Advisers coach student-athletes to compete in the classroom
Courtesy of Daily Progress
|An sdvisor assists a student-athlete
By Dan Heuchert
The halls of the McCue Center’s main floor are lined with enlarged action photos of Cavalier football players, befitting decorations in the home of a successful football team.
But on the walls of one office suite, the pictures are different: athletes are in caps and gowns, in the midst of celebrating graduation. These offices are home to one of three academic support centers around the University for student-athletes.
“When graduation rolls around, that’s our national championship,” said Tomas Jimenez, associate athletic director for academic affairs. “You see athletes not only run over to hug their moms and dads, but they run over and hug their academic advisers, too.”
U.Va. boasts one of the highest student-athlete graduation rates in the country. The class that entered in the fall of 1997 saw 83 percent of its student-athletes graduate by the end of the summer of 2004. By comparison, nationally only 62 percent of Division I student-athletes graduated within six years.
Getting from first-year move-in day to Final Exercises is challenging enough for any student. But given that student-athletes also must contend with the physical and time demands of playing Division I intercollegiate sports, the need for a strong academic support system becomes clear.
“We have to balance media requests, academics, getting some sleep, eating well — and we have to perform well and put in extra work on the basketball court,” said Sean Singletary, a rising second-year student who stars on the men’s basketball team. He added that he also had to put in time rehabilitating an injured shoulder.
Marques Hagans, the starting quarterback for the Cavalier football team, who earned his undergraduate degree in May and will compete this fall as a graduate student, shared Singletary’s sentiments. “Honestly, during the football season it is very difficult to balance academics and football. When you go home, all you want to do is go to sleep. You’ve got to find discipline.”
Jimenez compared the challenge that some athletes face in competing academically with a student body with a median SAT-I score of 1,324 to that of a nonathlete lining up in front of U.Va’s All-America linebacker Ahmad Brooks on the football field. He and his staff of 10 full-timers and 50 tutors are charged with leveling the playing field for the University’s 700 student-athletes.
“We provide strategies for how they can tackle their academic responsibilities and how they can perform at an all-time high,” Jimenez said.
The first year is crucial, Jimenez said. Eight hours per week of study hall are mandatory for all student-athletes, no matter what their prior academic credentials. They must meet regularly with their academic coordinators, who serve as “tour guides” for their first year, and they also must meet periodically with professors and academic deans. The academic coordinators often become friends and confidants for the student-athletes, Jimenez said.
“Making sure they have those connections in that first year is critical,” he said.
“The first year is probably going [to prove to have been] my toughest year,” said Singletary, who is contemplating a major in psychology or sociology. But “I feel really confident” after having gotten through it.
The academic support office works around athletes’ busy schedules. All three current locations — McCue for the football team, University Hall for the basketball teams and Bryant Hall for everyone else — are staffed from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
The John Paul Jones Arena will combine the U-Hall and Bryant offices in a new, 10,000-square-foot space, to include a computer lab, study spaces, tutoring rooms and offices.
After a student-athlete’s first year, the requirements loosen a bit — as long as they prove they can handle it, Jimenez said. Academic advisers continue to closely monitor classroom performance and maintain close ties with the athletes. If their classroom performance falls off, they can be suspended from athletic competition until their grades improve.
Hagans, the quarterback, had two advisers during his undergraduate career. Kathryn Jarvis “was like a second mother to me,” he said. After she took a different position at the University, Kristie Beitz stepped in, reminding him of his tests and assignments, making sure he attended classes and communicating with his professors. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be sitting here this summer with my degree,” he said.
Academic support has become a more prominent issue nationwide, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association has moved to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of their athletes. Graduation rates are increasingly publicized, and academic standards are being included in coaching contracts, Jimenez said.
One recent NCAA rules change allows athletic grants-in-aid to cover summer school tuition for incoming first-year student-athletes. That dovetails nicely with U.Va.’s College Transition program, which offers a head start on their education to students who face “extraordinary challenges as they begin their college careers” — including “students who are the first in their families to attend college; who graduated from high schools that had a limited curriculum or lacked a full array of advanced, college preparatory courses; who speak a language other than English in their homes; or who were admitted as recruited athletes and are required to make an extensive commitment of time and energy to their sport,” according to program coordinator Carol Gutman. They can earn up to six hours of credit during the summer while receiving tutoring, skill testing and instruction.
“If I had my way, I’d have every single student-athlete take summer school,” Jimenez said. This year, athletes account for around half of the 69 Casteen Scholars in the College Transition program. “There are going to be financial considerations, but I think the academic considerations far outweigh them,” Jimenez added.
“It’s just been invaluable,” agreed women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan, who will mark her 29th season at U.Va. this year. Taking classes and building study skills during the summer before their first year at U.Va. “has a really positive effect on student-athletes, because it gives them a chance to get ahead. They come in with six hours under their belt and a good grasp of the University,” she said.
Gutman, dean of academic support in the College of Arts & Sciences, explained that the current incarnation of the program is in the second of a three-year trial period.
A survey after last summer’s class finished its first year found positive results, she said. “The outcome for them in the fall academically was much more solid compared to those who were similar to” the participants, she said. “We were quite pleased with the results.”
Everyone involved with U.Va. athletics, from volunteer tutors to coaches to administrators, must attend compliance training to ensure that advisers don’t cross the line between advising student-athletes and doing the work themselves — a problem that has occasionally plagued other schools. Jimenez also has built checks and balances into the system.
“One person, one bad [decision] could ruin it for everyone,” he said.
“Our honor code is very strong here,” he added. “It doesn’t safe-keep everything, but that really helps.”
For those who go about things the right way and are open to learning, the rewards can be great.
“It is really special when you work with that student who was never really motivated academically, and you give them a strategy and they take off and graduate,” Jimenez said.
Hagans is one of the office’s success stories. After a standout football career at Hampton High School, he spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy improving his grades in order to be eligible to play at U.Va. Now he is the first person in his immediate family to earn his degree — and no matter what his athletic future holds, no one can take that away.
Processing down the Lawn in May to get his degree ”was a wonderful feeling,” he said.