According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only a small percentage of college athletes go on to compete professionally or at the Olympic level. Last year, for instance, only 1.6 percent of NCAA players were drafted to the National Football League (NFL), and a mere 0.9 percent of student-athletes joined the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Instead, just as the popular NCAA advertising campaign says, 400,000 student-athletes “go pro in something other than sports.” Colleges and universities, then, play an integral role in helping student-athletes enter the workforce when they graduate.
In Naperville, Ill., North Central College’s (NCC) recently revamped student-athlete mentoring program — the Athletic Mentorship Program, or AMP — is intended to maximize first-year students’ academic and personal growth and affect their lives after graduation.
Above: Head coach Al Carius and the North Central College men’s cross-country team (photo courtesy of Steve Woltmann)
“There’s a saying, ‘Athletes get amped for a game.’ We want student-athletes to ‘get AMPed up’ for academics,” says Kyle Exline, program adviser and head coach of the men’s volleyball team at NCC.
All first-year student-athletes are paired with an upper-class student-athlete from their team whom they meet with on a weekly basis for 30 minutes to an hour. Based on recruiting and enrollment each year, there is usually one mentor for every three to five first-year student-athletes; larger sports at NCC, like football, have more mentors.
“Mentors work with mentees on time management, structuring, self-talk, accomplishing tasks — when they’re physically and mentally exhausted — listening and learning skills, time blocking, and making to-do lists,” Exline says. “So far, the response has been very positive; our first-year athletes say they’ve [experienced] an instant connection with their mentors.”
The career development center at NCC trains student-athlete mentors in resolving conflicts, solving problems, reading personalities, and asking probing questions — all skills that Exline says will serve students well in their future careers.
He says one of the biggest challenges all student-athletes must overcome is using their time effectively; they have to maximize every hour when so much of their time is spent practicing, traveling to and from and competing in matches, attending classes, and studying.
The time management skills that student-athletes learn through experience are highly valued by employers, says Ric Coy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Coy is associate director of academic and student services at the university and says it is his job to make sure student-athletes are aware of their transferable skills.
“The sense I get from student-athletes is that they have a bit of anxiety when it comes to graduating because they feel like other people are more prepared,” he says. “They tend to diminish what they have accomplished in academics and athletics. One thing we tell them is to try ‘understanding your awesomeness.’ … Employers want people with the skills that are innate to student-athletes, things like time management, leadership skills, and the ability to work with a group.”
UCLA has around 675 student-athletes, and many aspire to professional careers or Olympic competition. But the university has a number of programs that prepare them for life after college, regardless of what that looks like.
“UCLA has high academic standards and high athletic standards, so we’re lucky that we get to choose from the best of the best,” Coy says. “We have many student-athletes who are training for the Olympics or for professional competition, and I say to them, ‘I’m going to support you. If pursuing your dream means you leave school before you earn your degree, I want you to know what it takes to come back to school and finish your degree.’”
Launched last spring, the university’s Prep4Careers program took 30 seniors through a six-week boot camp to prepare them for their job searches. Participants met once a week, and at the end, corporate partners came in so that students could network and “practice what they learned” in mock interviews. This year’s iteration started in January but is condensed into four weeks to account for student time constraints.
UCLA also offers the character-building, two-year Wooden Academy for student-athletes as a way to teach the values and philosophy of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Student-athletes study his “Pyramid of Success” — made up of 15 traits and attributes, with industriousness and enthusiasm as its cornerstones and competitive greatness as its apex — to assess where their personal leadership style fits into the pyramid. Former UCLA athletes present discussions on teamwork, leadership, and character as part of the academy. Additionally, each team has a designated career coach in the UCLA Career Center who supports student-athletes from freshman year to graduation.
In a similar way, Virginia Tech’s (VT) Career Game Plan program — created by the Office of Student-Athlete Development — helps student-athletes progress year by year through personal strength building, career exploration, résumé writing, and job search and marketing skills, beginning freshman year.
“The office is focused on how student-athletes transfer into and out of college and how we support them while they’re here,” says Reyna Gilbert-Lowry, associate athletics director of student-athlete development at VT. “We focus on three specific areas: career development, leadership development, and community outreach.”
“Our motto is Ut prosim, ‘That I may serve’; [it] is embedded into the fabric of our institution,” Gilbert-Lowry says. “It is completely optional, but we had 100 percent of our teams do outreach projects last year.”
She says student-athletes clocked more than 1,500 service hours volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, reading to young children, and presenting leadership talks to local schools, among other projects.
VT also instills respect for diversity in their student-athletes, in part through a leadership seminar called Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP); this workshop focuses on bystander training for gender-based violence, as well as addressing homophobic and abusive language and teaching respect for self and others.
Matt Mayotte, director of student-athlete academic support services at VT, thinks student-athletes may have the upper hand when it comes to life after college.
“Entering the job market may not be as hard for our student-athletes as for our non-student-athletes,” he says. “They have an advantage; their discipline and teamwork skills transfer well to a career, and they have experience in overcoming adversity.”●
Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.