King connects faculty with student-athletes

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Prior to the 2011-12 season, King University Athletic Director David Hicks implemented the Faculty Associates Program. The program matches a faculty member with each of King’s 25 varsity teams as a means to contribute to the integration of student-athletes into the campus culture.

During the inaugural season, the Faculty Associates Program started with two sports and two faculty members. Biology professor Vanessa Fitsanakis was selected by the men’s wrestling team and education professor Donna Raines by the women’s volleyball team.  The program expanded in 2012-2013 to include all 25 intercollegiate programs. 

The program is designed to increase the involvement and interaction between faculty and student-athletes, and allow both to gain further understanding of the challenges each faces. It allows increased interaction between faculty members and the student-athletes as a platform outside of the classroom.

“The advantage to the Faculty Associates Program is that often times the athletic teams don’t have academic associates or faculty mentors,” said Fitsanakis. “That is what the students get out of the program, and it will help the faculty better understand that these are students lot to try to coordinate.”

Fitsanakis stated that other faculty members should look at the Faculty Associates Program as a mentoring opportunity.

“I think the faculty need to look at the Faculty Associates Program as a serious mentoring opportunity because for some of the student-athletes, this is the first time they have ever talked to anyone that has a Ph.D. or a Master’s degree outside of the classroom,” Fitsanakis said. “We can come across as kind of scary, but we also care about them, and faculty members that don’t take the mentoring seriously lose the opportunity to show students that just because you have advanced degrees doesn’t mean your untouchable.”

As a member of the Faculty Associates Program, faculty members are encouraged to attend practices and games for their particular sport. The faculty members also have the opportunity to travel with the teams to away events if it fits in their schedule. Fitsanakis had a great experience traveling to the Hokie Open with the men’s wrestling team each of the past two seasons. Both sides may have been nervous going into the first trip, but several of the wrestlers wanted Fitsanakis to go on more trips.

“One of the things that I have been able to do, is convey to other faculty members that we have a wide variety of students on campus,” Fitsanakis continued, “some of them are here on an academic scholarship, and that’s the way they pay for school. Some students work off campus, and they’re working 15-20-25 hours per week, and that’s the way they pay for school. Other students have jobs on campus, and they are called athletes. Their job is to make sure when they show up for practice that they perform well and get the accolades they need to get just as they were working a job or if they were doing an academic scholarship.”

Raines has had a similar experience working with the women’s volleyball program. Raines talked about one of the key pieces is the relationships between faculty and students.

“When I was invited I thought about modeling for students what it takes to be an effective teacher,” Raines stated. “The research tells us that not only is it important to look at what your students are learning, and measuring what your students are learning, but the other key piece is in the relationship you have with the students so they understand they’re important as a person outside of academics.”

After the conclusion of the women’s volleyball season, Raines threw a pizza party for the team which was exciting for her since she was able to not only interact with the student-athletes outside of the classroom and athletic settings, but also because she got to meet some of their parents.

“That was exciting because I got to meet some of their parents that came as well,” Raines said. “I was really able to connect with the girls in a lighthearted atmosphere, and kind of get to hear about what their focus and dreams are for the future.”

Athletic Director David Hicks said the program has met its goals. “Having expanded to all 24 varsity teams this year, the program has been a resounding success, meeting the objective of providing another avenue for faculty and student-athletes to connect on campus,” said Hicks. “Faculty have learned that competing at this level requires tremendous dedication from our student-athletes, and our student-athletes have learned that our faculty care deeply, not just about their performance in the classroom, but for their success as a person.  It’s been a win-win situation.”