By Sean Smith
Like any sports fan, Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo enjoys browsing through statistics and standings, especially when they concern Boston College sports teams.
But the required reading for DeFilippo each week is a report from the Universitycs Learning Resources for Student Athletes office. He sees which of BC's more than 700 student-athletes have visited the LRSA, and why, and he can also read about their academic progress - who has a test coming up, for example, or who's arranged to meet with a tutor.
"I like to follow up when I
visit a practice, and tell a kid, 'Hey, I see you did really well on that
test,'" said DeFilippo. "You have to provide encouragement for what they're
doing in the classroom, not only for the game they have coming up this
week. They are student-athletes, but they are students first."
Year in and year out, Boston College's student-athletes prove DeFilippo right. According to the most recent data, the four-year average graduation rate for BC student-athletes is 83 percent, compared to 58 percent for all Division 1-A. Ninety-eight percent of BC student-athletes who exhaust their eligibility graduate, compared with an average of 81 percent for Division 1-A schools.
Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo and Learning Resources for Student Athletes Director Ferna Phillips. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Add the three Academic Achievement Awards BC has received from the American Football Coaches Association since 1987 - along with nine honorable mentions - and the University's success is evident, made all the more sweeter by the performances of the Eagles football team and the women's soccer and basketball teams this academic year.
Boston College's achievements are especially relevant at this time of year, when the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament focuses national attention on college sports and, invariably, rekindles discussion on balancing academics and athletics.
But the sportswriter's cliche about the limits of statistics and honors in conveying a story readily applies here. BC's student-athlete graduation rates are made possible by the cooperation of administrators, coaches, faculty and staff, who help their charges with course requirements, class schedules, and the other aspects of college life.
These University personnel are quick to praise the student-athletes themselves, whose commitment to sports and studies is often underappreciated, they say.
"They represent Boston College, and they may be the first and only impression of Boston College for many people," said Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John J. Neuhauser. "The vast majority of these student-athletes take the academic side of their college lives very seriously, and the administration and faculty appreciate the complexities they must deal with."
Like many colleges and universities, BC has had to confront a familiar yet sensitive dilemma: Does providing specialized academic services and arrangements for student-athletes separate them from the larger university community? Administrators say these are necessary to help the undergraduate athletes meet their own academic ambitions.
"Student-athletes are spending upwards of 20 hours a week with their particular sport," said DeFilippo. "That's on top of their classwork, their studying, and for some, their employment. We don't want to treat athletes differently than any other students, but because of what they are asked to do, we need this support network."
"The fact is, most of the students who come through the door are academically proficient," said LRSA Director Ferna Phillips, who points out that the average grade point average for BC student-athletes is 2.99, compared to 3.0 for the general student GPA.
"They might need a little tweaking, a little help organizing their time, or to map out a strategy to get the most out of their college career," she said. "LRSA is here to assist them in doing that, along with their professors and faculty advisor. Our view here is, we're not out to lead people by the hand, or to step on anyone's toes: We're in this together."
Student-athletes who leave BC, administrators note, are far more likely to do so for sports-related reasons - not getting the playing time he or she envisioned, for example -Êthan academic failure.
Phillips estimates that upwards of 375 student-athletes use the LRSA regularly during the academic year, perhaps half that number on a weekly or biweekly basis. The office employs six full-time professional staff for counseling and learning support, and 60 undergraduates and graduate students as tutors and instructional assistants, or as monitors for the LRSA's study center and computer lab.
With practice and game schedules that demand student-athletes' time and energy, says LRSA Academic Counselor Amy LaCombe, the office's major role is often "to bring them the University's programs and resources - like career counseling or resume-writing - so they don't leave here with a disadvantage."
Marshal Armitage '00, a chemistry major and track team member, agrees. "You just can't make faculty office hours sometimes," he said. "I've found it extremely helpful to go to Learning Resources, sit down with someone, and just throw around ideas about what my next paper should be."
But LRSA and Athletics administrators emphasize that they cannot, and do not intend to, replace faculty members. They point to the University's Athletic Advisory Board, a 10-member body of faculty members and administrators, as essential to the communication and cooperation between BC's academic and athletic endeavors.
Administrators say it is the individual acts of kindness and understanding on the part of faculty that help make the athletics-academics mission successful.
"The faculty here deserve praise," said Women's Basketball Head Coach Cathy Inglese, recounting how one professor changed his schedule to accommodate a player's late return to campus. "We've been away from campus this season more than ever before, but they've been supportive and helped our players every way possible.
"That's one of the things I
like about BC," she added. "I can say to a kid I'm recruiting that BC offers
athletic competition and academics on the highest level."
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