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  mind games
Student-athletes and their advisors seek
excellence on and off the field

By Ann Whitcher

illustration: Tom Nick Cocotos
Chasing the Platonic ideal of scholar-athlete, members of an elite advising unit encourage, prod and support hundreds of UB student-athletes, making sure they keep their grades up, even as they compete hard on the field, the court or in the pool.

Despite the understandable concern that student-athletes comply with all NCAA eligibility standards, the work of this office has a higher purpose. "Our focus is on the educational development and intellectual stretching of these young men and women," affirms Stephen N. Wallace, director of the Office of Athlete Academic Services, which has been fostering the development of UB athletes since 1983.

Their work is starting to pay off. In 1999, the womenís swimming and diving program achieved the top Division I team grade point average among swim teams in the nation; the menís program achieved the same honor in 1993 and 1995. Moreover, UB student-athletes, as a whole, had a graduation rate of 82 percent throughout the 1990s. This contrasts with a 62 percent graduation rate for UB undergraduates throughout the same period. While itís true that athletes as a whole tend to have higher graduation rates than nonathletes, UBís graduation rate for Division I student-athletes is among the highest in the country, Wallace says.

"It may be the connection the student feels, that there is a greater reason to persevere, that there are more people paying attention to him or her," adds Wallace, recipient of a 2002 SUNY Chancellorís Award for Excellence in Professional Service and a former athlete at the Coast Guard Academy and SUNY at Potsdam. "If a student-athlete gets off track, it is more likely that someone will tap him or her on the shoulder and say, Ďwhatís going on?í"

Each semester, the Office of Athlete Academic Services helps about 500 student-athletes who are competing in a total of 20 Division I varsity sports. Advisors are assigned to specific teams; team members are eligible for these specialized services for as long as they remain on a roster. Once the student chooses a major, usually at the end of the sophomore year, these services are complemented by the work of departmental academic advisors.

"The overwhelming majority of our student-athletes have been recruited," says Wallace. "This means they have been identified by their athletic prowess as individuals coaches would like to have come here." Most student-athletes enter the university through the regular admissions process, though a handful are admitted through "special admissions," in which admission to the university is based on documented evidence of special talents or circumstances.

illustration: Tom Nick Cocotos
"Whatís interesting about student-athletes is that they pretty much cover the spectrum of undergraduate majors," says Wallace, who holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from UB. "There are a significant number of engineering and business majors. There are large numbers in the social sciences. And you always have in the ranks of UBís student-athletes some theater, dance and language majors. Itís a nice mix."

"I think the best way of helping the student-athlete juggle his or her life is working with the whole student," says Irene Holohan-Moyer, advisor for the womenís basketball, volleyball and crew teams, "giving them a place where they feel comfortable talking and asking for help. Their life is very similar to students who work to put themselves through college. They need to actively work on time management. They also need help on whether they should take on campus clubs or other activities. How much responsibility is too much? Providing a place to talk out issues helps student-athletes structure themselves and gives them support in making tough decisions."

According to Wallace, student-athletes who were involved in high school sports—and many of them were also involved in theater productions and other extracurricular activities—have learned to budget their time and succeed in multiple spheres of life. "This doesnít mean that we sometimes donít need to remind someone that they have to go to class regularly. As in almost any other academic setting, itís 10 percent of the students who give us 90 percent of the problems."

"With Division I-A and a college education at UB comes longer practice times for some, and heavier academic demands for practically all," adds Pat Wilson, who advises menís and womenís tennis, menís and womenís track and field and cross-country teams. "We teach them to use a planner and to map out schedules of their classes, study times, practices, competitions, tests, assignments for the semester, etc."

The landscape has changed dramatically since 1983, when then-UB President Steven B. Sample and former Dean of Undergraduate Education Walter Kunz tapped Wallace to head a new advising unit to complement the planned move to Division IĖlevel competition. Wallace has since moved from a one-person operation to a staff of eight.

"The issues the kids have to deal with are still the same, but the expectations—from an athletic standpoint—are different," Wallace says. "In Division III, the time constraints primarily occurred during the season. In Division I, on the other hand, the season tends to be all year for these kids. If they are not competing, they are conditioning themselves in a very organized way. Football, for example, has a whole spring ball program, whereas there is no such spring program in Division III football."

Time constraints notwithstanding, UB student-athletes are not only keeping pace academically, but many are also excelling. Once they make the team, even the best students can find the support services reassuring. "Coming to a university as an 18-year-old freshman can be overwhelming," says Jeff Mills, starting tackle for the football Bulls and a member of the prestigious University Honors Program. "But the academic support that I received upon arriving on campus was tremendous. Literally, from day one, a student-athlete benefits from this support at UB. The first memory I have of my freshman football season was ĎAcademic Day,í which took place before any football-related activities had begun."

  Dr. Stephen N. Wallace, in the Alumni Arena locker room, seeks to foster academic growth among UB athletes.
photo: Rob Fetter
Another role model for what a student-athlete can achieve is Breanne Nasti, a regional All-American who led the MAC Conference in batting average in the spring 2002 season, while maintaining a 3.66 GPA as a double major in psychology and womenís studies. "The Office of Athlete Academic Services helps me organize my time so that I can make my schedule challenging, while allowing me to take [elective] classes I am interested in, as well as those that are required," says Nasti. "Because of this, I have also become a better athlete as my time is managed very constructively between classes and practices."

"It is always astounding to me how some young men and women in highly organized majors such as engineering, health sciences, or other professional schools—where the curriculum is a lock-step sequence with little flexibility—can do well in their academic studies and still compete at the Division I level," says Wallace. "After all, there is not just the schedule to consider, there is also practice time and conditioning time and, of course, traveling."

While Wallace is proud of the accomplishments of student-athletes who are also stellar students, heís equally interested in what has been significant academic improvement for UB student-athletes across the board. "Our goal is to have at least 50 percent of all our student-athletes have a GPA of at least 3.0 or better," says Wallace. "We are now at 45 percent. It has varied from 38 to 43 percent over the past three to four years; it is increasing incrementally."

Some student-athletes enter with mediocre high school records, but flourish—both on and off the field—because of UBís demanding curricula. "The academic advisors are like my family," says Clement Smith of the menís basketball team, who plans graduate work in his final year of eligibility. "They keep me focused and on top of all my work. Coming into UB as a freshman, I had bad grades and no confidence in my academic ability, but now I have graduated with a 3.0 and will be getting my masterís in school counseling. So I feel that the goals I have achieved—and the ones I am striving for—are in reach because of the help and supervision they provide."

By now, Wallace and his staff have built up sufficient rapport with university faculty that they can help student-athletes better manage the demands of the classroom, often preventing run-ins with instructors before they occur. "Because of the integrity weíve built up over a period of 20 years," says Wallace, "I think there is a general belief among faculty that we expect students to do what is required of them academically, just as would be expected of any student, only that on occasion we may need some flexibility, as well."

Though official university policy requires that student-athletes—like any other student engaged in a university-sanctioned activity—not be penalized for travel time, it is the development of goodwill with faculty that ultimately ensures the policyís success. Wallace explains that students who must be absent from class for an out-of-town conference match are required to get all the notes; if there is an exam they must try to rearrange it. "They are not absolved of responsibility."

Healthy interaction with coaches is another vital component to the programís success. "The coaches have to be constantly communicated with, so they can be aware of any academic issue that team members are having," says Wallace. "Obviously, they are concerned with any issues that might have an impact on the athleteís eligibility to practice and compete. But I find that most coaches are very much interested in the welfare of the students on their teams. This is something that goes beyond their athletic prowess, their level of play on the court, or in the pool. Theyíre just as concerned with such matters as, ĎAre they sleeping well?í ĎAre they going to class?í ĎAre they doing well academically?í"

"Being a student-athlete is all-encompassing," says Tyra Goodgain, assistant director of the Office of Athlete Academic Services and advisor to the menís basketball team. "Our office works with the Ďwhole personí concept. That is, we help students not only with their grades, but also with all the other aspects of life that are so important to 18- to 23-year-olds: personal problems, career plans, learning to take personal responsibility, etc. Part of our mission is to teach our students Ďlife skillsí that are transferable beyond their academic and athletic careers.

"Indeed, our office has a motto—Mens sana in corpore sano—Ďa sound mind in a sound body.í That phrase really cuts to the heart of what it is like to be a successful student-athlete at the Division I level."

Ann Whitcher is editor of UB Today.

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