Out of sight, academic and career services define Wildcats’ experience


Source: Stephen Carrera

Northwestern student-athletes and industry professionals participate in the Wildcat Professional Excellence Program, a networking event hosted by NU For Life. The career services branch of the athletic department organizes many events specifically for student-athletes entering the workforce.

Bobby Pillote, Sports Editor

For student-athletes at Northwestern, the college experience extends well beyond sports competition.

Wildcats must balance the rigors of being Division I athletes with the challenge of NU’s academic requirements. The NU For Life program, the athletic department’s career services wing, works in tandem with the department’s Academic Services and Student Development to help Cats have a successful four years in school as well as a thriving career after graduation.

Winning in the classroom

Data from NCAA’s Academic Progress Report, which measures a team’s retention and eligibility of their players, showed in May 2014 that NU’s teams have some of the highest classroom performance ratings in the nation.

Kristin Kane Herbison, associate athletic director for Academic Services and Student Development, oversees the department — comprised of seven full-time staff members — dedicated to guiding student-athletes through course registration, study skills and everything in between.

“Our job is to help student-athletes balance all of their athletic, academic and social responsibilities,” Kane Herbison said. “We’re working with the students to combine, balance and manage both areas of their life.”

That balancing act starts freshman year, when student-athletes are required to meet once a week with their adviser, who will work with them throughout their time at NU.

These meetings aim to help student-athletes adjust to the demands of college life. Advisers discuss class progress, develop time management skills, review grades and set an academic plan for the week.

All freshmen student-athletes also must participate in mandatory study hours in the NU libraries. Like the weekly meetings, Kane Herbison indicated this requirement is designed to make sure athletes adjust to a college workload.

Unlike other schools with dedicated academic facilities for athletes, NU emphasizes that its athletes work in the same spaces as the rest of the student body, Kane Herbison said.

“We really like to have our student-athlete population incorporated with the rest of campus,” she said. “We want them to be able to work with other students in their classes who aren’t athletes.”

Madalyn Shalter (SESP ‘12, ‘14), an academic adviser for athletes who played volleyball at NU from 2008 to 2012, said the goal is to wean student-athletes off of the mandatory programs by the end of their freshman years.

“Students here figure out what they need to do to succeed within their first year,” she said. “We help them create independence.”

Even though weekly meetings and study hours aren’t required past an athlete’s first year, advisers continue to work closely with their students throughout their time in school. One of the biggest difficulties is planning around team travel.

Some teams, such as football, miss only a handful of Friday afternoons during Fall Quarter, while others, such as baseball and softball, miss parts of Thursday and all of Friday during some Winter Quarter weekends to facilitate travel to far-flung warm-weather states.

To help plan around that, as well as practice and game schedules, athletes receive priority during course registration, Kane Herbison said.

Advisers also assist student-athletes in planning their coursework for life after graduation and work closely with Julie Hammer, the assistant athletic director in charge of the NU For Life program, to ensure Cats are ready to join the workforce.

Life after sports

NU For Life isn’t a typical career services program.

The postgraduate arm of the athletic department was created in September 2012 as a revamping of the existing career services department within athletics. It falls under the direction of athletic director Jim Phillips and benefactor David Kabiller (Weinberg ‘85, Kellogg ’87), a former tennis player at NU who is also a University trustee.

The program provides traditional career counseling, which Hammer said is enhanced by a four-year curriculum in place to guide student-athletes into careers. It also provides employer engagement — the defining attribute of the program, Hammer said.

Much of Hammer’s job involves forging relationships with employers that she can leverage to help student-athletes.

“I’m working with these companies … to build pipelines and build relationships on behalf of the student-athlete skill set,” she said.

Among the most prominent of those partners is the Chicago Cubs. The athletic department signed a contract in 2013 to play five football games and several other Cats contests at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs organization and its subsidiaries have previously hosted NU student-athletes as interns.

“(The partnership) is really going well because there’s other things we’re doing with them,” athletic director Jim Phillips told the Daily in March. “We’re doing promotional, and marketing. We’re doing internships. … All of that is not nearly as visible.”

Hammer said The NU For Life curriculum focuses on building a “professional IQ,” which includes industry exploration and encouraging student-athletes to identify their passions. The biggest part of that preparation is teaching athletes to make their experience playing a college sport appealing to an employer.

“You may not have five internships on your resume like an engineering student might,” Hammer said, “but these are the things you do have, and this is how you articulate and sell it to an employer.”

Another aspect of NU For Life is its mentorship program, which matches current sophomore athletes with letter-winning alumni in a career field related to the athlete’s interests.

Hammer said NU For Life currently has most of its connections in Chicago but will look to spread out in the future. She’s relying on an expanding cohort of young alumni who will grow as the program ages.

With so much of the student-athlete experience at NU focused on what happens off the field, NU For Life also serves as a recruiting tool.

“I talk to recruits on a regular basis,” Hammer said. “The parents are excited, but the student too. It’s part of the bigger package that you get when you come here.”

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