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April 18, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At a time when many University of Virginia students would prefer to be sleeping — 8:30 a.m. on a Friday — Micah Kiser was in the Rotunda’s historic Dome Room.

Kiser, an All-ACC linebacker on the UVA football team, wasn’t the only student-athlete there on a sparkling spring morning. Nearly 20 others, including Rachel Vander Kolk (women’s lacrosse), Zed Williams (men’s lacrosse), Holly Sullivan (women’s rack & field), Henry Wynne (men’s track & field), Jack Salt (men’s basketball) and Andrew Atkinson (wrestling), attended a symposium on the student-athlete experience at the University.

Joining them were some 50 faculty members, as well as UVA President Teresa Sullivan and coaches Steve Garland (wrestling), Julie Myers (women’s lacrosse), Augie Busch (swimming & diving), Pete Watson (men’s cross country), Joanna Hardin (softball) and Lars Tiffany (men’s lacrosse).

UVA’s athletics department and the Faculty Senate sponsored the symposium.

“We’ve had a pretty long history of doing events together,” said Wendy Novicoff, a professor in UVA’s School of Medicine and a member of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee.

“This was something that we wanted to do specifically about the student-athlete experience. A lot of faculty don’t have athletes in their classes, or they don’t know that they have athletes in their classes, so there’s not a lot of understanding of what those students are going through.”

Kiser, a foreign affairs major who was an Academic All-American last year, spoke at the event, as did Wynne, an NCAA champion in the indoor mile who’s majoring in economics. They talked about how much they’ve grown during their time at UVA and described some of the challenges facing student-athletes.

Wyatt Andrews, a former CBS News correspondent, was among those listening intently. A UVA alumnus, Andrews is now a professor in the Media Studies department at his alma mater.

“I admire our athletes, and I urge that attitude on our other professors and friends outside the University who wonder what’s really going on with our athletes,” Andrews said. “I find that in general most of our athletes are academically gifted students, and they’re great at time management — much better than other students at time management.

“Even for a professor like me who has a lot of athletes and who thinks he or she is handling his or her athletes well, it’s still important to go to an event like that and listen to the day-to-day observations of the coaches and the players and other professors. I just find that very, very helpful.”

Tiffany, a Brown graduate who’s in his first year at UVA, said he encourages his players to establish a strong relationship with at least one professor each semester.

“You’re not going to connect with everybody,” Tiffany said. “As humans we don’t connect with everybody. There’s just different personalities and relationships. But if you could build one a semester, then at the end of your four years, you’ve got a few different professors you could lean on to potentially write a letter of recommendation, to be there as support for a first job, and be a great reference and maybe a great guide as you’re starting to think about what you want to do after Virginia.”

The keynote speaker at the symposium was Mark Edmundson, an English professor at UVA who has written more than a dozen books, including one titled Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.

Edmundson said he believes student-athletes “have an advantage over other students in pursuing their intellectual educations … [and] should stop being shy about pursuing academics — the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is a birthright for them, as it for us all.”

The mind, Edmundson, is “a muscle. You’re here to develop it. And you athletes already have in your heads and hearts a template for how the mind develops. The mind develops much as the body does. The mind develops through practice.”

His message for student-athletes is straightforward.

“You know — but maybe you don’t know you know — how to be a student, and a top one,” Edmundson said. “It’s not so hard. You’ve done it before. The mind, you’ll recall, is a muscle. All you need to do is to carry your sports habits into your life in school.”

Two videos were shown during the symposium, one on Vander Kolk, an aerospace engineering major, and the other on Williams, a Native American who grew up on the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo, N.Y. He’s majoring in drama at UVA and next month will become the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college.

Head wrestling coach Steve Garland understands better than most the obstacles student-athletes are asked to clear at UVA. He graduated from Virginia in 2000 after a stellar wrestling career.

Garland, who brings palpable passion to his every endeavor, spoke at the symposium, and he regaled his audience with stories of his undergraduate days. He spoke of the relationships he formed at University with students whose backgrounds differently dramatically from his, and he talked about how he learned to compete, not only on the wrestling mat but in the classroom.

Professors, Garland said, should challenge student-athletes while also empathizing with them. Andrews agrees.

In general, Andrews said, he does not extend deadlines for students in his classes, “but I will give those to a traveling athlete. But they still have to do the work. I don’t cut them any slack on the work. And they, at a very high level — 98, 99 percent — appreciate that.”

He recalled working with a student-athlete who forgot to bring her backpack on a bus trip to a road game. Andrews said he admonished her for her lapse but granted her request for an extension.

“Her response was a superior paper,” he said. “After I called her out for her lack of focus, she responded like a true competitor would. She rose to the occasion and said, `OK, my bad. Now let me show you what I can do.’ “

UVA student-athletes have earned a collective grade-point average of 3.00 or better in four out of the past six semesters. For the 2015-16 academic year, student-athletes posted a 3.03 GPA.

In the fall, 352 student-athletes at the University made the athletics honor roll. Fourteen UVA teams posted a GPA of 3.0 or better, led by cross country (3.6) on the women’s side and golf (3.3) on the men’s.

Those numbers, and much more, were shared at the symposium.

“The student-athletes that I’ve had — I’m in the medical school, so we get them in their fifth year — have all been amazing,” Novicoff said. “There are so many that just quietly do great things without letting us know, and this was an opportunity to actually have some communication and to [give the faculty] good information about what it is to be a student-athlete.”

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