Keeping students on track and her motorcycle off-road

Amanda Knapp on dirt bike.

(Photo by: Samantha Kilgore)

“It’s all about keeping students on track. There are a lot of parallels between racing and college."

Knapp balances academic advocacy career with adventures on a dirt bike

Amanda Knapp.

(Photo by: Marlayna Demond)

Amanda Knapp, EdM '03, BS ’00, has two passions: motorcycle racing and student success. She races in off-road motorcycle competitions and wins championships with the same kind of determination that drives her career as a university administrator and student advocate. She developed her focus as a first-generation college student, earning her master’s in higher education administration from UB’s GSE before finishing a doctorate in education policy at the University of Maryland.

Throughout her career, which included academic support work at UB and Buffalo’s D’Youville College, she made it her job to forge connections with students as she helps them surmount obstacles and find solutions.

An associate vice provost and assistant dean leading student success initiatives at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, she traces her relationship-based approach to leadership, on campus and on the racetrack, back to GSE.

One professor stands out: Raechele Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs, associate professor of higher education and GSE chief diversity officer. Pope’s lessons and group project work emphasized that academic leadership is built on strong ties––with students, their families, faculty and staff.

Knapp now oversees academic success initiatives that serve UMBC’s 12,000 undergraduates, 25 percent of whom are first generation students like herself. She leads standards and policy work, learning resources that include a tutoring and writing center, and a new effort: A year-old, data-driven “academic advocacy” program that identifies and assists at-risk students using data like GPA, out-of-state residency and first-generation status. Her office gets alerts and reaches out if faculty report concerns or when students withdraw from class, have an overdue balance or fail to login to an online course.

“We will walk them through whatever barriers they face until it’s resolved,” Knapp said. “That personalized support is what we have learned makes the difference.”

So far, the data initiative has yielded promising results. An analysis revealed that those supported by the program stayed in school 82 percent of the time compared to 69 percent who persisted without it.

“We swoop in,” Knapp said of the work her team does fostering student connections that endure through graduation. “Once they get to us, we don’t let go of them until they walk across that stage.”

Her sensitivity to student needs comes from personal experience. When she was a senior in high school, she lived with her mother, who did not graduate from high school and college until later in life. Knapp had good grades but did not have guidance as she filled out college applications. She didn’t realize she needed to apply for scholarships. Instead, she took out loans and today she is still paying off student loan debt.

Once she got to UB as an undergraduate, Knapp began to develop her career interest in helping others with their college journeys. As she moved from earning a bachelor’s degree in management to studying at GSE, she worked as a graduate assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Academic Advising and was an intern in the Office of Student Affairs.

Now she finds links between her academic work and rugged terrain of racecourses.

Advocating for students

“It’s all about keeping students on track. There are a lot of parallels between racing and college,” Knapp said. “You find a way within yourself to overcome that hurdle … Throughout the race, you may fall… It’s all about having the right support around you. Anything is possible. We all cheer for our students. Just like racing.”

Her racing career started eight years ago with a motorcycle graduation present. After she earned her PhD, her husband and mother, worried about what she’d do with her time without a dissertation to work on, gave her the kind of dirt bike she rode as girl growing up in rural West Virginia.

Just as she became known professionally as Dr. Knapp, she also became racer No. 334, a number she picked because she was a 34-year-old mother of three. That November she entered her very first “hare scramble” in Delaware. The style, explained with photos in a recent NY Times story, is known for race trails through woods and water.

Now she competes about 20 times a year, on trails from Maryland to Oklahoma and Michigan. Her public profile, elevated by her two recent East Coast hare scramble series championships, led her to become a role model to young women as she landed on the cover of American Motorcyclist, drew sponsorships from companies like Dunlop Tires and, last year, joined Toyota’s MakeUp2Mud Campaign at the Monster Energy Supercross Race, which attracted an estimated 40,000, in Tampa, Fla.

That race experience was surreal. Her conversations with broadcasters were projected on giant stadium screens and featured on NBC’s Sports Network. As she walked around that day, girls stopped to ask her for selfies. These exchanges, like her university job supporting students in higher ed, connect to her philosophy to support and advocate for young people.

She has been pleased by how well motorcycle competition fits her career. At the track, she fields questions about pursuing degrees from fellow riders and their families. “They come out and I’m able to talk with them and share stories,” she said. “It’s not just about riding.”

Just as UB helped shape her professional journey, the off-road racing community and its pursuit of excellence pushes Knapp to be her best self. Her connections help define education’s, and her own, larger purpose.

“It’s about public service. It’s about civility,” she said. “I found my niche. I found my people … I couldn’t be in a better profession.”

Published March 24, 2021