New class aids freshman athletes

Jake Grovum

Amid training facilities, offices and locker rooms in Bierman Field Athletic Building lies a department that has never led a student-athlete to on-field accolades.

But the athletics department hopes it can lead the student-athletes to a more important end – a diploma.

The McNamara Academic Center for Student-Athletes is where the athletics department centralizes its academic programs for student-athletes.

The center has a number of programs but focuses heavily on the first-year student-athletes.

While facing the transition into college life, student-athletes must also handle being in the public eye, McNamara center director Mark Nelson said.

“We kind of call it life in a fishbowl, being high profile,” he said. “Just issues with being a student-athlete here.”

student-athlete graduation statistics

• If a student-athlete earns one C they are 10% less likely to graduate.
• If they fail a class, they are 27% less likely to graduate.
• If they earn a W they are 37% less likely to graduate.
• If one D is earned, the student-athlete has a 67% chance of graduation after 30 credits, and 19% after 90.

Another focus of athletics officials is the academic progress of first-year student-athletes, and not without reason.

A study by the University’s Office of Institutional Research found a first-year student-athlete who fails one class is 27 percent less likely to graduate.

The athletics department offers its Enhancement Program for student-athletes identified as at-risk coming into the University.

In the program, student-athletes meet with a learning specialist twice weekly and must complete 10 hours of supervised study time.

All other first-years are placed in the Gold Program, where they complete eight to 10 study hours per week and meet with their academic adviser weekly in Nelson’s office.

To help student-athletes before they face difficulties, athletics department officials partnered with the department of post-secondary teaching and learning to offer a first-year seminar class.

The Challenging Athletes’ Minds for Personal Success Life Skills class is mandatory for all first-year student-athletes who receive an athletic scholarship, Nelson said.

The class is used by 620 colleges and universities across the country and is strongly backed by the NCAA, Peyton Owens, director of Life Skills, said.

Of the 520 student-athletes who receive some level of athletic scholarship at the University, 116 are first-years, University spokesman Dan Wolter said.

The class looks to prepare student-athletes for life after college athletics, assistant Life Skills coordinator Anissa Lightner said.

“They’re not only going to be here to play and to get a good education,” she said. “They’re going to need to get a job eventually.”

The course covers career development and study skills as well as substance abuse and sexual issues.

Having student-athletes together in one class helps them grow, Lightner said.

“They know there are other people that are going through the same thing that they are,” she said. “So it’s not like, ‘I’m on an island by myself.’ “

For former Gopher football player Tim Soliday, who now attends the University’s Duluth campus, the class was “an easy credit.”

He said the class, which he took while attending the University, addressed a lot of basic information from setting a dinner table to time management.

“They did some kind of weird stuff,” he said. “Some of the stuff was good; some of the stuff was kind of stupid.”

In the early stages of this year’s class, student-athletes have yet to address off-field conduct in full, undeclared first-year and Gopher running back Duane Bennett said.

“That’s always expressed by coach Brewster himself,” he said. “He’s really hard on football players about representing the maroon and gold.”

While all student-athletes might not take to the class immediately, they’ll eventually realize its value, Owens said.

“They start to understand what we’re providing them, the resources,” he said. “They start to recognize the positive things that CHAMPS Life Skills brings to the table.”

Gopher defensive back and business and marketing first-year Curtis Thomas said the class has already helped him this semester.

“One thing, I study more,” he said. “It makes me understand what to do, how to be a better test-taker and things like that.”

Along with Owens and Lightner, Jeanne Higbee teaches the class. She’s also a professor in the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Teaching and Learning and interim director for the Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

While both Owens and Lightner are directly affiliated with the athletics department, Higbee serves as the faculty

member of record for the class, which means she ultimately handles the grades.

“That’s very important to me as the faculty member of record,” she said. “Nobody can question where these students’ grades are coming from.”

The class, available to all students with designated sections for student-athletes, offers a number of skills for all students, Higbee said.

While the segregated sections are an opportunity to address student-athlete issues specifically, Higbee said the model is not without its drawbacks.

Her particular model of the class focuses on acceptance of student diversity and multiculturalism, something hindered by a separation from the general student body, Higbee said.

“In terms of multiculturalism and just learning about different perspectives,” she said, “that’s one of the downsides of having all the student-athletes together.”

Combining sections wouldn’t be the best model either, Higbee said, and there might not be a perfect one.

Whether the class changes or stays the same, Thomas, a Texas native, said the class has helped him acclimate himself to life in college.

“Right now everything seems right. I feel OK,” he said. “Being from another state (living) in Minnesota, right now I just feel great.”