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Serving Student-Athletes in College

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How does your campus work together to support the success of student-athletes? As it turns out, the opportunities are limited only by your creativity. 

The student-athlete experience is unique. As such, even though camaraderie between teammates is strong, being a student-athlete can be isolating as a result of feeling disconnected from other parts of the student experience. Since those who do not participate in athletics are often insular to the student-athlete experience, it can be difficult to find common ground.

As a result, the additional pressures, expectations, and time commitments that fall on the shoulders of student-athletes require that higher ed professional take aim to better understand their experience and find impactful ways to support their success.

Let’s take a look at how institutions are effectively serving these students, and explore how these initiatives relate to academic, student affairs, and other support.

Academic Support

Robust academic support has become the norm for many collegiate athletic programs in the United States. For some schools, this involves working with existing tutoring services. For others, it means creating a tutoring program specifically for student-athletes. While these students are accustomed to high performance standards, working with a tutor can ensure that student-athletes are learning-oriented vs. performance-oriented when it comes to academic work. Furthermore, athletic departments can better serve these busy students by powering their tutoring services with technology to increase convenience, engagement, and efficacy.

Some programs also provide academic advising for their athletes. Florida Atlantic University (FAU), for example, asks student-athletes to work with their “primary” campus advisor as well as a “secondary” internal advisor. This structure directs students to campus resources, while still providing supplemental support to ensure that students stay on track. Special considerations for advising student-athletes are also important.

In addition to advising, academic coaches are built into some athletic programs to help students learn effective study skills. Some efforts like FAU’s Emerging Scholars Program focus specifically on academically at-risk students and students with disabilities. Consistent between all programs, however, is a one-on-one approach to helping student-athletes succeed in their studies. 

Partnerships with faculty are an excellent way to break down barriers and build personal relationships between student-athletes and faculty members around academics. This could look like something like The Hartley Academic Resource Center at Florida Gulf Coast University, a collaboration between the Office of Undergraduate Studies and the FGCU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. A more concerted effort could be in the form of a Faculty Athletics Council or a Faculty Fellows, Faculty Liaison, or Athletics Faculty Mentoring program. Ultimately, increasing communication with faculty can go a long way to strengthen these partnerships that serve student-athletes. 

For a great example of all-around academic support for athletes, check out Vanderbilt University, which was recognized with the Model Practices Award for Student Support Services by the National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professionals.

Student Affairs Support

Naturally, there’s more to the development of student-athletes than how they do on the court or in the classroom. As such, it’s important to consider the personal and professional growth services available to these students. Some institutions go the route of Student Development for Athletes or Life Skills programs that encompass a range of key areas for success. Many athletic departments provide student affairs information on their website to point student athletes to additional support. 

There’s also value in “coaches learning and engaging with the student affairs staff around common goals,” according to an article written for NASPA by Dr. Shepardson, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Bentley University. Collaboration of this kind can help student affairs staff learn more about the student-athlete identity as they strive to connect with this population. 

An emphasis on leadership development is a natural pairing for student-athlete programming. The student-athlete leadership program from MIT includes opportunities for First Year Student-Athletes, Rising Leaders, and Captains. The Generals Leadership Academy through the athletics department at Washington and Lee University is by application only. Finally, The Carnegie Mellon Student-Athlete Leadership Development Program is a comprehensive four-year, ten point program encompassing a core curriculum and electives. It includes end-of-program honors and a certificate of completion. 

Health and wellness continues to emerge as a critical aspect of serving student-athletes. Efforts like the NBA’s MindHealth program and other recent additions to their mental health services for players set a great example for collegiate athletic programs to drive collaboration with wellness partners on campus. Some common issues to explore with the student-athlete population include loneliness, sleep deprivation, time management, eating disorders, anxiety, and personal identity. Furthermore, it’s important to understand what depression looks like for men. 

Athletes tend to look at things through a lens of strength vs. weakness, so they may be less likely to look for help or admit they are struggling. That’s why it’s incredibly important to normalize help-seeking behavior, especially since some of the messaging students encounter in an athletic environment do the opposite (phrases like “walk it off” or “mind over matter”).  To this end, some athletic departments have cross-campus committees dedicated to health and wellness. Others are more broad, such as the Athletics Council at Clemson University. This group provides policy recommendations and annual reviews on all things related to academics and integrity as well as student welfare and experience.  

Finally, tailoring career resources for these students can help them better understand how to translate their student-athlete experience into the skills employers want in college hires. Working with alumni student-athletes and career services to host a special event for this population is a great place to start. Another option is to provide resources on a larger scale, like partnering with the NCAA After the Game Task Force or InXAthlete to connect students to employers directly. 

Other Support

What are additional ways to support the student-athlete population? Help them connect with other peers. While they spend a great deal of time with fellow student-athletes, it can be important for them to relate to peers outside of this circle and create friendships built on other shared connections. 

Encourage Orientation Leaders and Resident Assistants to find ways to help these students enjoy the college experience with their peers. While a student-athlete may not have the time to attend every residence hall event, we can still help them find community where they live. 

Check out the Partnerships to Promote Student Athletes’ Academic Success” episode of Higher Ed Live or read through the resources available from the NASAP Student-Athlete Knowledge Community for more ideas on how to serve the student-athlete population at your school.

This is the second post in our Supporting Key Student Populations Content Series.