Retired NHL star Brooks Orpik at the 2022 Commencement Ceremony. (Photo: Alastair Ingram, BC Athletics)

Brooks Orpik has two Stanley Cup titles and an Olympic silver medal to his name, but when he announced his retirement from the National Hockey League in 2019, there was one accomplishment still missing—a college diploma.

Like many of his teammates, Orpik cut his college career short to go pro, leaving Boston College after three seasons to join the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2002. He’s never regretted the decision, but he also doesn’t like unfinished business, whether it’s on the ice or in the classroom.

“I always felt like it was hanging over my head,” he said recently. “When I don’t finish something it just kind of eats at me.”

So in the fall of 2020, Orpik became a student again, enrolling in BC's Woods College of Advancing Studies as a member of the Class of 2022. He wasn’t the only professional athlete to do so: thanks to a rapidly expanding selection of online courses, and a support staff dedicated to helping athletes achieve their academic goals, Woods has become a go-to resource for pros at various stages in their athletic careers.

“Helping those whose academic careers have been interrupted—whether by opportunity or other circumstances—to complete their degree is one of the hallmarks of what we do, so of course we’re especially eager to welcome former Boston College students-athletes,” said Woods College Dean Karen Muncaster, a nationally recognized leader in online education who joined BC in 2019. “Our team provides the flexibility and support that a working professional, or anyone with multiple responsibilities, needs when adding continuing education to the mix. We’re here to help them achieve their goals.”

Team effort

In September, NHL goalie Spencer Knight signed a three-year contract extension with the Florida Panthers worth $4.5 million per season. At 21, Knight is just two years into his professional career, which he began in 2020 after two standout seasons with the Eagles. But even though his future in hockey looks rosy, Knight is committed to continuing his studies at the Woods College, where he’s majoring in business systems.

Spencer Knight

"BC has given me so much guidance on the ice, in the classroom, and in life," said Knight. "They feel like family."

“I started at BC and I want to finish at BC,” he said. “Turning pro at a young age is a cool thing but nothing is guaranteed. I want to play until I’m 40 but if something happens? I’ll have this in my back pocket and I can use it and do good with it.”

Knight works closely with BC's Learning Specialist and Academic Counselor Patrice Bouzan and Woods’ Associate Director of Undergraduate Programs Sam Hay to select classes that work with his schedule. He typically takes only one class per semester while playing, in order to give it his full focus, and then doubles up in the summer, when his only team responsibility is to stay in shape.

“I’m getting it done at a good pace but at the same time, it’s not adding stress to my life,” he explained. “I’m in the stage of just exploring and learning about different things and hopefully after my hockey career is over I can pull out my degree and say, ‘Okay, I know what I want to do now.’”

Academic support for athletes entering Boston College has been built into the fabric of the University for over a decade, with freshmen automatically assigned to an academic coordinator who helps them with tutoring, time management, and planning for the future. Bouzan, a 1991 alumna who has worked with BC athletes for the past 12 years, meets individually with first-year athletes on a weekly basis. With players like Knight, who are drafted before even stepping foot on campus, she helps them check off core requirements early, to make continuing their education at Woods as seamless as possible.

“Our meetings might just be 15 minutes but we go over grades and they can ask me questions—if they’re traveling and have to miss a test we figure it out,” she said. “Both our male and female hockey players play world championships during the year, so sometimes we’re rearranging finals, just helping them be proactive and advocate for themselves so they can be successful.”

Bouzan’s office is adorned with newspaper clippings and memorabilia from athletes she’s worked with—including Olympians like women’s hockey star Cayla Barnes ’22—and her door is always open to those looking for support or a quiet place to study. This summer, Mike Hardman, who signed a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2021 and is currently enrolled at Woods, was a weekly visitor.

“I will help them in any way I can,” Bouzan said. “To see them graduate is amazing—our office is connected to the football stadium and I go out and watch and players are texting me, “I see you!’”

Returning in person

While the array of online courses at Woods—there are currently 96—has been a game changer for athletes like Knight, the school’s famously close-knit community convinced retired professional soccer player Reuben Ayarna to return to Chestnut Hill 15 years after leaving for a career overseas. These days, the 37-year-old is enrolled in classes like business ethics, digital marketing, and leadership and innovation, while pursuing a degree in corporate systems.

“It’s weird being back after all these years—people still remember who you are but you have to get used to the new buildings, and the city has changed,” he said. “The professors have been great. I knew I wanted to be in the classroom because I learn more that way—being able to have discussions with classmates and getting insights from the people around me.”

Reuben Ayarna in the classroom

“I learn more having my classmates around where I’m sharing ideas instead of just the teacher talking to me,” said Ayarna. (Photo: Lee Pellegrini)

Before his initial arrival at BC in 2005, Ayarna, who is originally from Ghana, had never set foot in the United States. As an undergraduate, he kept his head down, focusing on soccer with the goal of turning pro. Now that he’s on the other side of a successful career playing with clubs in Sweden and Finland, his approach to education has shifted, he said.

“My goal is to one day become a general manager or director of a professional club, so now in every class session I have a purpose,” he said. “When I’m in my business ethics class or digital marketing I’m relating it back to what I want to do. It’s become more practical for me than theory.”

For professional athletes, retirement comes at a younger age than in most industries, which often means an uncertain future. Ayarna has spoken with many Ghanian footballers about the role education can play in building a meaningful life after soccer. For him, education has always been a priority—he has a degree in sports management from the University of Denmark that he earned while playing—but it’s taken on an even greater role post-retirement.

“It’s not always about the classes, it’s about growing as a person by being around people every day, which helps with your mental health too,” he said. “Being in school keeps your mind busy and helps you improve and be the best person you can be.”

Mission accomplished

Before logging into Zoom for the first time as a Woods student, Brooks Orpik experienced a rare bout of performance anxiety. It had been 18 years since his last academic class, and he was nervous about his ability to write papers and navigate the online discussion boards.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m going to be the 40-year-old in here with all these 20-year-olds,’ it seemed so overwhelming,” he recalled. “Then you get a couple weeks in and you look back and wonder why you were so worried about it.”

Oprik’s classmates turned out to be students of all ages from a diverse range of backgrounds, and if they recognized the former Stanley Cup winner in their midst, they kept quiet about it until the semester was over. The NHL star spent the next two years taking classes while also stepping in as an assistant coach for the Eagles and working in player development for the Washington Capitals. In the spring of 2022, he donned a cap and gown and prepared to walk across the stage to collect his long-awaited diploma, his two daughters watching from the audience.

“The feeling of pride I had was just so different than anything, athletically, I’ve accomplished,” he said afterwards. “I had promised a lot of people, including my parents and [former BC hockey coach] Jerry York that I would finish at some point. I don’t know if we thought it was going to take that long, but I know they’re pretty proud.”

Alix Hackett | University Communications | November 2022