Success with Honor: Student-Athletes in the Community
April 7, 2009
By Michelle Turli. Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Athletes become familiar with the athletic arena in which they perform. They understand the boundaries that they are to stay within, but some Penn State athletes look beyond these boundaries and find importance in other aspects of life, such as academics or personal development.
When the clock runs out and the uniforms come off, these Penn State student-athletes step into a role that which involves helping, sharing, and caring for others in the community. According to Assistant Life Skills Coordinator Sarah Krupp, some student-athletes engage in community outreach. Giving back to the community helps shape these student athletes into well-rounded individuals and is something to certainly be valued.
The Nagle CHAMPS/Life Skills Program was designed to better prepare student-athletes for life beyond athletics--the "Penn" Pal Program and "Shadow Day" are two such community outreach programs in which student-athletes are given the opportunity to give back to the community.
The "Penn" Pal Program gives student-athletes the opportunity to correspond via letters on a monthly basis with fourth, fifth and sixth-grade elementary students from the region. These athletes share their views on the importance of an education, good studying habits, goal setting, hard work and the benefits of staying involved.
"You grow an attachment with the kids. You get to know them, their interests, and their hobbies and want to hear more," said senior cheerleader Kelly Serra, a Student-Athletic Advisory Board (SAAB) team representative, who recently completed her fourth and final year with the "Penn" Pal Program.
SAAB gives student-athletes the chance to voice their opinions, organize events and is another channel through which student-athletes can seek community outreach opportunities.
"To be reaching out to younger kids and to be having an impact on them when they are so young can really make a difference. To effect their decisions and get them on the right track early in life will have a huge impact on where they stand later in life," said junior field hockey player Gina Bartolacci, who has participated in the "Penn" Pal Program for three years.
With 120 student-athletes typically involved in the program, each writes four letters to classrooms of local elementary schools, sharing their experiences as a collegiate athlete, a student and an individual. The children then have the opportunity to write back to the athletes, sharing what they are learning in the classroom or asking any questions they may have for them.
"I just love getting back their letters," said Bartolacci. "My freshmen year I lived in the dorms, so I would get an email to go pick up the letters--I got so excited to get the emails. I love to read about what they have to say, what they are learning. Every word is so innocent--it really brightens your day."
Jon Cochrane, a junior swimmer who has participated in the program for three years, got involved as a way to reach out to younger kids and encourage them to live active, healthy lives.
"I aim to help these children learn life-building skills today that will help them excel and live healthier lives as they grow older," said Cochrane.
"The program has made me realize that I have an influence on these children--what I say could impact their decisions. They look up to us. If they are getting advice from someone already there, in college, on a sports team, they can see the steps that we take, use it as a guide and as motivation to follow down a similar path," said Serra.
Senior tennis player Leyla Morzan, secretary and team representative of SAAB, sees the importance of community outreach as well.
"There is so much support for the Penn State athletic program that we should definitely give back to show our appreciation for everything. We have so many resources here and it is important to say thank you any chance we can get," said Morzan.
The topic that Morzan feels most passionate about when writing to the children is "goal-setting," as well as sharing what it takes to be responsible, the benefits of being positive, and developing time management skills, which are all very important in order to succeed.
"Advising someone--mentoring--helps you to develop leadership skills. It helps you mature and makes us realize that these kids look up to us as role models so it's important that we set the right example," said Morzan.
Though student-athletes involved in these community outreach programs give with no expectation of receiving, they actually receive a lot in return.
"I feel like I get something out of it too," said Serra. "It makes me happy. I enjoy getting their letters and hearing from them--it's always exciting."
Serra also participated in her fourth year with the "Shadow Day" Program, which took place on April 1. Rather than just hearing about the life of a collegiate student-athlete, the children get to experience it first hand.
"They get to see what a student-athlete experiences in a typical day," said Krupp.
In this program, student athletes are paired with fifth or sixth-graders, typically based on interest in a particular sport. They take them to their classes and around campus, which shows them the reality of what it's like to be a student-athlete at Penn State.
This year, 54 students from elementary schools, including 26 boys and 28 girls, came to shadow student-athletes. Thirty-two student-athletes from baseball, women's basketball, fencing, football, men's and women's soccer soccer, swimming & diving, track & field, women's volleyball wrestling, cheerleading and the Lionette's dance team participated in the day.
Serra was paired with two sixth-grade girls with interests in cheerleading or gymnastics. She took them to class and they rode the White Loop Bus to see what Penn State is all about.
"I took them to the library and emphasized the importance of academics. We rode on the White Loop and I pointed out the BJC, the football stadium, the Multi-Sport (Building) and IM Building and other important parts of Penn State," said Serra.
Serra and the girls also toured the HUB, Rec Hall, and stopped to take pictures at the Lion Shrine.
"I would encourage other student-athletes to get involved. It's fun for not only the students who come to participate, but also for the athletes," said Serra.
The "Penn" Pal Program and Shadowing Day enable student athletes to reach out, but there are other opportunities as well.
Penn State student-athletes also volunteer with THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which raises millions of dollars to support the Four Diamonds Fund, in an effort to help children battling pediatric cancer.
Student-athletes from all 29 teams participate in THON in some aspect, either by raising money by sponsoring an on-line memorabilia sports auction, where items they've solicited are sold, participating in the Mr. and Miss Student-Athlete Pageant or collecting donations at the entrances of many sporting events.
Since 2005, SAAB has hosted a student athlete formal, which benefits THON, and student athletes also get involved in events such as the Kick-off Carnival, Kick-off Dinner, Pep Rally and Athlete Hour held during THON weekend.
"We are very fortunate that our student-athletes value the community," said Krupp. "The opportunity is provided, and once student-athletes get involved, they often want to do it again."
Instead of seeing it as merely fitting community outreach into their busy schedules, according to Krupp, student athletes go out of their way to make time to help the community.
"I think everyone should make some sort of effort to help others in the community. Whenever I am finished, I think `That felt great! I can't wait to do it again,'" said Bartolacci.