Students in the Lead

August 7, 2017

This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Athletic Management

How do you implement a multi-layered life skills program without a large budget? The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater does so by tapping into the talents of its upperclassmen and graduate students.

By Dr. Kristina Navarro and Jenny Scherer


Kristina Navarro, PhD, is Associate Athletic Director for Leadership Development & Strategic Partnerships and an Associate Professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Coaching at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Jenny Scherer is a Graduate Assistant in Communications and Student-Athlete Development at UW-Whitewater where she is pursuing a Master’s degree in Higher Education Leadership. Dr. Navarro serves as the Director of the Warhawk Leadership Academy and Scherer as the Coordinator of its Communications, Marketing, and Engagement team. They can be reached at: and


At all levels of athletics, administrators are working hard to make the student-athlete experience the best it can be. They are coming up with new and better ways to support the young people donning their uniforms and set them on a path for long-term success.

NCAA Division I athletic departments have paved the way with full-time administrators focused on student-athlete welfare and budgets large enough to bring in speakers and support ongoing programming. But is it possible to implement a meaningful and comprehensive program at the Division III level where resources aren’t as plentiful?

At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, we’ve answered this question with a resounding “yes” by creating the Warhawk Leadership Academy (WLA), which offers opportunities for student-athletes to develop everything from cross-cultural competency to career objectives. We have found that the keys to launching and sustaining this type of program without significant funding are collaboration across campus, having students (both undergraduate and graduate) take on leadership roles, and putting a formal structure in place.



The goals of WLA are to develop, challenge, and support student-athletes in their continual quest to become world-class leaders in athletics, academics, and life. Various aspects of student-athlete support had been in place at UW-W for several years, but we organized them in a more meaningful way three years ago. We now have a hierarchy and clearer picture of our partnerships. This enables synergy among different elements, and as a result, has produced a more comprehensive program.

Organization begins by having delegated roles. The WLA is led by an Executive Board, overseen by co-author Kristina Navarro, who serves as Associate Athletic Director for Leadership Development & Strategic Partnerships, as well as an Associate Professor in the school’s College of Education and Professional Studies. The board includes seven students. Five of them are graduate students at UW-W who are completing a Master’s degree in Athletic Administration and/or Higher Education Leadership and serve as coordinators:

Community Engagement Coordinator: One aspect of the WLA is our Warhawks Give Back program, which aims to create high-impact opportunities for athletes to engage as civic leaders on campus and in surrounding areas. The coordinator is charged with contacting local schools and organizations to schedule volunteer opportunities for student-athletes.

Warhawks Give Back is broken down into three subcommittees: school programs, community outreach, and digital and social media. The school program committee oversees our “Reading, Learning, and Moving with the Warhawks” initiative, connecting with local schools, organizing program dates, and informing student-athletes about these opportunities. The purpose of the community outreach committee is to motivate student-athletes to get involved in other opportunities in the community and track participation for each event. The digital and social media committee shares our stories of community engagement.

Academic Excellence Coordinator: This individual works closely with campus tutorial services to facilitate comprehensive academic support. He or she leads a team of individuals who serve as room monitors and tutors at study tables.

Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator: The purpose of the Diversity and Inclusion program is to create safe, open environments for student-athletes to increase cross-cultural competence and understand personal identity. It also provides opportunities for students from underrepresented populations to excel academically. Its coordinator oversees two subcommittees: WLA membership and campus engagement. WLA membership leaders recruit student-athletes to participate in WLA sessions and roundtables. Campus engagement leaders facilitate positive connections with campus supporters outside of athletics.

Strategic Planning and Partnerships Coordinator: The leader of this group is charged with assessing the impact of WLA programming and connecting with regional and national support structures, as well as overseeing two subcommittees. One subcommittee is alumni/employer relations, which organizes career panels, career fairs, and professional development. It also builds student-athlete relationships with alumni, employers both locally and nationally, and faculty, advisors, and academic units on campus. The second subcommittee focuses on research and program assessment. It then uses this information to continuously adapt and improve WLA to meet the ever-changing needs of the student-athlete population.

Communications, Marketing, and Engagement Coordinator: This is the newest position added to the executive board, created to implement marketing and communication plans for specific athletic teams within the university. Ten interns assist the coordinator in telling the story of Warhawks in the community and in life after sport.

The two additional members of the board are the SAAC President and the Warhawk Leadership Academy President, undergraduates who are voted into the positions by their peers. These individuals serve as liaisons between the athletic department and student-athletes. Like at other schools, the SAAC President is charged with calling monthly meetings of SAAC representatives. The WLA President oversees the mentorship arm of the WLA, helping to train and support upperclass student-athletes through four subcommittees: Global Engagement, Captain’s Council, Student-Athlete Welfare, and Mentorship/Peer Education (more on this in the next section).

Along with overseeing their distinct areas, all seven coordinators are tasked with fostering partnerships with the campus community. This includes university health and counseling services, career and leadership development, academic advising, multicultural student services, and tutorial services, to name a few.

Partnerships beyond our campus have been important as well. For example, we are a recipient of an NCAA CHOICES grant. We also engage several corporate sponsors, with Northwestern Mutual becoming a presenting sponsor for WLA two years ago.



Programming of WLA takes a scaffold approach and serves freshmen, sophomores, and upperclassmen. Each level engages student-athletes through the different phases of their college career. The program is broken into three groups with a final capstone graduation ceremony:

Rising Warhawks is a freshmen transition program with a focus on personal enhancement, social responsibility, and career exploration.

Warhawk Outreach, also referred to as Warhawks Give Back, focuses on campus and community outreach and civic leadership and is primarily for sophomores. Students across all 20 sport programs participate in multiple community opportunities organized by SAAC.

Veteran Warhawks is a program for juniors and seniors, with a focus on providing mentorship to Rising Warhawks, participating in career preparation, and providing team leadership.

Graduates of the Academy receive a Warhawk Leadership Academy Certificate during the Warhawk Awards held at the end of each academic year. Our corporate partners also provide a gift for student-athletes such as a portfolio, bag, or lapel pin to be used in the job search.

To further reach these student-athletes during their time in each group, there are four main subcommittees run by upperclass student-athletes. Here’s a closer look:

Global Engagement: The purpose of the global engagement team is to inspire students to travel abroad. The group works closely with the Center for Global Education to help student-athletes become aware of opportunities.

Captain’s Council: The captains of each sport team are given a direct line of communication with athletic administration through this subcommittee. At monthly meetings, these leaders have a chance to clearly communicate positive experiences and challenges being faced by current student-athletes.

Student-Athlete Welfare: This subcommittee is charged with creating a bridge between student engagement, compliance, sport performance, and athletic training resources. It aims to educate and create awareness of athletics department and campus-based resources to enhance the student-athlete experience.

Mentorship/Peer Education: The individuals in this group are involved in peer education to support student-athletes via the NCAA CHOICES program. Freshmen student-athletes are paired with two to three upperclassmen mentors, helping them get to know individuals outside of their sport programs. These mentors provide guidance to freshmen throughout the course of the year and serve as teaching assistants for a one credit fall course titled “Identity Development Strategies for Student-Athletes.”

While these groups and programs are part of WLA, they are also supported by the SAAC. The WLA president attends all SAAC meetings and provides any updates on the program. SAAC representatives are then asked to communicate these back to their teams and coaches.

With a solid structure in place, we have been able to initiate several projects through WLA (see “Real Talk” on page XX for one example). In most cases, coordinators and student-athletes oversee programming of these initiatives, which gives them hands-on experience in management and keeps the costs low. Both graduate and undergraduate students serve on subcommittees and help run programs.



One of the most important aspects of implementing WLA has been creating buy-in. This starts with campus leaders recognizing the program’s value. To maintain their support, we have produced quality participation outcomes, such as improved GPA and retention rates, an increase in campus and community involvement, and preparation for life after athletics.

Student-athlete buy-in is also needed. Due to their demanding schedules, student-athletes need to see benefits that outweigh investment. We have gained student support through creating quality programming and making them part of the implementation process. In addition, we celebrate the accomplishments of student-athletes at a year-end awards banquet where we present the top WLA mentor group with the WLA Warhawk Cup.

To further entice students to participate, WLA has partnered with the College of Education and Professional Studies to provide credit based options. For example, freshman student-athletes can earn one credit for participation in “Identity Development Strategies for Student-Athletes.” Freshmen also have the option to participate in one of three student-athlete learning communities where they take general education courses together. Upperclassmen can earn one credit for participation as a Veteran Warhawk in a course titled Career and Leadership Development Strategies.

Building on UW-W’s national championship culture on the athletic field and playing surfaces, the WLA has won several national awards. These include the N4A model practice award for student-athlete development, the WCPA Program Innovation Award, and the NASPA Gold Program award for student engagement in sport, recreation, and athletics.

As we move forward with WLA, our challenges are to continue to foster student-athlete engagement and partnerships. Each year we seek to refine the curriculum to ensure it speaks to the unique needs of contemporary student-athletes. We also look to develop additional corporate partners to offset operational costs. The end goal remains assisting student-athletes to balance dual roles as they prepare for life after athletics.




One exciting new project is our Warhawk Roundtable “Real Talk” run by the Diversity and Inclusion committee. Two Master’s level students helped to develop this series as part of their capstone and practicum projects. The aim is to offer a safe discussion area for student-athletes who are underrepresented minorities and to gather information on how we can better support students from diverse backgrounds. Our pilot group consisted of 50 student-athletes from the sports of football, basketball, and wrestling. Meetings were held weekly in the fall and spring following study tables and our Rising Warhawks class.

Topics included:

• The Advantage of Self-Awareness: Social Media

• Adjusting to an Alternative Culture

• Education and Academic Development

• Understanding Social Norms: How You See Yourself and How You Are Seen

• Is the Love Real? Fake Love vs. Real Love

• Drugs and Alcohol: The Effects on Student-Athletes

• Music and Sports: The Culture Within

• The Connection: Your Etiquette and Your LinkedIn





The following are initiatives the SAAC is responsible for at UW-W:

• Examining any student-athlete retention issues and collaborating with coaches to outline a series of recommendations to improve this vital area.

• Continuing to foster a relationship with the First-Year Experience office to provide a feasible attendance policy at campus-wide events.

• Continuing to foster engagement opportunities with the Faculty Athletics Representative and College Deans.

• Strategically engaging upperclass student-athletes as they prepare for life after athletics in career fields.

• Setting forth a strategy to conduct additional education with faculty, advisors, and academic units regarding student-athlete eligibility.

• Regularly participating in community service projects through Warhawks Give Back.

• Working with the conference commissioner and office to enhance programming and engagement opportunities in the region.

• Developing, submitting, and implementing NCAA program grant proposals.

• Submitting presentations to media outlets to enhance national presence.

• Utilizing faculty expertise in the Inclusive Excellence Chancellor’s initiatives.

• Utilizing faculty partnerships with the UW-Madison campus focused on the Beyond the Game efforts for African American male student-athletes.

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