One Student at a Time

Auburn University’s CHAMPS/Life Skills program received a 2004 Program of Excellence award from the Division I-A Athletic Directors’ Association. The program’s success stems from its structure and its focus on collaboration.

By Virgil Starks, Janice Robinson, and Troy Smith

Virgil Starks is Associate Athletic Director and Assistant to the Provost for Student-Athlete Support Services at Auburn University. Janice Robinson is Life Skills Coordinator and Academic Counselor, and Troy Smith is Community Service Coordinator and Academic Counselor for the athletic department’s Office of Student-Athlete Support Services.

Athletic Management, 17.2, February/March 2005,

We believe we have much to be proud of in our CHAMPS/Life Skills program at Auburn University. But before we tell you how it works, we’d like to share what we are most proud of: our student-athletes’ success stories.

Diver Caesar Garcia achieved recognition as a finalist for the NCAA’s Walter Byers Scholarship Award, won first place in platform diving at the 2003 NCAA Championships, and earned a place on the U.S. National Team. He is also active in academic organizations in his major and was named Auburn’s outstanding mechanical engineering student of 2003. On top of that, he instituted a character development program at an Auburn-area elementary school.

Football defensive end Reggie Torbor did so well in improving his study skills during a study strategies course that the professor who directs our campus Student Success Center, which is used by all students, asked him to help teach the course in a subsequent term. Reggie was honored to serve as a mentor to students both inside and outside of the athletic department.

When three of our Spanish-speaking volleyball student-athletes learned that nearby rural schools did not have enough translators to meet the needs of Latin American immigrants, they volunteered to work in English as a Second Language programs in the schools. They visit these schools three times a week to translate, often serving the children of migrant farm workers tending fields in rural Alabama.

Administrators of life skills programs for student-athletes at any university can probably name several young people with equally impressive accomplishments. But we believe our CHAMPS/Life Skills program fosters many such success stories each academic year because of three traits: collaboration, communication, and structure. Through an organizational structure that gives many of our professionals a stake in student-athlete development, we are better able to create intra-departmental collaborations and to communicate opportunities to help our young people make the most of their time here at Auburn.

When we first began our program, there was a commonly used model among NCAA universities that called for a CHAMPS/Life Skills director to take on the responsibility of developing and implementing personal development activities for student-athletes. However, we have structured our program in a different way. We felt that to have one life skills director would needlessly separate the personal development skills from the academic challenges facing our young people. We also wanted our athletes’ community service to fit with their academic and life skills pursuits. So we decided to combine academic support, community service, and personal development into a single program.

Therefore, the duties of our staff overlap and blend at times. We have an associate athletic director for student services who oversees everyone in our program. We also have a CHAMPS/Life Skills coordinator who is responsible for coordinating enhancement activities and programs for all components of the program, and a community service coordinator. The two coordinators are also academic counselors, with responsibilities for student-athletes in at least one sport. In addition, we have seven full-time academic counselors, a learning specialist, two initial and continuing eligibility specialists, and a coordinator of our tutors.

Each person on our staff has a role in our student-athletes’ academic achievements, which is the basis of their success. At the same time, everything we do in CHAMPS supports the four main pillars of the program: academics, service, personal development, and career development. They all go together, so each professional in our CHAMPS/Life Skills program has some responsibility for all three. Our weekly staff meetings are an exercise in collaboration, with each member seeking suggestions, offering input, and updating the group on his or her area of primary responsibility.

Similarly, we try to integrate our work into the larger athletic department. In addition to providing monthly updates of our event and community service calendars, staff members periodically attend coaches’ meetings. We fill the coaches in on what we have coming up, what our student-athletes are doing outside practice, and, perhaps most importantly, listen to what the coaches are hearing from their team members.

Through this collaborative structure, we have been able to better understand both the big picture and small details that foster student-athlete success. For example, one of our most important endeavors has been to make some of our life skills offerings curriculum-based.

Our student-athletes’ most precious resource is their time. Many of them want to volunteer in the community, but they also have to practice, travel to competitions, and complete course work. We decided that the only realistic way to meet all these demands was to include career development and community service in our school’s curriculum.

To accomplish this, the CHAMPS/Life Skills program contains an array of for-credit elective courses that meet the needs of career preparation and community service work. They are taught primarily by academic counselors in our department and two doctoral candidates from the College of Education.

The most vivid example of this cross-curriculum collaboration is a leadership course to be taught in Auburn’s College of Business beginning in the fall 2005 term. Though primarily intended for seniors or graduate students in the business school, we have asked faculty in the business college to also tailor the course for some of our student-athletes’ needs. The class will expose students to business practices and life in a professional setting. But it will also show that the skills and knowledge needed in the business setting are the same skills required in community service, thus helping student-athletes in this area of their lives. Class discussions will reveal that many of the policies and procedures used in the for-profit world apply in the not-for-profit sector in which our student-athletes will perform community development efforts both now and later in life.

In addition to regular classroom lectures, students in the course attend at least four workshops and are eligible to receive a special leadership-training certificate from the business school. The course is offered on a for-credit basis, so it’s a package of academic credit, practical leadership training that our students may not have otherwise been exposed to, and an attractive accomplishment to display on their resumes.

Another course that represents our curriculum-based approach is Life Skills for Student Athletes, our freshman orientation and life skills course for first-year and transfer student-athletes. Adapted from the university’s freshman-experience course for incoming students, it covers topics such as the transition from high school to college, learning styles, classroom behavior, test-taking strategies, time management, the process of personal change, choosing majors and careers, nutrition, and sexual responsibility. We look at it as an opportunity to sell our entire CHAMPS/Life Skills program to our new student-athletes—life skills, academic enhancement, community service, and career exploration and preparation.

The freshman-experience course lays the groundwork for two career courses student-athletes may take for two hours of credit. Both are listed as courses in the College of Education Department’s counseling department and were developed by Phyllis Bickers, a former Academic Counselor in our office and now a Career Counselor in the university’s Career Development Services Center. The first allows freshmen and sophomores to learn about themselves using interest and personality inventory tests while encouraging them to develop personal and professional goals and explore majors and career options. This is especially important for student-athletes, who are far less able than their non-athlete peers to switch majors midstream because of the NCAA’s increased progression-toward-a-degree requirements, commonly known as the 40-60-80 rule. A young person should know early on, for example, about the often-daunting math demands they’ll face if they choose engineering as a major.

The subsequent course is for juniors and seniors. It covers resume writing, job interviewing, and "interviewing the job"—trying to find out if a particular position would be a good fit.

Finally, our collaborative, curriculum-based approach is seen in "Athletes in Society," a course for juniors and seniors that is an exploration and preparation for community service. The two-credit-hour course teaches students how to identify service opportunities related to their academic and professional interests. They may earn an extra credit-hour by taking part in at least one service project. Students are provided with a list of sites where they can join in community service, and they keep a journal and portfolio as well as write reflective papers.

The course combines practical experience with an appreciation for diversity and intercultural communication. It also stresses being aware of social issues in a community. A third plus is that it may help some students make decisions about career and professional development.

Another way that we are easing time constraints on our student-athletes is by making our community-service opportunities easily available to them. For example, with the service component built into the Athletes in Society course, students don’t have to go looking for it. Likewise, we try to have the same structure available more broadly. We want service opportunities to be easily accessible for our student-athletes when desire, time, and opportunity strike. This is one reason we began our adopt-a-school program.

In adopt-a-school, our student athletes, usually by team, take on a particular Auburn-area elementary or middle school and commit to regularly visiting to read to students, help with homework, lead physical-education and recreational activities, and run character-development programs. It was through our adopt-a-school structure that our volleyball student-athletes learned of the Spanish-language needs of some nearby elementary schools.

We also provide many other opportunities and locations for service work. Beyond adopt-a-school, student-athletes work in Boys & Girls Clubs, after-school programs, a community art program for disadvantaged children called Auburn Citi Kids, a food bank, and a community market. Our equestrian team is actively involved in Storybook Farm, a therapeutic riding camp for terminally ill children and adolescents. We try to be proactive and have a ready list of service opportunities in addition to helping student-athletes find them on their own.

Another component of our community service effort is less concrete but no less important. We try to instill the philosophy that community service is an integral part of what we all do here, and that our prosperity depends on how much we can do for others. Everyone, from the president of the university on down, understands that. We try to not only speak it, but also to live it, and our student-athletes see that.

Our coaches, for example, have team projects they want their student-athletes to take on. Head Football Coach Tommy Tuberville got members of the football team to help when Storybook Farm needed hay baled and fences installed. Administrators want to impact the lives of coaches, coaches want to impact the lives of student-athletes, and student-athletes want to impact the lives of people in their community.

One of the goals of our program is to not let any needs or issues fall through the cracks. Although we offer a diverse array of seminars and programs for our student-athletes, we feel it’s imperative to always be on the lookout for other programs to add. One way we do this is to survey students after each major activity and after each academic year, inviting feedback on what we do and what we could do better.

One thing we recently learned is that many student-athletes wanted help preparing for the work world as they approached graduation. We already had a two-credit career exploration course for freshmen and sophomores, but we saw the need for a capstone offering with more details and a focus on the nitty gritty of beginning a career. Thus we created the career course for juniors and seniors.

Coaches are a valuable source of information about what student-athletes need. Several have told us that their student-athletes, particularly rising sophomores, worry about moving into their first off-campus housing situation. So we’re planning a series of workshops on basic lease agreements, financial management and budgeting, and balancing the freedom and responsibility of off-campus life.

How do we get our student-athletes to participate in our CHAMPS/Life Skills program? First, we publicize our offerings to them as soon as possible. We talk about the program during an athlete’s first recruiting trip, at freshman and transfer-student orientation, and on an ongoing basis when they arrive on campus. We use fliers, posters, and e-mail, among other means. We provide student-athletes with publications about the programs and put together a special brochure outlining the community service projects. In addition, we produce separate calendars for each of the main components—academic, personal, and career development—as well as a master calendar, which goes to each sport’s coaching staff and student-athletes.

Student-athletes are required to attend at least three life skills seminars per semester. But we also try to respect their schedules, and we’ve developed a "lunch and learn" series that makes convenient use of what’s usually a lull in students’ days.

We also depend on the word of mouth that spreads from a great offering. There’s no real way to make sure every new student-athlete gets involved in personal, career, and academic development and community service, but we have seen the water-on-stone phenomenon. You just keep dropping the water on them, and eventually some of it stays. Probably the best advertisements we have are their fellow student-athletes. They come back from events and say, "I’m glad I did that. Next time, I’m taking somebody else with me." Word spreads.

We also preach the importance of student-athletes getting involved with the rest of the campus community. Whenever we can, we reinforce the fact that our student-athletes are students first, and like all students, can use some support in planning their long-term, personal development.

We tell students at our freshman orientation, called Camp War Eagle after a historical Auburn athletic battle cry, that "The bigger the nest, the bigger the bird." The point is for them to get involved in campus and community life, so that, with more people accountable and taking ownership in one another’s development, the bigger and broader their opportunities become. And the bigger they become. Likewise, we call upon the same attitude in our colleagues and cite the mission of the university, which is to develop each individual to the highest quality that we can. We want to help our student-athletes embrace these opportunities before they leave our nest.