By Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board
I fell in love with basketball at an early age. The day my dad hung that backboard, hoop, and net over the garage door is one of my happiest memories. I spent hours out there practicing layups, free throws, and jump shots, sometimes with the neighbor boys, often just by myself. I couldn’t wait for high school so I could try out for the team. Two years of junior varsity and two years of varsity basketball taught me so much.
As an occasional starter my senior year, I thought I might be good enough to play at the college level. I graduated high school in 1978 and made my decision to pursue a major in engineering. During my orientation, I told my assigned advisor that I wanted to try out for the women’s basketball team and asked him what I needed to do. With conviction, he replied, “You can’t play sports and get a degree in engineering; it just isn’t possible.” I was crushed, but I assumed he knew what was best. Since my parents were paying for my education, I let go of my dream of playing collegiate-level basketball and settled for intramural sports.
Fast-forward 23 years, and I was an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Akron, advising undergraduate engineering students. It was no surprise that I developed a desire to help engineering students juggle their athletic dreams with their engineering degree. I knew it was possible to do both, and I worked hard to learn all I could to help these students succeed at both. Here are some of the things I have learned and shared.
Get the right advice
Today, most universities have academic advisors and athletic advisors. Both are equally important, and I highly recommend forming a positive relationship with each. Your academic advisor will help you determine what classes you need to take to graduate and when to take them to stay on track with the degree of your choosing. Your advisor should also offer professional development opportunities to prepare you for the workforce. Some advisors may still believe that engineering students cannot handle sports with their academic load; if yours says this, I suggest finding another advisor, one who will help you find a balance between your studies and your practices.
Your athletic advisor, meanwhile, can help with any issues that arise with conflicts between practice and class schedules, and make sure you remain eligible to play your chosen sport within National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
Ideally, your advisors will communicate with each other and work together. I was fortunate to work with an outstanding athletic advisor at Akron. We formed a complementary team to help student athletes succeed academically and in sports.
Work with coaches and professors
Some of the biggest challenges that the other students and I faced were specific coaches or professors who believed that their team or class was the only important thing and nothing else mattered. When this happens, student athletes should ask their advisors to intervene. I recall a specific soccer coach who insisted that one of their players could not take a specific, required class at the only time it was offered because it conflicted with the player’s practice schedule. A compromise was reached between the coach and the professor to allow the student to miss one lecture a week for practice and miss one practice a week to attend the hands-on lab portion of the class. The lecture could be reviewed online, and notes could be borrowed from classmates. The missed practice could be completed with the help of the coach and teammates. With the advent of more online options after the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of obstacle should be even easier to overcome now.
Another challenge that student athletes face is missing classes and other academic requirements because of travel to competitions. Universities have policies that require professors to allow students to make up work missed during these trips. It does require that the professor put in extra effort to provide makeup exams and accept late homework, but it is doable — and mandatory.
Highlight your skills
Another challenge that athletes face while pursuing an engineering degree is trying to schedule co-ops, internships, or other work experiences around practices and competitions. Athletic schedules cannot be changed, so the academic programs, departments, and colleges must find ways to work around these issues using strategic methods that provide the students with a range of experiential learning opportunities.
I’ve advised many students on how to write resumes to include these experiences and to present their athletic endeavors in a way that highlights the skills that employers look for. I recall a football player who had not been able to gain any traditional work experience, who thought his resume was missing the kinds of skills that could help him get a job. I discovered he was the captain of the defensive line and was a starting player in his junior and senior years. I advised him to use his athletic experiences to highlight his teamwork and leadership abilities. I also suggested that he emphasize that excellent communication and time management skills are required to be an athlete and an engineering student.
I can attest that it is possible to be both an athlete and an engineer. It requires dedication to your studies and your sport, and most of all, excellent time management skills. I often think that I would have been a better student if I had been allowed to pursue collegiate-level athletics. I would have learned to manage my time efficiently much earlier. For now, I’ll keep shooting hoops and thinking about all the athlete/engineers who have successfully balanced their dreams.
Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE (she/her) is an emerita associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Akron. She is the immediate past chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.