cover letter directly to the Student Services Staff where it is reviewed and developed. We give them samples of previous student-athlete resumes, as well as resumes from people in different fields.

We continue our influence by involving former student-athletes as “Varsity Knights.” All programming that is open to current student-athletes is shared with former student-athletes through a private group on Facebook and LinkedIn. Our Golden Knights Club (GKC), the fundraising arm of the athletics department, also hosts former student-athletes for different events that are planned through their office. We work with the GKC staff so that we can educate former student-athletes about what is going on in Student Services.

We recently began the “Knights Without Borders” program, which provides self-selected student-athletes the opportunity to travel overseas to positively impact an underprivileged community through sport. Although the student-athletes fund the trip themselves, the number who take part has increased each time. We are currently preparing for our fourth trip, and every student-athlete who has participated has returned with a lifetime of memories to add to their sport and academic experiences.

LEADERSHIP LADDER

Those who show abilities and interests beyond the basics are invited to participate in our Student-Athlete Leadership Institute. These student-athletes are nominated by their peers, coaches, academic advisors, and our student services staff. We also run their names by athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches for additional information and approvals.

The Institute is divided up through its “Squires” and “Knights” programs. Squires develops sophomores and juniors into leaders, who can graduate to Knighthood as seniors. These groups meet once per month throughout the academic year and each has a specific set of topics that are developed and presented, depending on trends, issues in the news, and topics that we believe are essential to the growth of the students involved.

Student-athletes who participate in these programs will typically go on to be part of our First Round Draft Choice corporate partnership program, which provides specialized training and mentoring from our corporate partners. When the companies are in a position to hire, they often are interested in our student-athletes based on their preexisting and long-term relationship.

It is important to note that student-athletes are held to a high standard of integrity to be eligible for these leadership programs. They will be removed from the program if they violate student conduct policy or behave in a way that embarrasses themselves or the university.

GRADES & GRADUATION

With all the programming we do within Student Services, we always keep in mind that the student-athletes’ academic careers come first. Coaches and all staff members consistently relay to student-athletes that academic success is an expectation, and we have good communication throughout the department.

One of the ways academic services has achieved great success is by maintaining a system of strict standards of accountability. Our monitoring includes weekly meetings with academic advisors, interaction with faculty, grade tracking, and progress reports throughout the semester. Being proactive has allowed student-athletes to feel that they are supported as people, not just athletes.

We also provide quality one-on-one advising. The students each have an advisor who tracks their progress and provides organizational and time-management skills. Students are required to attend two or three meetings per week and all coaches receive weekly attendance reports.

In addition, academic advisors have a tiered support system. Student-athletes can use subject-specific tutors, academic mentors, graduate assistants, and interns. Academic mentors are graduate students who assist with time management and organizational skills.

Students choose their own majors and classes, and that independence has allowed them to be successful on their own. They are also encouraged to create their own plans and discuss their ideas leading to graduation and life-long success. Our coaches are provided information regularly, so there are typically no academic surprises.

Prior to attending UCF, students are pre-assessed for their academic strengths and weaknesses, which allows our academic staff to assist in designing individualized learning plans. We believe that this active participation by both incoming student-athletes and the academic advisor allows them to be engaged in their own academic progress.

We are proud to say we offer a holistic education to our student-athletes at UCF and that has helped lead to their success. However, it could not be possible without the leadership of our athletic director, the support of our coaches, the hard work of our academic advising staff, and the diligence of our student-athletes. It is a team effort and our intent is to keep them engaged with our programs even after their collegiate careers. We truly view graduation as just the beginning.

 

Sidebar: Career Connections

Once UCF student-athletes begin to formulate career aspirations, we try to partner them with campus and community groups so they can gain insights into specific professions. These partnerships have blossomed into the following “pipeline” programs:

Medical School Pipeline: Student-athletes interested in attending medical school are “coached” by a local surgeon, College of Medicine staff members, and other individuals identified as those that can shed light on the process of applying to medical school.

Entrepreneurship Pipeline: Those who are intrigued by starting their own business are invited to work with our on-campus entrepreneurship program. The UCF Blackstone LaunchPad provides one-on-one coaching, just-in-time resources, daily StartUp Seminars, and access to a mentor network and subject matter experts.

Educational Pipeline: Student-athletes who want to teach are invited to participate in “Junior Achievement for a Day,” which gives them an opportunity to teach at a local elementary school—they are provided the curriculum and a classroom full of kids! We also invite local school system administrators to participate in many of our networking, professional panel, and job placement events.

First Responders Pipeline: We are just beginning work in this area, and hope to help student-athletes who want to be police officers, EMTs, or firefighters. The plan is for them to be able to meet and shadow individuals employed in these areas.

 

 

 

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