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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Academic Services Team Helps Keep ODU Athletes on Track

By Harry Minium

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Old Dominion University to shut its campus, study hall was a weekly event for the women's basketball team.

Players would gather to do homework, study or write papers under the watchful eyes of Lubbock Smith III, ODU's director of Student-Athlete Development and Leadership Programs.

Regardless of a player's academic standing, former coach Nikki McCray-Penson deemed study hall was mandatory.

It still is even though players have gone home and are taking classes online.

The Monarchs gather each Sunday evening via Zoom, a cloud-based video conferencing platform that allows all players to see each other and study as a team.

That's one of the many ways that ODU's academic services team has provided the University's nearly 500 athletes with as much of a sense of normalcy as you could expect when all but essential businesses are closed.

The academic services team, headed by Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Services Ron Moses, is tasked with monitoring, tutoring and mentoring athletes.

Moses' team has produced great results. A total of 62% of ODU athletes had at least a 3.0 grade point average during the fall semester, while 143 athletes were on the dean's list. Athletes had a combined GPA of 3.01 in the fall, and 30 had a perfect 4.0 GPA.

ODU's academic team also provides a friendly ear for athletes' problems or frustrations. That's been especially important during the "new normal" caused by the coronavirus.

"They don't know what the future holds and they are scared of the unknown," said Morgan Sumner, who worked with the Kentucky football team in 2019 and advises ODU's football defensive players. Sarah Walker counsels the offensive players.

"My football players want to know if they will play this fall. The students always come to us for answers, but the fact is, no one really knows. We're trying convince them not to stress out and to finish out this semester strong."

Moses said that once it was clear athletes weren't coming back to campus anytime soon, his group reached out to all 500 athletes.

"Our first directive before talking to them about schoolwork was to find out how they're doing," Moses said. "The football team was ready to come back for spring practice and had that snatched away from them. This has been hard on all of them."

Even so, athletes appear to have adjusted more easily to online classes than many of their academic advisors expected.

Most classes are conducted via Zoom and nearly all of athletes appear to have quickly picked up the basics of how to take classes online. Many had already been taking online courses in part because it means they miss less class time during the season.

"I've been really impressed with how well the athletes have done, but maybe I shouldn't have been surprised," said Erin Cousins, student-athlete educational support specialist, who reports to ODU's Office of Educational Accessibility.

"They really grew up on the internet. They have adapted well and adjusted quickly, and they've been open about asking questions."

Swimmer Katie Ellett, a junior from Rockville, Md., is a rock star in the classroom - she has a 3.9 GPA while pursuing a degree in sports and fitness management with a minor in marketing.

Ellett said her transition to online has been seamless and that she loves Zoom. "I like that you're able to share your screen," she said. "While you're in class, you can see what the professors are doing, in addition to listening to the lectures."

Kristin Eden, director of Student-Athlete Academic Services, supervises day-to-day operations. Before classes began, she had sessions with every team member that included a power-point presentation about how Zoom works.

Since then, she and others have been reaching out to students by phone or Zoom daily, making up to a hundred calls a day.

Prior to the coronavirus, academic team members could multitask in their offices by talking to several students at a time. Now, for the most part, they're talking with athletes one-on-one.

"When they're in front of you, you can triage," said Amy Lynch, who works with the men's basketball players. "But there's only one phone. They're all going through the same thing. Their day isn't what they had when they were on campus. That has been a difficult adjustment for them."

"Our football guys are going crazy," Sumner added. "They're not practicing, so they call me now more than I saw them in person. I'm happy to hear from them and do whatever I can to help them. I miss seeing them succeed in person."

Ellett works with Eden and Cousins and said both helped smooth the transition to online classes and have helped her deal with being away from campus, her coach and teammates.

"I have called Kristin at weird times on the weekend," Ellett said. "I realize she has kids at home and she's been great about me calling. The way they have juggled everything to help us has been impressive."

Teams such as golf, tennis and soccer have a lot of international students. When a class is held at ODU, it may be the middle of the night or very early in the morning for them.

Lynch said she's up early each morning, when it is the early afternoon in Europe, to speak to her international players. On Tuesdays, her biggest day of the week, work begins at 8 a.m. and doesn't end until well after 10 p.m.

The coronavirus has also forced the academic team to work from home at times under stressful conditions. Eden is married to Rick French, associate athletic director for operations. They have two children at home.

George, 3, used to be in day care and Faithe at Granby High School. French and Eden have staked out different parts of the house in which to work and are alternating taking care of George.

While she's getting used to working at home, Eden's not yet accustomed to not seeing her athletes.

"That's the hardest part for me," Eden said. "I don't get to see them pop into my office and listen to the tell me good stories and just hang out. I miss that interaction with them."

Lynch said being away from teammates and campus is the No. 1 subject her athletes talk about.

"They understand how extremely serious this is and what they're doing is necessary," Lynch said. "But it's human nature to miss something you love so much."

"We're trying to provide as much help as possible," Walker added. "If you're doing this for a living, you do it because you love helping students.

"They're the ones we're here for. We're here to help them be as successful as possible."

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