Karen Schiferl is currently the Associate AD for Student-Athlete Support Services at Eastern Michigan University. Before arriving at EMU, she worked as the Associate AD for Academics and SWA at Chicago State, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academic Support at the University of Mississippi. As well as Senior Associate Director at the University of Maryland’s, and the Academic Coordinator in the athletic counseling offices for Northern Illinois University. Karen started in athletics as a graduate intern for Indiana University’s Hoosier Athletic Academic Advising Office. Karen has served on a multitude of national and regional academic boards and has presented at academic conferences across the country. Currently, she is a member of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A), the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), and the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS). Schiferl has also received both the N4A’s Professional Promise Award and the Distinguished Service Award. Karen has a Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel Administration from Indiana University, earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Afro-American Studies also from Indiana University.
Dr. Mark: How important has the mental health of the student-athlete become?
Ms. Schiferl: It has changed over the years, right now student athletes mental health is a real Hot Topic. It wasn’t so much 10, 15 or 20 years ago. University student-athletes are 18 to 20-year-old kids. I know some people might be offended by me calling them kids, but they are in a stage of their life where they are growing and maturing and developing.
I would add if your working with student athletes you have to work to establish a relationship with the student athletes. Getting to know them as an individual, is a key to developing that trust in a relationship to help them be successful. The success of the student-athlete doesn’t happen by accident; it takes a lot of effort, it takes a village if you will, and I think that’s been consistent through the years. We just have more people in that community now helping.
Dr. Mark: Is there a direct connection between academic success and the personal development of the student-athlete?
Ms. Schiferl: You were a student-athlete 20 years ago, and at that time it was all about academics and GPA standards and graduation rates. Now we had a more of a shift to the holistic development of the student-athlete. Because in twenty years people might not remember your GPA, but they are going to remember if you were involved in community service and outreach or took advantage of personal development. As a student-athlete, those things are going to be more impactful. It’s not to say that we don’t want to see student-athletes succeed academically because we do, but there is a broader picture that is beyond just academic support, there is a much more holistic view that’s happening beyond the academics.
Dr. Mark: Does a person actually need training in the life skills/student-athlete development profession to work with student athletes?
Ms. Schiferl: Yes, I think so. The evolution of student-athlete development is here, and you are now looking at career development, personal growth, community outreach and leadership all of the other aspects of developing a student-athlete. There are a lot of people that think they can work with student athletes or desire to work with student athletes. There seems to be this romantic notion about working with the student-athlete. But there is a need for people that are interested in the profession to be able to understand what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it. So I think there does need to be some training and awareness from a professional.
Dr. Mark: Why are life skills/student-athlete development professionals usually at the bottom of the pay scale in the athletic department?
Ms. Schiferl: You know, I don’t have a good answer for that. Mark, you know obviously in many cases coaches are being paid lots and lots of money. As well as other people in athletics that are paid at a higher rate than the folks working in the business of developing student-athletes personally.
Honestly, it’s a little bit like teachers in the education field. The value is not the same, but I am not sure why that is. People say it is hard to quantify what we accomplish. Do you say, we’ve done x amount of hours of community service or we’ve done six presentations on personal development? Entirely different from a coach, you can say well they won this many games they lost that many games. It’s a little bit harder to say this is what we are doing and this is how we are doing it. Which makes it difficult to put a value on duties and demonstrate the real worth, that would potentially get us paid a little bit more money.
Dr. Mark: Should student athletes have a personal development 4-year plan much like the 4-year academic plan?
Ms. Schiferl: Some institutions do better jobs than others, one of my goals at Eastern Michigan is to create a much more robust student development program. I think our student athletes are doing a lot, but I don’t believe there is not a comprehensive, structured program right now. It is my job to make sure that we pull together all of the things that they are already doing and make it into a structural program so that not only they’re getting from point A to point B but now they are going from point B to point C and then beyond.
Dr. Mark: Is athletic identity real?
Ms. Schiferl: It’s very real and even more so now. Things have changed in youth sports. When I was a youngster we might have played multiple sports, it isn’t the same now. Parents are spending a fortune traveling their kids across the country to be involved in one sport. They are investing all kinds of money into recruiting services to get kids a college scholarship. Athletic identity starts younger now, much younger. Athletic identity is implanted in the student-athlete, and they have to understand and know its a critical part of their identity. There’s more to an athlete than just being that athlete. And so the more that we can help them to understand that yes you’ve got some great skill that you’ve acquired as an athlete how do you make them transferable to other areas of life, but yes I think the athletic identity is real, definitely real.
Dr. Mark: How important is it for student-athletes to focus on the transitions they experience in sports?
Ms. Schiferl: Oh it’s huge, I think that’s just absolutely massive it’s imperative that we help them develop those skills so they can transition successfully. Student athletes get so caught up in their athletic identity and being an athlete that they sometimes become unaware of all the other things, the positive things that they are capable of doing. The more we can do to help them understand the skills that they have, and how these skills are transferable to the real world to make sure they know they can have a successful transition.