CHAMPS/Life Skills program supports student-athletes
The athlete shines on the playing field or the court, in the gym or the pool. That’s the part of “student-athlete” that most UI fans know about.
Senior linebacker Ashante Williams, of Mayfield, Ohio, reads "Shoo, Fly Guy," by Tedd Arnold, with a Garden Hills Elementary School student. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
The student part happens out of the limelight, but the record shows student-athletes succeeding there as well.
Their cumulative GPA for the fall semester was 3.05, compared to 3.19 for the campus as a whole. Eleven of the 19 teams had a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and five of those were above 3.3 – including a volleyball team that played in this year’s NCAA championship game.
Finding the balance, however, among the student part, the athlete part and everything else can be tricky. And that’s where the Irwin Academic Services Center and its Illini Life Skills Program play their role.
Essentially, Irwin and the Life Skills program are a center of support for most student-athletes’ needs and activities outside the team, says Kristin Kane, director of academic services for the UI’s Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. “In general, our purpose is to help students balance their responsibilities,” Kane said.
The Irwin facility, opened in 1997 and expanded 10 years later, is the student-athletes’ home for academic counseling, tutoring programs, study hall space and a computer lab, along with other academic resources. All of the programs and services provided through Irwin are paid for through the athletic program, which is self-supported.
The Life Skills program supports the students’ overall development, Kane said. “It’s there to help make sure that we’re getting our athletes to focus on all parts of their lives, and to develop as total people, ready to go out into the world.”
“So much time is spent thinking about ‘my sport, my sport, my sport,’ ” Kane said, but along with the athletics and academics, the Life Skills program recognizes that college is a time of transition. “Very few athletes go play professionally after college, and so we need to make sure that they’re focused on their life after sport, which is their life after college for most of them.”
The program is based on an NCAA model developed in 1994 and originally known as CHAMPS, for Challenging Athletes’ Minds for Personal Success, since then renamed Student-Athlete Development and part of most Division I sports programs. Illinois started its program in 1999, though it was providing some of the services before then, she said.
The NCAA model was built around five components: academic excellence, athletic excellence, personal development, career development and community service. The details, however, have been left up to each school, Kane said.
For most UI student-athletes, their first exposure to the program is CHAMPS 101, a seven-week, noncredit course that’s required of all freshmen their first semester. Its purpose is to “help them get off to a good start,” says Kathy Kaler, the Life Skills program coordinator.
The 120 or so freshmen are broken into four groups, with each meeting a different evening of the week. Among the topics for discussion are time management, study habits, academic integrity, alcohol, sexual responsibility, dealing with the news media and social media, budgeting, volunteering and choosing a major.
“Time management is probably the biggest thing,” Kaler said. Most student-athletes must devote at least 20 hours to their sport each week, not counting travel and games and some activities like watching film, she said.
It’s “the most crucial skill that any college athlete can develop,” according to Kane.
Football player Kaeman Mitchell, the son of a former UI assistant football coach, said he knew to an extent what he was getting into as a student-athlete, but still needed the class and other support. “It’s kind of overwhelming at first because there’s so much you want to do, and then there’s still so much you have to do.”
Mitchell, a junior in communication and a defensive back, attended high school in Champaign but considers Lawrence, Kan., his hometown. His playing time so far has been on special teams.
Much of the personal and career development component of the Life Skills program comes through 40-50 workshops offered each year, Kaler said. Each student-athlete is required to pick at least one per year, though many attend more than one, she said.
The workshops cover topics as diverse as test anxiety, sports nutrition, resume writing and salsa dancing. “It runs the gamut, and really we rely on our coaches and student-athletes to tell us what they want, and if we can provide it, we will,” Kaler said.
In one case, a workshop on basic car maintenance was added per a coach’s suggestion, after a student had a flat tire driving to practice, Kaler said.
In many cases, the workshop presenters are coming from offices or services, such as the Career Center, that are available to all students, Kaler said. They are brought to Irwin on weekday evenings, however, to accommodate student-athletes’ schedules, which often begin as early as 6 or 7 a.m., she said.
Many different subsets of students on campus receive specialized services, “and we are no different than that,” Kane said. Even though student-athletes are in a “very fortunate position,” they also have “unique challenges.”
“They are required to put in an extraordinary amount of time as an athlete to represent our university. … We would be doing them a disservice if we required them to figure it all out on their own.”
“Everyone thinks being a student-athlete is pretty glamorous,” Kaler said. “There certainly are rewards, but the demands are pretty great as well. … And so we’re just trying to give them every opportunity to succeed.”
One of the strengths of Illinois’ Life Skills program, which won the NCAA’s CHAMPS/Division 1A Program of Excellence Award in 2005, is its Illini Leadership Academy, Kane said. Only a few schools in the country do anything like it, most of them in the small group of schools working with sport leadership expert Jeff Janssen.
Four times a year, Janssen comes to campus and leads workshops for three levels of selected student-athletes: Emerging Leaders, mostly for sophomores; Veteran Leaders, mostly for juniors and some seniors; and Leadership 360, for seniors who have completed the prior two levels.
The leadership academy is focused on leadership both within the team and beyond, Kaler said. “We feel like they are developing skills that are going to help them, whatever direction they go in life,” she said.
Another strength of Illinois’ Life Skills program, and “my favorite part of anything we do,” according to Kane, is the community service component, known as Hometown Heroes. Through the program, student-athletes visit schools to encourage reading, visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes, and team with local programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
During the last school year, Illinois’ approximately 500 student-athletes contributed more than 6,000 hours of service in the Champaign-Urbana area, Kane said.
Mitchell has been on group visits to local schools, but also makes his own individual visits, arranged through Hometown Heroes, to the pediatrics floor at a local hospital. He said he’s motivated in part by his experience getting a liver transplant at age 2.
But Mitchell also is motivated for other reasons. During the football season, “there are so many highs and lows,” he said, and sometimes it’s just nice to get off campus. The kids “don’t care if we won or lost, or how I play; they’re just excited to have a visitor.”