College academics are serious business, but athletics, well, they’re just fun and games, aren’t they? THINK AGAIN. a quarter of THOSE WHO ATTEND Elizabethtown College are student-athletes—and the great majority are serious about the quality of both academic and athletic performance.
As far back as 2005, Bob Schlosser, the men’s basketball coach, and Joe Wunderlich, associate professor of engineering in the Department of Engineering and Physics and a judo practitioner, have valued what Wunderlich calls an effort at “cross pollination” between academics and athletics.
Both are veterans of noontime pickup basketball in the gym, fellow proponents of mind-body development and have conducted what amounts to a mini-exchange program. Wunderlich, the professor, has, on occasion, served as a “guest coach” for Schlosser’s team, and Schlosser, the coach, has been to Wunderlich’s classes to lecture about motivation, stress management and goal setting.
As it turned out, what these men began, informally, has become a structured program.
Enter Jon Coren, an associate professor of biology who serves as the representative of the National Collegiate Athletic Association at Elizabethtown. “Many faculty members who don’t come from sports backgrounds have negative feelings about sports,” Coren said. “They don’t realize that student-athletes are highly disciplined and highly focused, are great multi-taskers and demonstrate leadership skills. Some of our best students, every year, are student-athletes.”
The goal of the Faculty Mentoring Program, which took root in 2010, is twofold: Give student-athletes “another adult they can go to” for advice about academic issues, careers, relationships and life, in general, and, at the same time, develop a subgroup of faculty members “that understands the impact and importance of athletics at the
Division III level.”
Over in Thompson Gymnasium, evidence of just how deeply the Faculty Mentoring Program has taken hold is obvious. Michele Kozimor-King, an associate professor of sociology, is at a table in the conference room with Kathy Staib, assistant athletic director and coach of the softball team, and Lindsey Cooper, a senior sociology-anthropology major and captain of the softball team. The three are discussing the impact of the Faculty Mentoring Program, which now has 13 mentors from the academic side working with Elizabethtown’s Division III sports teams.
Sometimes there is a “disconnect” between academics and sports, Kozimor-King said. “There has to be an understanding by both sides of what’s going on. There has to be a balance. I don’t think that faculty members really know what happens to student-athletes, what their day is like or what they’re going through.”
Kozimor-King is doing her part to assure that balance. Essentially, she was drafted into the role of mentor for the softball team in 2012. Several members of the team had her as a professor, and when Coach Staib solicited suggestions for mentor candidates “over and over, I kept hearing her name,” Staib recounted. Students said Kozimor-King was easy to talk to and, as a bonus, she also had played softball in high school. When approached, Kozimor-King decided it would be useful for her as an educator to understand what student-athletes experience.
She started attending the games and practices “to get to feel what they’re feeling” and quickly became a “supporter and advocate” for the team members. She discovered what Staib already knew—athletic team members at Elizabethtown are just as “super intense about their academics” as they are about winning games. (The softball team’s GPA averages between 3.2 and 3.3.) In fact, the emphasis Staib conveys is just the reverse of what outsiders might consider conventional wisdom: She emphasizes to her incoming first-year players that “we’re here to get an education” and then reminds them to be “equally intense” about softball.
“I’m learning a lot about student lives,” Kozimor-King explained. “I recently had a mentoring meeting with the students over dinner, and I think we all learned so much more about each other in that setting. After practice they’ll come up and talk to me. ‘Oh, I just found out about this’ or ‘I need to talk to you about this’ or ‘Can you help me with this?’ And it’s not all academics. Some of it is time management issues or they just need someone to run something by or have a safe space to go to. We can circumvent problems before they arise.”
Cooper, the team captain, said, “I’m really close to Dr. Koz from academics. She definitely instilled a passion in me…She pushes me academically and athletically, and I think she gives that to my teammates, as well.” By way of example, Cooper pointed out that early on at Elizabethtown she never gave a thought to pursuing graduate school but now is excited to have been accepted to Bowling Green (Ohio) State University with a teaching assistantship. Staib notes that “Michele saw a lot in Lindsey that maybe Lindsey didn’t see right away.”
Another sign of Cooper’s growth is the unique way she has found to merge her joint interest in athletics and academics. As an honors project, she has designed a research study to examine the effectiveness of the Faculty Mentoring Program and evaluate the attitudes of student-athletes at Elizabethtown. “… this project will serve the Athletic Department at Elizabethtown College by providing recommendations as to what improvements can be made to the program in the future,” she wrote in her draft document.
Athletic Director Nancy Latimore described the Faculty Mentoring Program as a means of developing trust and understanding by allowing members of the academic faculty to build relationships with athletic teams. In a perfect universe there would be no gap in the bridge but, as Coach Schlosser said, “Unfortunately, sometimes people in the academic world look at athletics as a necessary evil. Well, we need athletics to get these kids here. And it doesn’t take long to find out that the things we’re teaching in athletics are those things you need to be successful in life—how to work with others, teamwork, how to handle adversity, how to handle success, how to budget your time.”
Added Wunderlich, “Coaches have a way of really getting the attention of the students and motivating them. I think it’s something all professors could learn from. This is not Division I, where you know certain students are just there for sports. Here academics and sports have equal weight—It’s not a choice; it’s a balance, an integrated balance.”
A formal faculty mentoring program for student-athletes had not yet been established at Elizabethtown when Joe Harriger ’82 (pictured below) played basketball and soccer. Nonetheless, he was the beneficiary of mentoring from two faculty members: a relationship he says that might have saved his college career.
Harriger, a member of the 1979 MAC championship Blue Jay basketball team, suffered knee injuries in his junior year.
“It was a challenging time for me. [The injuries] took a toll on me emotionally and physically, and my courses started to suffer,” he said, adding that, he thought he might not pass one of them.
Failing would have been disastrous. Harriger attended E-town on a need-based academic scholarship, and if he had failed just one course, he wouldn’t have earned enough credits to maintain his funding.
“I would have lost my scholarship money for the following semester,” he recalled. “My mother didn’t have the money. My parents were divorced. I would have had to quit college.”
Then something happened. Caroll Kreider, one of his business professors and a big fan of Blue Jay Athletics, noticed that something might be bothering Harriger. When she asked how he was doing, he confided that he might have to drop out of College. The next day she told Harriger that she and her husband, Kenneth Kreider—who taught history at E-town and also had Harriger in class—had agreed they would lend him tuition money if necessary and that he could pay it back when he was able.
But it never came to that. “Essentially, what [their offer] did was take the weight of the world off my shoulders,” Harriger recalled. “I bounced back and passed the course. That was a defining moment for me.”
What the Kreiders did, he said, helped him mature and “was above and beyond the institutional requirements. That connection was a big deal. Perhaps in a bigger school I would have gotten lost and not found my way.”
Harriger, now a vice president and shareholder of Engle-Hambright & Davies, Inc., an insurance agency based in Lancaster, says the combined pressure of sports and academics on athletes, today, is far greater than when he played 30 years ago. “To formalize a mentor program makes a lot of sense to me.”