Boosting Athletic and Academic Performance—Faculty Mentors Cheer on Student-Athletes

by Bill Morgal ’06-’10M

Dr. Rich Zumkhawala-Cook had a recent revelation. 

At the NCAA Convention, SU’s faculty athletic representative (FAR) witnessed a presentation that portrayed the benefits of a faculty-athletic mentor (FAM) program, and he realized that Shippensburg University’s campus would be the perfect location for such a venture. That idea has become a reality.

During the NCAA Field Hockey playoffs, Dr. Rich Zumkhawala-Cook tweeted, “A FAR, a FAM, and a Pres. Go @shippensburgU!”

During the NCAA Field Hockey playoffs, Dr. Rich Zumkhawala-Cook tweeted, “A FAR, a FAM, and a Pres. Go @shippensburgU!”

“Our faculty has always been supportive of our student-athletes,” Zumkhawala-Cook said. “I frequently hear from my colleagues about how impressed they are with the ways that Shippensburg student-athletes balance their high performance in the classroom and their athletics.”

Beginning with the 2018-19 academic year, Shippensburg debuted its Faculty-Athletic Mentor program, under the direction and leadership of Zumkhawala-Cook, that partnered a faculty member with each athletic team. It is the formalization of an existing relationship between the two sides, and encourages yearlong interaction. 

“It wasn’t hard to match faculty with teams. Many were already supporting specific teams, and almost everyone I asked enthusiastically agreed to take on the responsibility.”

So what does a FAM do? Really, there’s no right or wrong answer. Mentors were asked to attend as many games and practices as possible and serve as an informal advisor to team members. FAMs are resources for team members, recruits, parents, and other individuals associated with a team. 

The Faculty-Athletic Mentor program matches faculty with teams to offer mentoring and enthusiastic support.

The Faculty-Athletic Mentor program matches faculty with teams to offer mentoring and enthusiastic support.

“Shippensburg faculty tend to really enjoy working with students in their co-curricular endeavors, which is why so many were eager to take up the challenge even though they weren’t exactly sure what their role would look like,” Zumkhawala-Cook said. “Just look at the work faculty do outside of the classroom; we really like being mentors and fans of students. We also have an athletics program that, across the board, is deeply committed to supporting the academic lives of our student-athletes.” 

Dr. Kate McGivney, professor of mathematics, served as this year’s FAM for the lacrosse team. She approached the role as an additional academic-support person for the players. “I wanted to be their point person for any academic issues that they may need help with, but I also wanted to get to know the sport and the students on the field. The coaching staff was super appreciative of whatever time I could devote.”

The venture allowed McGivney and many other FAMs the chance to be on the sidelines during games and get a firsthand look at the players’ experience. 

“On gamedays, I loved being on the sideline watching the team play hard, have fun, and support one another, and I loved counting the millions of steps that Coach Meehan and Coach Hinkle take up and down the sideline as they coached their hearts out,” she said. 

A comfort level was established early on between McGivney and the players, as communication between the two sides began early in the preseason. 

“In the fall, I e-mailed the players to introduce myself and to let them know if they had any academic advising questions, or if they needed help with their math courses, that they could stop by for help at any time,” she said. “I was really happy that a number of players took me up on this opportunity, because this gave me a chance to get to know some of the players individually and to provide them with some academic support.”

Just look at the work faculty do outside of the classroom; we really like being mentors and fans of students.

Helping to enforce the bond between the team, the players, and each FAM is the work put in by the coaches of each squad—efforts noted by Dr. Cheryl Slattery, associate professor of teacher education, who served as this year’s field hockey FAM.

“Both coaches (Tara Zollinger and Jordan Page) and I met early on to get acquainted and make some initial decisions about how to proceed with the role,” Slattery said. “We decided to have large group talks where I would come to their team meetings before practice, and they would allow time for me to present something such as tips for being successful during the first few weeks of the semester and how to access help academically. 

“As time went on, the student-athletes became more familiar with my face and name (FAM), and I started hearing from them individually. I had no idea that it was going to be such a powerful relationship between faculty and coaches and their student-athletes.”

Making the relationship all the more exciting for Slattery was the chance to have a firsthand look at a Raider squad that won its third consecutive NCAA Division II National Championship, an experience she described as a “priceless takeaway.” Yet, it was the regular interaction with the team that Slattery especially cherished. 

“The field hockey student-athletes quickly reached out to me to make advising appointments to discuss things such as changing majors, navigating difficult academic situations, and even how to list being an NCAA student-athlete on a resume,” Slattery said. “I have always had a lot of respect and admiration for the NCAA student-athletes who navigate through the rigor of their respective sports on top of the most important aspect of college, their academics, and somehow make it look easy. It was remarkable getting to know this team of student-athletes. They work incredibly hard both on and off the field and, likewise, they are wonderful humans.” 

Other teams and FAMs shared similar experiences, citing their appreciation for the role. Many have expressed a desire to continue into the next academic year. 

“As an old coach and a professor who teaches much like a coach, this has been perfect,” said Steve Dolbin, FAM for SU Wrestling.

“As an old coach and a professor who teaches much like a coach, this has been perfect,” said Steve Dolbin, FAM for SU Wrestling.

“The program is still growing,” said Zumkhawala-Cook, who was delighted with this year’s feedback. “FAMs, coaches, and student-athletes are still figuring out how the role can be most effectively integrated into the team’s academic and athletic pursuits.”

The FAM program allowed for a heightened awareness of the ongoing collaboration between student-athletes, faculty, and coaches—a key step to building and enhancing the campus community. 

“Too often, the stakeholders in our students’ success, including administration and even parents, know that it’s a good idea to work together, but they aren’t always exactly sure how,” Zumkhawala-Cook said. “This program gives those intentions a place to grow into meaningful interactions, practical collaborations, and sustaining relationships.”

Bill Morgal ’06-’10M is SU’s sports information director.