Harrison Volaski had balanced backstroke and bookwork since second grade. He was a seasoned vet when it came to succeeding in the pool and in the classroom.
Starting as a student-athlete at AU, however, would change everything. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed with practice twice a day and the course load that a challenging academic environment like AU requires.
“It was very uncomfortable,” he said. “I wasn’t used to the teaching styles of professors, the homework, the doubles, the lifting…It was a pretty rough transition.”
Thankfully, he wasn’t alone. In fact, the public health major had an entire office dedicated to supporting him and other student-athletes in their AU academics.
Maureen Breslin is assistant director for student-athletes with the university’s Academic Support & Access Center. Along with counselors Kailey Corken and Ashley Rozendaal, she staffs a satellite office in AU’s athletics complex, always ready to coach student-athletes on everything from time management and study habits to life skills and career guidance.
For Breslin, the work is all about ensuring student-athletes can thrive in AU’s rigorous academics aside from simply meeting NCAA Division-1 GPA requirements.
“We want our students to excel, not just be eligible to compete,” she said. “Our office helps them stay focused on that.”
And that process starts before these students even arrive on campus, where they'll compete in the Patriot League—the athletic conference with the highest graduation rate in the nation.
“We have a very defined student population. As freshmen come in, we’ve already seen their SAT scores, their high school GPAs, anything we can know about them,” Breslin explained. “We can target our support.”
As a university committed to providing a global perspective, AU’s student-athletes come from all parts of the world. For School of Communication junior and volleyball player Kristyna Lindskova, Breslin’s team was crucial in her transitioning from the Czech Republic’s higher education system.
“For me, it was so hard,” she said. “At the beginning, I wasn’t so fluent in English…Kailey helped me so much my first semester…I was struggling so much. She helped me with papers and understanding the professors. It was so supportive.”
Since first arriving and engaging Maureen’s office, both Volaski and Lindskova have seen dramatic changes in their grades as well as their comfort levels with classes.
“It was really nice to see how it worked from the beginning of the semester until the end. It was really nice to see the difference,” Lindskova said of her progress. “I was really happy about it.”
Volaski and Lindskova aren’t the only student-athletes who have benefited and excelled academically here because of the office. Since fall 2010, every AU sports team has averaged a 3.0 GPA or better, and almost half of these student-athletes earned a 3.5 or better in spring 2013.
The university has even touted 10 Patriot League Scholar Athletes of the Year since 2010, while teams like field hockey and men’s wrestling have finished first and second in the nation for GPAs among their peers.
As Lindskova notes, balancing academics with 20-plus hours per week of practice, conditioning, and competing makes these achievements quite impressive.
“Athletes have so many things going on, and they have to balance the education. It could be easy not to pay attention to your education, but this office brings that balance,” she said.
Still, Breslin’s office—staffed entirely with former NCAA Division-1 athletes—knows that student needs go well beyond the classroom and athletic arena. That’s why the office has developed programs like TALONS (Thinking and Learning Opportunities for New Student Athletes), which teaches students life skills from financial literacy and leadership to stress management.
They’re even guiding students toward their career goals through job and internship support.
“Helping students understand what they’re getting out of athletics—that’s going to help them be successful in the future,” Breslin explained. “They might sometimes feel like they haven’t had any internships or work experience. We’re helping them really articulate what their athletic experience is and how that is useful and practical in an employment setting.”
With solid performances in the pool and in the classroom, Volaski can’t be happier with all the support he’s received from Breslin’s team. Now a junior looking toward life after graduation, he’s enjoying resume and internship guidance.
When all is said and done, the office will have supported him from the day he entered till the day he leaves, and—for him—that’s a great feeling.
“You just tell them you’re struggling in this class or you want to do better, and they will sit down with you and make sure you do better. It just comes down to you doing the work. It’s great,” he said. “You ask for it, they’ll help you out with it.”