Skeptics might sometimes scoff at the word student in student-athlete, but the University of Memphis Athletics Department takes it very seriously.
The athletics department-wide GPA was 3.158 in the spring, the second highest all time. Fourteen of 17 teams had a team GPA of 3.0 or above. Some 63 percent of students earned a 3.0 GPA in the spring.
And while the students put in the work, it all starts with a foundation provided by the athletics department and the Center for Athletic Academic Services, led by Director Dr. Bob Baker.
It’s more than keeping athletes eligible to play, said Dr. Adam Walker, senior associate athletics director for development. In fact, the work is focused on building character and preparing student-athletes for life after they receive a college degree.
And that prep includes a networking event and career fair, two events that leadership from the department and Center for Athletic Academic Services felt would help prepare students for life after graduation.
“It was an initiative between myself, (M Club Assistant) Bob Winn and Bob Baker that we need to prepare student-athletes for success after graduation,” Walker said. “We’re doing them a disservice if we send them out without at least contacts in the community.”
It started with a networking event in spring 2016 that was the fundamentals of getting everything started that then morphed into the career fair this past year. The spring career fair featured a speed interviewing format with 40 student-athletes and 23 employers.
Katie Woodruff is an academic counselor and coordinator of the PAWS program, which stands for Preparing Athletes for Winning Success. Among her many tasks, she helps coordinates speakers, helps student-athletes with etiquette and being prepared to interact in a professional manner at the networking events.
Her position is part of the Center for Athletic Academic Services, which is not part of the athletics department. The staff of nine works to develop the entire student-athlete and prepare them for life after sports.
“They’re going to graduate and their sport won’t always be their job so we want them to learn time management, study skills and financial planning,” Woodruff said.
Career prep begins during the freshmen year with building a resume and moving toward creating an elevator pitch, mock interviews and the career prep night.
Preparing athletes for winning success also includes looking at domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and life skills, which this next year will include lessons on practical things like how to check oil and change a flat tire.
The department is careful not to make too many of the events mandatory; between class, studying, practice, competition and community involvement, student-athletes have their hands full. But particularly as students enter junior and senior years, their focus naturally inches toward life after school, and career and professional development opportunities are there for them.
“This has to be something they enjoy and find worthwhile,” Walker said. “We keep that in mind. The last thing we want is for them to tell their teammates not to go because it’s a waste of time.”
Part of preparation for life after graduation is focused on how student-athletes portray themselves, specifically on social media.
“We had a speaker who did a whole session on social media and took a few hours to look up our athletes and put up their posts,” Walker said. “Some of them were embarrassed. You could see the light bulb go off, ‘I’m posting this stuff I think is private and 30 minutes of research he can pull up my pictures.’ You can only imagine what the employers are looking at and we want our athletes to be responsible. It’s a teachable moment for them, those doing it stopped doing it and for others it’s a be careful message.”
The University of Memphis student-athletes wear the word “Memphis” on their jerseys, but how they represent the city goes much deeper. Student-athletes give back to the community, sometimes as team projects and others as small groups or even individuals. There were 2,033 community service hours completed during the 2016-2017 academic year, ranking the university 25th in the nation for community service. The women’s soccer team ranked second in the nation.
Countless organizations in Memphis have been touched in some way by student-athlete volunteers, ranging from St. Jude Target House, Youth Villages and Mid-South Food Bank to Girl Scouts of the Mid-South, Habitat for Humanity and Memphis Athletic Ministries.Habi
Walker said the Memphis business community can get involved in the career fair or by offering internships. At the spring career fair the university established relationships with 32 employers as potential job placements for graduating student-athletes, and there is always room for more in the future.
Yes, it’s an opportunity for the Memphis business community to create or deepen relationships with the university. But more than that, it’s finding future employees and strengthening ties with future Memphians. While many student-athletes are from other cities, states and even countries, more than 25 percent choose to stay in the city and reside in Memphis after graduation.
Woodruff said part of the goal for business involvement is to create mentorship opportunities so student-athletes interested in a particular field have an opportunity to work with a mentor in that field.
“We’re very heavy on the business side so people in the medical field, physical therapy, nontraditional side of the business realm – even nonprofits – we could use some help,” she said. “And if we know the needs in the community, we can reach out and help meet those needs with our volunteer opportunities.”