The life of a student-athlete can be a heavy lift — something Alicia Cooperman, a freshman nursing major on the JMU field hockey team, understands well.
During the field hockey season, Cooperman juggles morning classes, afternoon conditioning in the Plecker Athletic Performance Center and three-hour team practices. After practice, Cooperman volunteers with the Purple Pups program to teach children ages 4 to 11 the foundations of field hockey, represents her team on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and ends her day back in the Plecker Center to complete study hours.
“We expect a lot from our student-athletes — be a student, an athlete, an ambassador for JMU,” says Casey Carter, associate director of athletics who in 2015 was tapped to spearhead a formal leadership development program for student-athletes on all 18 intercollegiate teams.
These individuals’ performance schedules and academic requirements can make it difficult for them to participate in internships, study abroad and other real-world opportunities to prepare them for life after graduation. “We’re so focused on our sports that it’s hard to think about incorporating our athletics and our intensity into a job,” Cooperman says.
As a member of the inaugural cohort of the Student-Athlete Leadership Development program, Cooperman is on the ground floor of an initiative that Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne says is designed to “provide additional opportunities to our student-athletes outside their academic experiences and the competitive rigor of intercollegiate athletics. These opportunities will allow them to be competitive in the hiring process once they leave JMU.”
The goals for this year’s freshman cohort involve exploring the identity of the student-athlete and becoming familiar with campus and the many resources available to all JMU students.
“Student-athletes are moving from high-school environments in which they may have been starting players to college, where they are preparing for playing time,” Carter says. “They are discovering that sense of ‘I belong here.’”
Next year, the cohort will focus on working in groups beyond their respective teams. The junior and senior years will transition from personal to professional development, including working with an established network of mentors who are former JMU student-athletes, and engaging in internships.
“Everything we do fits in one of those components,” Carter says. “We believe these components are important to all students as they prepare to go off the Quad.”
Bourne says leadership development has always existed within JMU Athletics, “but the fact that we’ve been able to unify them underneath one halo with proper guidance is ultimately going to be the key going forward.”
Carter has been heartened by participation in the new program. In December 2016, 85 freshmen student-athletes attended a panel discussion by JMU student-athletes in which they encouraged the freshmen to remember their responsibilities as they represent JMU Athletics and the university and to learn from the diverse people they encounter.
“We’ve been blessed for many years to have former athletes who give generously of their time and talent to talk about such topics as emotional intelligence, personal finance and life after college sports,” Carter says.
She anticipates the emerging leadership development program will strengthen the well-established tradition among former student-athletes of giving back. “We’re very fortunate to have an array of individuals to step out into society and do really well in their chosen fields,” Bourne says. “It’s bringing those experiences and that connectivity back to the students that is going to pay tremendous dividends as our student-athletes start their careers.”
“We all want our student-athletes to know they are entering a community that cares about them,” Carter says, “and one that cares about their professional life after college.”