By Stephanie Collins
Student-athletes may be treated like celebrities at some universities, but Eastern’s athletes have proven they earn their grades the same way as everyone else.
During the past academic year, 14 of the 17 teams tracked by the Athletics department had an average GPA of 3.0 or higher.
Mark Sandy, director of Athletics, said this achievement hadn’t happened for a while.
“To do well here, they [student-athletes] need a solid academic background before they come to EKU,” Sandy said. “We graduate over 70 percent of our athletes.”
Gene Palka, director of Student-Athlete Academic Services, said he thinks the GPA average is phenomenal, even though such a degree of academic achievement may go against conventional wisdom.
“There are probably those who think that they [student-athletes] don’t do well, because they have to make compromises,” Palka said. “I like to think differently.”
But being a successful student-athlete does not come easy.
“The key to success for every student-athlete, and remember they’re student athletes, not athletic students, is time management,” Palka said. “They must be able to set their priorities, manage their time, and at the same time, maintain nutritional requirements and get the required rest for both athletic and academic success.”
In addition, student-athletes that succeed are disciplined, Sandy said.
“Student-athletes, the ones who do well, which are most, use the discipline it takes to be a good athlete,” he said. “They carry that over to being disciplined the rest of the time. They are very motivated to go to class and be on time.”
But Palka said student athletes have less discretionary time than other students. And although it’s a choice the student-athlete makes, Palka said most of them are here because of some athletic opportunity, such as a scholarship.
The student-athletes who come to Eastern are ready to live up to their side of the bargain athletically.
“But at the time, we try to impress upon them that it’s a university first and foremost,” he said. “My goal for them is to not just be eligible, and not just to graduate, but to graduate with a set of marketable skills.”
“They [student-athletes] need to understand getting a college degree is first, sports is second and social life is third,” he said. “If they do that, then they usually don’t have any problems.”
Palka said he realizes that level of time management is a huge task for even educators to achieve, let alone students, which is why he and the academic services department began working with student-athletes immediately to teach them good habits and time-management skills.
For instance, student-athletes must plan ahead, usually for an entire year in order to make their schedules feasible.
Football player Justin Bell said he wishes he caught on to time management earlier, but that he’s learned to work ahead.
“We’re on a set schedule, it feels like from the first day you’re here to the day you graduate,” said Bell, 23, finance and insurance double major from Tampa, Fl. “After football, you’re so tired, you have to fight with yourself to do your reading and school work, so you have to get your work done ahead of time.”
Once student-athletes map out their semesters in a planner, they might see that an assignment or presentation needs to be completed a month ahead in order to avoid a crisis with other academic requirements or their competitive schedule, Palka said.
“You have to have a backup plan because it never goes right the first time,” Bell said. “It’s a growing process, like trial and error.”
Soccer player Deja Tennon said traveling for away games just adds to the mix.
“You’re playing catch up all the next week after you return,” said Tennon, 21, graphic communications management major from Centerville, Ohio. “By the time you’re caught up, it’s time to go again.”
But, Palka said, although the juggling of priorities by student-athletes can be frustrating, it is really nothing new for them.
“As division one competitive athletes, they have all experienced a lot of success,” he said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be afforded this opportunity. I don’t think they like to do poorly at anything. They all strive to be winners.”
But given the fact student-athletes will undoubtedly have to miss class sometimes, conflicts do arise relating to university attendance policies in the classroom.
Palka said he guides the student-athletes to lay out the events in their planner, identify the schedule conflicts, and then communicate with their professors beforehand to arrange makeup work or to complete work ahead of time.
“Most faculty members are supportive of that,” Palka said. “I tell the athletes they have to work harder.”
But Bell said a few professors his freshman year were resilient.
“I had a teacher my freshman year that was like, ‘I don’t care if you’re a football player, if you miss so many classes you fail,'” Bell said.
Bell said he had to drop the class quick enough to add another in order to remain full time, and then completed the class in a later semester.
Tennon said there is usually no conflict when she talks with her professors about schedule conflicts, but once had a professor that would not budge on the attendance policy. Tennon had to sit in on the same class at different times in order to receive credit.
“In general, the professors that wonder why the student-athlete misses class so much are very few,” Sandy said. “I think it’s because they want to treat all of the students in their class fairly, but it’s a reasonable absence because the student-athletes are representing the university.”
Ultimately, most athletes are hungry for success and that’s what pushes them to work harder, Palka said.
“Because they’re division one caliber athletes, they understand work ethic, they understand how to pick themselves up when they get knocked down, and they know what it’s like to succeed,” said Palka.