Behind Cougar players and coaches is another University of Houston team that is geared toward high scores and winning. This team, however, is committed to the victories that happen off the field.
UH’s Department of Student-Athlete Development focuses on Cougars’ performance in the classroom and the community. Comprised of academic counselors, tutors and coordinators, this team helps players balance their demanding schedules and offers resources aimed at bolstering academic performance. It also provides student athletes with access to professional development and leadership tools.
“We’re student athletes,” said junior football player Trevon Stewart. “But the keyword is student. That comes first.” Stewart is among the many players who frequently visit Student-Athlete Development’s offices and facilities. Located in UH’s Athletics and Alumni Center, the department is typically buzzing with activity. Coogs from all sports can be found meeting with counselors, participating in tutoring sessions, studying or relaxing briefly in a student lounge.
Conference championships and high profile wins — like UH’s breathtaking, last-minute victory in the Armed Forces Bowl on Jan. 2 — can’t happen without academic victories as well, and the Student-Athlete Development team reinforces this philosophy to Cougar players.
“When we extend an offer to attend the University of Houston to a potential student athlete, we are informing the young man or woman and their family that we intend for them to achieve not only their highest athletic aspirations, but their highest academic aspirations as well,” UH Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades said.
For every spectacular play on the field, there must be an equally remarkable feat in the classroom or the community. That is the standard that Cougars are held to and one that is intended to benefit them long after they’ve departed UH.
“We provide great resources for these students, but we also reinforce accountability,” said Maria Peden, associate athletics director for Student-Athlete Development. “Our athletes know that if they’re not making it happen in the classroom, they won’t make it happen on the field.”
The Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) and the Learning Support Services Program (LSSP) are vital to the department and student athletes.
ACE assistant directors are assigned to each of the 17 UH sports teams. They review syllabi and class schedules, monitor student athletes’ grades and update coaches on each player’s academic standing, as well as upcoming tests or important projects. ACE also is charged with coordinating tutors for student athletes, as well as study hall sessions.
LSSP complements ACE by delivering additional support to athletes. The program works with those who might require assistance with time management, academic focus or studying.
While both these resources support student athletes to offset the demands made of them as they represent the school at events across the country, it should be noted UH accommodates all students with similar support mechanisms, including Learning Support Services and the Center for Academic Support and Assessment, both of which offer tutoring services.
The efforts of both ACE and LSSP have no doubt proven effective. In fall 2014, student athletes posted the second-highest cumulative grade point average, following a fall term — 2.89. Still, the available resources and support are only half the story. The players’ academic successes also are determined by their own hard work.
“We try to breed self-reliance and independence in our athletes,” Peden said. “Not everyone relies on our support mechanisms … but they’re still helpful. Even our straight ‘A’ students will take advantage of the tutoring services to maintain those high grade point averages.”
Among those ‘A-list’ players is senior Logan Piper. A punter for the football team and an accounting major, Piper is among 88 student-athletes on UH’s latest Dean’s List.
While his rigorous football schedule and academic load keep him busy, he still finds time to contribute his talents as a tutor, helping students with math and accounting. His experiences as an athlete — previously splitting time between baseball and football — have been helpful in working with his peers, he said.
“Believe me, I understand what student athletes go through,” he said. “We all are faced with time constraints because of games, practices, events, classes and other things. Sometimes, it’s hard for them to make a tutoring session, so we work with them to make sure it gets done — even if I’m tutoring over the phone.”
Among the students benefitting from Student Athlete Development’s academic services is senior softball player Alexis Dunn. A kinesiology major, she has experienced the challenges of juggling class, practice and games (both on the road and at home). Both tutoring and study hall have helped her focus and re-adjust her studying strategies.
“Before tutoring, I didn’t completely understand my class material,” she said. “Tutoring gave me the extra attention I needed to be successful in my classes and taught me how to improve my study habits. Study hall is also a key component in my academic success, because it gives me a quiet and helpful environment to do my homework and review concepts I learned in tutoring.”
In addition to supporting Cougars’ academic efforts, Student Athlete Development also aims to hone skills that can be applied long after they’ve left the University. The Houston Leadership Academy and Career Development Program deliver guidance and resources aimed at grooming the student athletes to become professionals and leaders.
The Academy was launched four and a half years ago at the request of Rhoades. It is the only such program in the American Athletic Conference.
“The Academy supports student athletes through the struggles of leadership,” explained Sasha Blake, the Houston Leadership Academy’s director. “It helps bridge the gap between academics and athletics.”
The Academy connects with students from the time they enter UH and delivers guidance throughout their academic journey. Workshops — led by Blake — are strategically designed to address specific leadership traits. For freshmen, the Academy offers insight on personal leadership — helping students recognize their potential within a new environment. Sophomores are taught experiential leadership — or how to lead by example. Juniors explore vocal leadership — or discovering their professional voices. By student athletes’ senior years, they’re being prepared to serve as mentors and lifetime members of the Cougar community.
To assist Cougar athletes in their post-UH endeavors, the Career Development Program offers a range of resources. These include the Real World 101 Series, workshops focused on interviewing, networking and résumé building. Also available is the Cougar Career Mentor Program that connects student athletes with local professionals. Another networking and learning opportunity is Legacy Night, in which graduating seniors hear from student athlete alums on their own transition from college to professional careers.
The program also is taking student athletes into the professional community. A pilot mentoring program for the women’s basketball team, for example, is connecting players with more than 30 business leaders in Houston. Players shadow professionals at organizations such as Radio One, the City of Houston and CenterPoint Energy.
“It gives them a chance to see what these industries are really like,” said Kassen Delano Gunderman, director of Student Athlete Services. “Many of them discovered that certain career paths weren’t what they expected, and they were encouraged to consider opportunities in these areas.”
Putting it into perspective, Rhoades said, “With every one of our student athletes, we look to inspire excellence today, while preparing leaders for life.”