Conditioning Minds

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An intensive summer orientation for athletes gave basketball player Brittney Davis valuable academic tools for reaching her dream: to become a sportscaster. (Photo courtesy of the OSU Department of Athletics)

September 16, 2008

OSU program emphasizes academic success for student athletes

By Lee Sherman
Video by Matt Riley

"Sharing responsibility for educational quality and student success is woven into the tapestry of educationally effective institutions." - About Campus magazine, 2004

Fans rooting for the Orange and Black live for those heart-stopping moments when sweat and pain and indomitable spirit gel in brilliance: the nothing-but-net three-pointer at the buzzer. The out-of-the-park homer with the bases loaded. The 50-yard touchdown pass with seconds on the clock.

But when the game's over, student athletes often struggle to manage the dual demands of classes and sports. So, to give athletes a running start on college life, OSU has designed a program called BEST Summer Bridge. BEST stands for Bridge Encouraging Successful Transition, with the "bridge" as a metaphor for spanning that chasm between high school (where parents and teachers are there to nudge and nurture) and college (where students are pretty much on their own). It's three solid weeks of intense orientation, essentially a "boot camp" for new athletes in July or August.

It includes a crash course in academics — math, writing or sociology. Students learn study skills and life skills. They tour the campus and meet professors. They hit the books nightly in the library. On weekends they relax and bond outdoors, rafting down the McKenzie River and testing the surf at Newport, boosting their individual confidence and group cohesiveness.

"We pack a lot of information into three weeks," says program coordinator Mary Prindiville. "The goal is to give them a positive academic experience early, before they even report to their sport. We want them to think of themselves as university students first."

New Focus

Softball player Audrey "Puka" Roderfeld heard that message loud and clear during her BEST experience. "My biggest challenge as I started college was realizing that there are two parts to the term ‘student athlete,'" says the sophomore catcher from Vista, California. "It was time for me to seriously focus on my studies and not direct all of my attention to the field."

Basketball player Brittney Davis was skeptical when she reported to BEST last year. As a junior from Portland who had played two years for Minnesota, Davis was doubtful that three weeks with a bunch of freshmen would be worthwhile.

She was wrong.

"My biggest obstacle was time management," says the guard who graduated from Jefferson High School. "I think I still would be struggling with the same problems I had before I got to the university. But this program helped me change my bad habits. I'm grateful for that."

Life Skills

As he heads to preseason weight training at the Valley Football Center, freshman tight end Kevin Pankey talks about transitioning from hometown hero status in Visalia, California, to raw recruit on a 100-man Pac-10 team. It's been a jarring wakeup call. In a tone reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz ("Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore"), Pankey describes his new reality. "It's not high school football anymore," he says. "It's a lot more strenuous on the body and mind. You've gotta be a lot stronger. It's really a test."

The life skills he got in boot camp will help him meet that test. "They give you a bunch of tools," he says, "like talk to somebody, write down your feelings, don't let things creep under your skin, keep a straight, clear mind." Another big one for Pankey: "Don't procrastinate. I used to procrastinate all the time."

Head football coach Mike Riley has seen dramatic results since the program was launched three years ago. "BEST creates a special bond within a freshman class," says Riley, an early advocate for the program. "We have the best entry-level first-terms ever." (See "It's Not All About Football" sidebar.)

To the Next Level

The program has been so successful, in fact, that OSU is planning to extend similar services to non-athletes. A high priority in the university's first capital campaign, a new Student Success Center will offer a transitional "bridge" for first-year students in a state-of-the-art facility. Equipped with counseling offices and computer labs, the center will provide tutoring, peer study sessions, academic advising and study-skills classes. The center got a jumpstart in March with a $5 million gift from an anonymous donor. Working together, the OSU Foundation and the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics are raising additional funds toward the expected $14 million cost of constructing and equipping the building.

"We've been very successful in helping our student athletes excel academically," says Bob De Carolis, OSU's athletic director. "Our NCAA graduation success rate is 75 percent, the third highest in the Pac-10. The Student Success Center will enable us to expand and enhance what we've learned in athletics and offer that to more OSU students."

Before They Fall

You can think of BEST as a campus-wide safety net woven collaboratively by professors, administrators, departmental staff, librarians and coaches, all coordinated by the university's Academic Success Center. It's part of a wide and growing trend among American universities to construct intra-university support systems that caulk the cracks through which students can slip. Schools that build cross-campus collaborations to enhance achievement have better retention and broader student engagement, researchers have learned. A national study of 20 campuses found that "sharing responsibility for student success really does matter," according to About Campus magazine (November-December 2004).

One of the pitfalls for students is mental health. Beneath the tough exterior of powerful athletes churns the same cauldron of emotions many other students carry to college — homesickness, anxiety about grades, insecurity about friends, confusion about sexuality, struggles with alcohol and drugs. That's why big schools like Oklahoma and Ohio State are adding full-time psychologists to their athletic departments. When student athletes become overwhelmed with demands to body and mind, they can spiral into depression or make disastrous choices.

Waiting for a crisis, Riley believes, is too long to wait. Instead, he wants to tackle problems early and head them off. So he has brought in a sports psychology consultant, Cindy Miller-Aron, on retainer. She met with all the freshman football players right away, interviewing each of them onsite during the BEST boot camp. Now, when the athletes run into difficult straits, they can quickly get in touch with a counselor they know and trust.

"This year, we'll have a 24-hour turnaround for referrals," Miller-Aron says. "The students know where to find me if they need to talk. They see me as a resource."

Few fans cheering in the stands realize the rigors students endure to play Division I sports. "What the public sees is the glamour, the accolades, the prestige," says Miller-Aron. "What they don't see are the highly structured and demanding schedules coinciding with the primary struggle of late adolescence, the solidification of identity — who you are and what it means in the world."

Puka Roderfeld is one athlete who's well on her way toward a rock-solid identity. She credits the boot camp with laying a firm foundation. Without BEST, she says, she would have been "very lost."

"The program gives you insight to what college is all about," Roderfeld explains. "I knew what to expect. I didn't go into my first day of school blind. I learned that not everything is about my sport - that you have to succeed in the classroom in order to succeed on the field."