Engaging Student-Athletes: A Service Initiative Model from Elon University

Sarah Williams, Program Coordinator, Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, Elon University

April 18, 2019

As many of you know, student-athletes on college campuses have incredibly rigorous schedules and commitments for practice, exercise, and travel beyond their academics. At Elon University, we found that these rigorous schedules were limiting student-athlete engagement in service-learning. The work of connecting with a community partner, coordinating schedules, and finding transportation was often a barrier from student-athletes accessing the opportunity to engage in the community in ways that other students did. In 2017, Elon University’s Athletics Department was awarded an NCAA four-year grant to enhance the department’s efforts to encourage and deepen student-athlete participation in the five Elon Experiences, one of which is service-learning. The Athletics Department began a partnership in Fall 2017 with our Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement on an initiative to increase the quality and quantity of service-learning and community engagement for our student-athletes.

Year 1 included establishing baseline data and putting systems in place to track and share out service opportunities student-athletes were already participating in.  We found that several teams did do at least some occasional service, but did not record it. For example, once we built those systems for teams to track their hours, we had more validated service hours in the 2017-18 academic year (2,554) than in the previous seven years combined (1,620). From the initial data we were able to compile, we discovered there is a wide variety of service opportunities student-athletes were engaged in (20 community organizations in our first year) as well as various levels of intentionality of these experiences. For example, some teams would just go and read one time at a local school while other teams may have had a coach who connected with a local school as a partner, and the team went to that school every year to read to students. However, even where there were some continued partnerships, there was often no preparation, reflection, or evaluation.

Year 2 involved assessing what has been going well and the level at which each team is engaging, and involved a combination of surveys, focus groups, and meetings with coaches. When asked “Did you feel a connection with anyone while volunteering?”, we had a strong positive response with over 87% saying yes, identifying a variety of people (e.g. a community partner staff member, a fellow athlete, or a community member being served at the site). Over 91% reported a “meaningful interaction” while volunteering in the past year and several shared qualitative examples like these:

  • “I met a boy named Jackson, one of the baseball players, while volunteering at miracle League. Him and I instantly had a connection and I loved getting to interact with him. He was the sweetest and funniest guy I have ever met. He made me smile and reminded me that there is so much to be grateful for in life, so just be happy. He is someone I will never forget, and I am so lucky to have met someone as special as Jackson.”
  • “A great example is when I stopped the GET program last year and I saw a fellow mentee at s[sic] basketball game. It was humbling to know she remembered me as a mentor for my love of sports and promotion of good body image.”

While the action piece of student-athlete service definitely showed value in our first year of the initiative, the data has informed planning for where we can deepen the partnerships, education, reflection, and access to service for student-athletes. For example, we are working to connect with the top two and bottom two teams to identify best practices for what successfully supports student-athletes engaging in service and identify the barriers or issues that are preventing the lower-level engaged teams from participating. For example, in our survey, we heard that students wanted more on-campus options for service or needed transportation to service sites, so these are things we will explore. In addition, we have found that the culture of athletics values efficiency. As a result, one initiative we are piloting this summer involves packaged service-learning opportunities for the fall sports teams who will be practicing on campus. We are connecting with some community partners to see what needs they have in our area that may go un-met with the majority of our student volunteers gone for the summer. Our hope is to identify possible times and activities that could be presented in a menu of options for the coaches and teams to plug into based on their schedules and interests, and incorporate thoughtful preparation and reflection activities.

The goals in the next step, Year 3, are to work closely with the low-engaged teams to strengthen and support their goals and efforts, and move all teams to the next level of deeper engagement and education through service. We also are exploring ways to utilize the Student-Athlete Advisory Council students as peer-mentors to recruit other student-athletes as volunteers and possibly to serve as peer-educators in the preparation or reflection pieces we hope to build out for the different service experiences our student-athletes engage in. We are also partnering with some faculty members on campus to explore incorporating High Impact Practices into our work and assessment. We believe that this framework offers a set of quality indicators that could be useful to match to our grant goals and allow us to better mark progress from our baseline data to both improve our service and our assessment of that service.

In addition, we are exploring the concept of student-athletes as agents and influencers of positive community change in Year 3. We realize that these students enter into community spaces with a social influence, especially for young children, that has a star power to it. We think they have incredible potential to engage our community and positively influence and mentor children – not only on healthy activity and fitness, but also on leadership and character-building that they have gained in their training and discipline as student-athletes. This initiative is ongoing as we still have two more years in our grant, so we would love to hear from you. How you are engaging student-athletes in service-learning on your respective campuses?

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