For UVU Athletes, Academics is a Team Sport


There’s no “I” in team, as the old sports cliché goes. But as it turns out, at Utah Valley University, there aren’t many “Fs” in team, either.
But there is a lot of collaboration, and effort, and eventually graduations among Wolverine athletes, to be sure.
“We consistently have one of the highest cumulative athletic GPA in the Western Athletic Conference,” says Veronica O’Brien, assistant athletic director for student-athlete academics. “Environment is everything. If you create a positive space that inspires confidence and wrap that around these students, amazing things are going to happen. It is a collective effort by all — we hold each other to a high standard to make sure that we are not only winning on the field but are champions in the classroom and graduating our students”
O’Brien says that over the last three years, every Wolverine student-athlete who was eligible to graduate has. She says two are still finishing their degrees, so she puts the overall graduation rate at approximately 95 percent.
“We make students champions in the classroom by challenging them, helping them collaborate, helping them feel included, having access to things, and teaching them how to really own their own college degree,” she says. “It really is a tremendous collective commitment of our academic staff, student services, our administration, our head coaches, and student-athletes to prepare students for their life journeys. We talk a lot about championships on the field, but we also talk about academic success being a team sport.”

Photo by Jay Drowns

Having high GPAs and accompanying graduation rates is the result of day-to-day monitoring of a student-athlete’s activities in the classroom and making sure that athlete knows the best path to academic success. Classroom success — and the resultant graduation — is a particular challenge for athletes, who have to add hours of practice, performance time, travel time, and other demands into their schedules.
“I think a lot of students come in and find it’s a learning process,” says O’Brien, a former Division I soccer coach for 20 years and six-year veteran of providing academic support at UVU. “They just don’t know what they do not know. They have to go through that learning process to learn to guide themselves and be responsible and accountable now, whereas in the past they probably had a lot of support systems, from family and such. They have a lot of time demands with their athletics and are still expected to stay at the same level that all students stay at in the classroom. Student-athletes will have to know they will have the same expectation to do well in their chemistry class, say, as all the other students. The others might have a job. But for you, the athlete, your job is your sport. So, a lot of it is learning how to navigate that process.”
O’Brien says that by the time they get past their freshman and sophomore years, most student-athletes are “self-sustaining and have learned to not only lead themselves but to lead their fellow students and athletes.”
She notes that in addition to UVU requirements, the athletes also have to meet NCAA academic standards. Students must pass a certain number of credits per semester, credits per year that are degree applicable, and achieve certain GPA markers each year, “just to maintain eligibility to compete on the field.”
“Our number one thing is to always maintain academic integrity, and that’s what we do,” she says. “We do a lot of assessments before students come into UVU. We do transcript evaluations to determine their risks, whether they are high or low, what resources we think the student is going to need coming in to be successful. Because at the end of the day, we don’t want to bring someone into our institution who is not going to graduate — we want to give them the best opportunity to do that.”

Photo by Jay Drowns

Graduation is the ever-present goal of the academic advisors who work in O’Brien’s office. Ashley Hansen, learning specialist and athletic academic advisor, says getting student-athletes started in the correct lane right out of the block is a key. She said student success classes taken in partnership with the Student Leadership Center – particularly SLSS 1000-University Student Success — are a perfect starting point.
“I always tell the student-athletes that my job is to help them to maintain and guard their eligibility — I want to keep them on track,” Hansen says. “To me, the NCAA requirements will keep them on track to graduate, and that’s always our number one goal for student-athletes: to help them graduate.”
Hansen says a main point of oversight is to make certain student-athletes are taking the classes that best lead them to graduation, using Degree Audit and Wolverine Tracks applications and other programs.
“We talk a lot about time management, scheduling, making sure they turn in assignments, majors and career exploration… where they can get started on the right foot,” Hansen says. “And then we follow our student-athletes all the way through. We make sure we are checking to see they are staying on track as far as NCAA standards are concerned. And, of course, we make sure they are headed for graduation.”
Athletics Academic Advisor Chalese Hadley says a study hall area is provided for student-athletes, where computers, tutors, and other resources are available.
“It’s a good way to follow whether or not they are studying,” Hadley says. “They can stay on task here, and it gives them a place outside of their apartment to come and study and use the computers, and it helps us determine their studies and their hours.”
O’Brien says additional staffing and computer resources in the study hall were made possible by UVU’s being the recipient of an NCAA Academic Accelerating Success Program grant in 2014. Before that three-year infusion of money, she says, there were only two advisors “and a room full of tables with run-down computers.”
On a periodic basis, advisors are also able to travel with teams to provide test proctoring, tutoring, and study support to student-athletes. Depending on the length of the trip (tournaments, for example, often last several days) and the timing (games often happen during finals week or near to it), advisors share the team bus or plane. The advisors also work via Skype and other contact applications to assist athletes who are off campus.
Both Hadley and Hansen say that many of their student-athletes could be described as “high achievers,” which presents other challenges.
“We also have very high-achieving student-athletes, who come in knowing they want to do medical school, for example,” Hansen says. “Well, that brings its own challenges, as we are trying to balance that with their sport. It’s very difficult to do anatomy, for example, for any student, but when you add in travel time and practice schedules and things like that, it makes it more challenging. Being able to help even those high-achieving students reach their goals is a lot of fun.”
The advisors also work with other campus resources, such as the Office of Accessibility Services for students with learning disabilities or related issues. There are five full-time advisors who work with approximately 300-325 students on average. Hansen notes that a few students may come to UVU unprepared, but are soon taught the most important lessons from the advising staff.
“Because we are an open-enrollment institution, our athletes actually have to meet higher standards for the NCAA than they do to get into UVU,” Hansen says. “So obviously we are still seeing some students coming in from high school that are maybe academically unprepared. For those students, the lessons of time management and helping them figure out what they are passionate about beyond their sport — as well as helping them see that they have to learn how to study to be successful — become the lessons that are most important.”

Photo by Jay Drowns

Cathy Nixon, UVU women’s basketball head coach, and Mark Pope, men’s basketball head coach, say the most important element of their work is focusing on the long-term implications of academic success.
“The academic success of our student-athletes is of paramount importance,” Pope says. “In the last two years, we have had three players graduate and complete their MBA while they were still playing for us. Last May, we also had two players graduate who were transfers from other Division I institutions and both the first in their family to ever graduate from college. These are amazing success stories. Our players’ academic experience at UVU is setting the foundation for their life.”
Pope notes that even with a pro basketball career, should that happen, most players will retire around age 30 and will have to turn to “an academic-based career. When they leave here, they are prepared for that, and that is important.”
“We keep it pretty simple,” Pope says of implementing academic advising into his program. “First, we have extraordinary advising, tutoring, and mentorship for our guys. Second, if guys are not putting forth the effort in the classroom, we run them. This has proven to be great motivation.” He also says the UVU academic success “begins and ends” with O’Brien.
Nixon says she could “talk all day about academics and our commitment to helping our girls be successful.” She says she believes it is critical that young women get a quality education to give them the opportunity for a successful career and life.
“We are passionate about education for women,” she says. “We emphasize academics from the very beginning of the recruiting process. Not everyone we recruit is a 4.0 student, but they all understand they are expected to work and apply themselves to achieve their potential in the classroom.”
The associate director of the NCAA Academic Integrity Unit, Katherine Sulentic, recently said of UVU’s program: “UVU does more with less. But most important is the dedication the athletic academic staff has shown to both the program and the student-athletes. That is something money can’t buy.”
O’Brien says the NCAA has a new “academic values-based revenue distribution plan” that will begin in 2020. With that, university athletic departments will actually earn money based on academic performances. UVU’s success in the classroom may mean as much as $500,000 over five years, she says. This, though, will not change O’Brien’s goal to keep putting students first.
“We have a lot of expectations. These students have a lot of standards to meet,” she says, “but we always put them as a student first. We have had great success and we definitely need to keep elevating.”

Athletic Academic Accolades

Here’s a partial summary of 2017-18 honors given to Wolverine athletes for their success in the classroom:
• Men’s golf, honored by the Golf Coaches Association of America with All-Academic Team honors (team GPA 3.0 or better), the seventh consecutive year under Coach Chris Curran.
• Men’s and women’s track and field teams earned U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association All-Academic Team honors (men’s 3.40, women’s 3.29 GPA), with three Wolverines earning individual All-American honors.
• Women’s basketball landed on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Division I Academic Top 25 Honor Roll, ranked 16thin the nation (3.508 team cumulative GPA), the ninth time under Coach Nixon. Twice the team has had the number one GPA in the nation.
• Men’s basketball honored with the Team Academic Excellence Award by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, one of only 44 Division I schools to receive the honor (3.38 team GPA). Seven players were named to the NABC’s Honor Court, with a GPA of 3.2 or higher.
• Wolverine women golfers Carly Dehlin and Bailey Henley were named All-American Scholars by maintaining cumulative GPAs of 3.8 and 3.7, respectively.
• As a team, UVU wrestlers boasted the sixth-best team GPA in the nation for 2017-18 and Kimball Bastian, Taylor LaMont, Tanner Orndorff, and Demetrius Romero all earned NWCA Division I Individual All-Academic honors.
• The UVU volleyball squad earned a team academic recognition for the fifth time in the past seven years, after posting a 3.43 team GPA for the 2017-18 academic year.
• The Wolverine softball team tied for the 30th-best team GPA out of 296 NCAA Division I institutions in 2017-18 with a 3.50 team GPA. A program-record 14 softball student-athletes earned national scholar-athlete honors.
• For the first time in UVU men's golf history, three players earned the Srixon/Cleveland Golf All-America Scholar award in a single season during 2017-18. UVU led the WAC with three players earning the academic honor.

If you create a positive space that inspires confidence and wrap that around these students, amazing things are going to happen.