The University of Washington College of Education's Intercollegiate Athletics Leadership program celebrates 10 years
Growing up in a small town in Nevada, sports were one of the primary outlets for Katie Cavender and her classmates to stay active.
It wasn't until undertaking a writing internship in a sports information office, however, that Cavender learned how much goes on behind-the-scenes in an intercollegiate athletics department.
"That was the perfect opportunity for me to catch the bug," said Cavender. "College athletics is way more than the games that happen, and I was fascinated by how athletics can fit into the mission of universities and the higher education model."
Today, the assistant commissioner for strategic communications of the Mountain West Conference is helping shape intercollegiate athletics during a time of significant change, and she credits the University of Washington College of Education's Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership (IAL) program for helping her impact the experience of student-athletes.
"Seeing student-athletes have a chance to compete and get a great education is one of the things that's most rewarding about my work," said Cavender, a 2008 IAL graduate. "I've seen how student-athletes add diversity to the overall student experience on campus because you have people coming with such a variety of life experiences. Intercollegiate athletics can open so many opportunities, and I'm excited to be part of that."
A new direction for intercollegiate athletics
For more than a century, sports have played a significant role on the nation's college campuses. And as television contracts, coaches' salaries and athletic department budgets grow ever larger, so too has the tension between the business side of intercollege athletics and the educational mission of colleges and universities.
How to respond to that tension lies at the core of the IAL program and its creation a decade ago.
"We're looking at what's unique about student-athletes and the institutional setting," said Sara Lopez, director of the IAL master's degree program and senior lecturer in the College of Education. "We focus on why college athletics are different from other sports models and what that means in terms of leadership in the field."
At the time of IAL's founding, degree programs for people interested in college athletics were much more management oriented said Jennifer Hoffman, an assistant professor of education with the IAL program. The business aspects of sports were placed at the forefront in the preparation of aspiring leaders.
"We had a core value around changing the face of college sports," Hoffman said. "We wanted our students to think like educators and leave our program ready to enter the field as change agents, not only in their institutions but in college sports broadly."
In June, the IAL program graduated its 10th cohort of students, and the program's nearly 300 graduates are serving in a range of leadership positions across the nation including coaching, academic advising and student services, and development.
Of those graduates, 93 have worked full-time in athletics and education since graduation, and between 90 and 95 percent of graduates secure full-time employment within six months of completing their degree.
Scott Nelson (IAL '07), associate athletic director for development at Oregon State University, originally had designs on becoming a college basketball coach. While he ultimately determined a coaching lifestyle wasn't the right fit, he didn't want to leave the environment of college.
That's when he learned about the University of Washington's IAL program.
"I was really drawn to IAL because of the focus on becoming a leader in intercollegiate athletics," Nelson said. "Our mission as an athletics program is no different than the university as a whole. We're going to be judged on where our students are five and 10 years after they graduate. We must put our students in a position where they are market-ready professionals or we are failing them."
Abe Wehmiller (IAL '08), director of athletics at Charlotte Country Day School in North Carolina, started his career as a teacher-coach before moving into school administration.
A firm believer in the potential of athletics to add to the educational experience at all levels, Wehmiller said the IAL program reinforced the importance of being intentional in making decisions that serve an educational institution's overall mission.
"It was great for those of us working in secondary education to be able to share educational philosophies with those who were coming to the program from working in major Division I institutions," Wehmiller said. "I've stayed close with many members of our cohort since graduation, and often call on them for professional advice."
Leading the field
As the college sports landscape continues to evolve, the IAL program has been committed to bridging theory with practice since its founding by James Antony, former professor in the College's higher education program. UW faculty in the College of Education, Information School, Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and Foster School of Business, as well as practicing professionals in college athletics and the sports industry, teach in the program. At the same time, every student completes an intensive internship.
"Our graduates are very successful when they leave our program because they've had an opportunity to wrestle with these big picture issues and they've also honed their skills in a particular area through their internship," Hoffman said.
The IAL program also expanded in 2014 to offer a second track for students interested in coaching to complement its administration track.
Lauren Esbensen (IAL '07), associate athletic director and senior woman administrator at Pacific University, said contacts made through her internship have helped advance her professional career. While working as director of compliance and student services at a Division I institution, a former administrator encouraged her to explore the opportunity at Pacific.
"He spent a great deal of time with me discussing a possible transition to Division III and why that would be a great fit," Esbensen said. "That connection has brought me to my position now, which I absolutely love!"
Seeing alumni such as Esbensen step quickly into leadership roles is rewarding, Hoffman said, and speaks to the program's success recruiting a diverse cohort of students who are interested in leading the field as it responds to emerging issues such as student athlete rights.
"We want a wide range of ideas and experiences in each cohort, but the core that really connects everyone is a deep understanding that if you're working in a collegiate athletics department you are working for students in an institution of higher education," Hoffman said. "We're guided by an ethos of putting the interests of student-athletes first."
The IAL program will celebrate its 10th anniversity with activities for current students, alumni and colleagues during the coming year.
Sara Lopez, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Leadership
Jennifer Hoffman, Assistant Professor of Education
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications