Student athletes at the University of San Francisco face the daunting challenge of excelling in the classroom and competing on the field. With a variety of support mechanisms in place, USF is seeing to it that student athletes do just that.
In the competitive West Coast Conference, Dons fans might expect a coach’s stopwatch to be the all-motivating timekeeper of top student athletes at the University of San Francisco. But, for three-time WCC women’s tennis Player of the Year Jennifer-Lee Heinser, a pocket-sized day planner peppered with Post-It notes is her taskmaster.
Heinser, ranked No. 1 in the WCC, has a hard time leaving her planner behind—even when she’s relaxing and sunning her toes at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Even then, her notebook accompanies her, tucked inconspicuously into her beach bag.
“I write down several lists and schedules for myself every day,” said Heinser, a senior honors business student with a 3.89 grade-point average. Her busiest days are color-coded in 30-minute increments.
Heinser’s ability to balance the demands of her sport while excelling in her classes is impressive by any standard. It’s also a testament to USF’s commitment to provide student athletes with a first-rate education, according to Heinser, who was among 96 USF student athletes named to the WCC Commissioner’s Honor Roll for 2008-09.
Compiled each academic year, the honor roll includes students with GPAs of 3.0 or better. Out of the 96 USF student athletes to make the honor roll for 2008-09, 14 earned Gold Honors (4.00-3.75 GPA), 15 earned Silver Honors (3.74-3.50 GPA), and 67 earned Bronze Honors (3.49-3.00). Cumulatively, USF student athletes earned a 3.19 GPA for 2008-09.
Like Heinser, several USF student athletes on the honor roll are standouts in their sport, have overcome extraordinary odds to be at USF, or turned their USF experience into a launching pad to a promising career or professional athletic contract.
Ding! Time’s Up
At USF, the expectations on student athletes are elemental: What is foremost is that they understand they are “student athletes” in that order; they are taught to be students first, said USF Athletic Director Debra Gore-Mann. “Every year, I tell them that we’re not here to keep you eligible to play athletics but to make sure you earn a degree.”
Balancing a Division I college athletic career with full-time studies is anything but easy. On one three-day trip to Portland, Heinser, already suited up in her tennis gear, spent the morning composing a paper on religion in Latin America in the hotel’s executive business center before submitting it by e-mail and rushing off to a match.
“I think it’s definitely harder for athletes to do well academically just because we have less time to do everything,” Heinser said.
Finding that there are too few hours in the day is a common dilemma. Spare time is so scarce for Ganbi Bor, 2008 WCC Freshman of the Year in men’s cross country, that he sometimes balances his classes and training by completing homework on runs as long as 16 miles.
“For finals week last semester, I organized an essay that was due for rhetoric class while running,” said Bor, a sophomore computer science major with a 3.19 GPA. “I was also able to solve a problem on one of my computer science projects.”
An immigrant from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Bor arrived in San Francisco in 2005 with little more than an English/Mongolian-Mongolian/English dictionary. “Three years later, I graduated from Jefferson High School (Daly City) having completed honors English,” said Bor, who is pursing U.S. citizenship.
Bucking the “Jock” Stereotype
His immigration to the U.S. was full of unexpected turns and moments of culture shock, said Bor, who laughed as he recalled his early anxiety at the tendency of American friends to hug him on the street. “A goodbye hug doesn’t exist in Mongolia,” Bor said. “Hugging means two people are in love. So, you can imagine that it was very uncomfortable in the beginning.”
Coming to the U.S. was a dream for Bor. And being able to compete at such a high level in a Division I sport while obtaining a top-flight education has been an incredible opportunity for him, said David Wolber, professor of computer science and an informal adviser to Bor.
“I think student athletes are sometimes undervalued in the academic world,” said Wolber, a former Division II basketball player for the University of California, Davis.
Brenda Giarratano, USF director of academic support for student athletes, echoed Wolber’s concern about how student athletes are perceived. If she could correct one misconception on campus it would be the idea that student athletes are jocks who receive special treatment.
“In reality, they work really hard and face grueling schedules,” said Giarratano, whose department oversees student athlete tutoring, study hall, and academic counseling each semester for USF’s 240 student athletes.
On top of a full schedule of classes, the majority of student athletes spend at least 20 hours a week training for their sport, according to Giarratano. Another three to five hours are devoted to weight training, and then there is the travel time. Some teams travel as far away as Hawaii and Texas. On the road, coaches hold study hall, interspersed with practices, team meals, and hours-long team meetings devoted to strategy and reviewing video of opponents. Occasionally a graduate assistant will accompany a Dons team traveling for several days just before finals to provide tutoring.
Being a student first and an athlete second is exactly what Derek Poppert chose when the Dons’ shortstop turned down a contract with the Cincinnati Reds after he was picked in the 28th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball amateur draft.
For Poppert, completing his senior year and graduating made the most sense. “At some point or another, every student athlete will no longer be able to play their respective sport,” said Poppert, an international studies major with a 3.76 GPA.
A typical baseball game day starts by arriving two to three hours before the first pitch, competing for three hours, and spending another hour cleaning up the field (if it’s a home game) or riding the bus back to USF. Try tackling a midterm paper on the politics of war and peace after that, said Poppert, recalling a four-hour bus ride back to USF last year following a game at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
“I ended up staying up until 5 a.m. to work on (the paper),” said Poppert, who led the Dons with 52 runs batted in and had a .352 batting average as a junior. “I felt horrible during practices and games for the next few days.”
During a 56-game spring semester baseball season, in which he dedicates about 36 hours a week to baseball, it’s all Poppert can do to keep up with the minimum three classes (12 units). But, enrolling in the minimum number of units each spring means he’ll attend USF for an extra semester to earn his degree, not an inexpensive prospect.
That’s all right. Studying the roots of international conflicts and why one in six people in the world lives on less than $1 a day helps him keep baseball in perspective, said Poppert, who sees a role model in the late Roberto Clemente, a National League MVP and 12-time Golden Glove winner famous for charity work in his native Puerto Rico.
“This is a guy that did something with his life beyond simply living for money, fame, and personal achievement,” Poppert said of Clemente, who died in the prime of his career when the plane he was on crashed while taking earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua in 1971.
If juggling a Division I sport and full-time college studies weren’t enough, many student athletes also take part in community, church, or other volunteer efforts.
Women’s basketball, like other USF athletic teams, regularly helps out the less fortunate, including working to raise money for the Haitian earthquake relief effort, serving food at a soup kitchen in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, and participating in the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer walk.
“Not only is it very important that our student athletes graduate,” said Tanya Haave, former USF women’s basketball coach, “it’s part of our Jesuit vision to prepare them to go out and make a difference in the world.”
Senior forward Nnenna Okereke, who is among USF’s most athletic women’s basketball players, exemplifies that vision. Raised in Berkeley by Nigerian parents, Okereke, a psychology major with a 3.07 GPA, volunteers at a Bay Area homeless shelter and spends summers working with kids at church camp.
To balance her class work and extensive travel schedule, Okereke studies on the bus or during airplane flights. On a trip to Los Angeles in February, Okereke became ill and struggled to stay awake to complete an assignment on addiction for her advanced research methods class by the midnight deadline.
“I fell asleep with my computer on top of me,” Okereke said. In the morning, she scrambled to complete the assignment between a required team breakfast and video review session of that evening’s opponent. Her instructor was understanding.
Long Arm of the Law
Steadfast in her intent to pursue a professional basketball career following college, Okereke sees her USF education as indispensable to her other aspiration of attending law school and starting her own law firm specializing in child custody cases.
A former USF student athlete also drawn to law is Anika Steig ’09. A politics major and the USF women’s soccer team’s starting goalie in 2008-09, Steig’s interests lie in civil rights and environmental law.
Along with making the WCC Commissioner’s Honor Roll for 2008-09, Steig graduated summa cum laude and was chosen as valedictorian for the College of Arts and Sciences with a 3.89 GPA.
“For me, it was always the parity between athletics and academics that enabled me to do either one,” said Steig of her approach to finding time for both soccer and school. It wasn’t unusual for her to use soccer as an escape from the classroom or vice versa, said Steig, who recalled suiting up to train on occasions when she had run up against a wall while writing a paper.
Steig, who spent spring 2008 working in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office on immigration and home foreclosure issues, credits her experience at USF, on and off the soccer pitch, for helping her transition to her current job as a law clerk in her native Seattle.
This spring, she planned to travel in Latin America for several weeks, stopping to volunteer in El Salvador where an estimated 10,000 Salvadorans were made homeless or left hungry when floods swept across the country last fall.
Culture of Success
Steig is part of a bigger success story of USF’s women’s soccer team raising its GPA to a “B” average since Coach Mark Carr took over in spring 2007. That’s due, in part, to a coaching strategy of constantly encouraging players to cultivate a proactive relationship with their professors and to seek help sooner rather than later.
“At the end of the day, our athletes are not going to make a million dollars playing soccer,” Carr said. “We want to set them up with the tools to be successful in whatever field interests them when they leave USF.”
Another coach whose athletes have reason to pat themselves on the back for their performance in the classroom as well as in competition is women’s tennis Coach Hilary Somers. Since 2002, her teams thrice have laid claim to USF’s Dr. Carl Jordan Cox Award. The Cox Award is presented annually to the Dons team that demonstrates excellence in competition, academics, and community service.
A highly organized person, Somers’ coaching extends to advising student athletes on time management, including holding team meetings so that veteran players can share their experience and suggestions.
It’s an exceptional drive that propels these student athletes to compete at the highest level of their sports, graduate at the top of their classes, and tutor or travel to another country to assist in disaster relief. Such drive and success requires support, not only from professors but coaches, Somers said.
In hopes of coalescing that support, Giarratano began a new tradition last fall of offering “academic tours” to coaches and coaching staff to introduce them to USF deans at the beginning of the academic year. “The idea is to build the community so that the coaches understand what is expected of our student athletes,” Giarratano said.
When all is said and done, that support and that community might be what makes the difference for USF’s student athletes. “Whereas, some university athletic programs focus on preparing student athletes for professional athletics, we focus on preparing them for life,” Gore-Mann said.
There’s no secret recipe for conjuring up athletes who can achieve academically. It’s a simple matter of priorities, Steig said. “First and foremost, USF is an educational institution that wants its graduates to leave with a greater understanding of the world than when they arrived,” she said. “Athletic programs make college more fun, but at the end of the day they are a privilege, a bonus.”