Faculty athletic mentors: Supporting student athletes on and off the field

Chemistry professor Dana Ferraris, women's soccer coach Sandy Lagana, soccer co-captains Abby Keen and Kristen Upton
October 24, 2017

For most of the week, you’ll find McDaniel’s faculty athletic mentors in labs or studios or discussing Byzantine art with a group Art History majors. But come Game Day, these professors exchange lab coats and laptops for Green Terror fan gear before heading off to cheer on their favorite team.

But the relatively new and fast growing faculty mentor program goes far beyond cheering from the sidelines. The program matches faculty members with athletic teams of their choice. If the match gels, the mentor helps team members with academic issues and fosters better understanding among faculty of the demands student-athletes face all the while identifying specific and sometimes unique ways they can support the team and its members.

Faculty athletic mentors: Supporting student athletes on and off the field
Art History professor Gretchen McKay cheers on the football team.

Art History professor Gretchen McKay’s mentoring of the Green Terror football team goes back before the program started when she got to know a group of five players in her “Roman Art and Architecture” course. During a class project, they portrayed Romans in the Reacting to the Past game “Beware the Ides of March” and have been known as her “football Romans” ever since.

A year ago, her role of meeting with team members experiencing academic difficulty or those who the coaches send to her became official after Social Work professor and faculty athletics representative Jim Kunz launched the program.

McKay cheers the team at all home games — and many away games — and all 100-plus players know that she is there for them.

“I have had a few players come to me to get tips on how to study better and some who asked for help navigating systems at the College that bewilder them, namely financial aid,” says McKay, who smiles at the memory of all she has had to learn in order to help her Romans and the rest of the team.

Each faculty mentor brings their own twist to the role. For Chemistry professor Dana Ferraris, that also means bringing bagels to the women’s soccer team at 8 a.m. on home-game Saturdays.

“The team is incredible athletically and academically — they are phenomenal students with an impressive GPA and last year they went all the way to the Sweet 16. I brag about them a lot,” said an unapologetic Ferraris, who has taught the team’s captains Kristen Upton of Chalfont, Pa., and Abby Keen of Salisbury, Md., in organic chemistry in preparation for the medical careers they have their sights set on.

In addition to being their cheerleader-in-chief and bringing bagels from the bakery café he and his wife own, Ferraris is ready to give the team all and any support they need. Although he hasn’t needed to act as a liaison on academic issues, he often takes athletes with him to his outreach to local high schools.

“I try to get to know all 28 team members individually and find out where they want to go and what their career plans are,” says Ferraris, a successful pharmaceutical researcher for 15 years before coming to McDaniel. “That way I can support them by helping them find internships or doing mock interviews or giving them contacts for graduate school or jobs.”

The coaches applaud the faculty mentor program for serving as another connection between academics and athletics.

“For faculty, it is another way to engage with students — and anything that allows for student athletes and faculty to connect outside of the classroom is a plus for McDaniel,” says Kunz, who was introduced to the idea at a Faculty Athletics Representatives conference.

Women’s soccer coach Sandy Lagana feels like she has a true connection to McDaniel faculty since Ferraris signed on as mentor, and having him as a faculty mentor has made a big difference to her and the team.

“The best part of having Dana as our mentor is that it’s Dana. He’s an awesome example for the team, he encourages us, believes in us, and really supports us,” Lagana says. “I feel lucky that he wanted to be part of our program. And he’s a huge asset in working with students interested in going into the medical field.”

Team co-captains Upton and Keen, both senior Exercise Chemistry majors, are among those student-athletes going into medical fields but the support from faculty mentors knows no boundaries.

“I means so much to us to have Dr. Ferraris’ support both on and off the field,” says Upton. “He’s at every home game rooting for us and giving everyone as much help as he can in any way he can.”

As word of the program spreads, teams are going fast. Although not quite official yet, Sociology professor Deb Lemke raised her hand for women’s swim team and Social Work senior lecturer Michelle Young volunteered for women’s basketball.

A former soccer player at the University of Maryland and in England, Business Administration lecturer Nigel Burdett made the natural choice of men’s soccer while Executive-in-Residence in Economics and Business Administration Don Lavin is volunteering with the volleyball team. English professor Paul Muhlhauser is looking forward to the spring softball season.

Art and New Media professor Chloe Watson Irla ’07 had not a moment’s hesitation in choosing the men’s lacrosse team. She grew up playing lacrosse since both of her parents, Robert Watson ’73 and Donna Herbst Watson ’74, were Green Terror lacrosse players.

“As a McDaniel student, I had friends who were student-athletes and I witnessed the time and energy that they dedicated to participating in a D-III sport,” Irla says. “As a faculty member, I truly admire the dedication, resilience and motivation that I see from student-athletes who have taken my classes.

“That dedication on the field or court translates to focus and integrity in the classroom, qualities we wish to cultivate in all of our students.”

The relationship across sports and academic disciplines is definitely mutually beneficial.

“I am the luckiest professor in the conference to be this close to these champions, these student athletes who show so much grit and resilience on the field and in their lives,” McKay writes in her blog. “Because as their mentor, I get to hear about the struggles they have in their lives, too. In their classrooms. At home. With finances. And how they overcome them. I am privileged and blessed (yes, I’m using that word) to get to help them.

“For those administrators and faculty out there in higher education who want to cultivate more grit and resilience among their student body: look to your student athletes. Because if they are anything like the Green Terror football team, they’ve got grit and resilience in spades.”