Transition of a Lifetime

052    He walks up to the plate. Jason Aldean’s “The only way I know” plays as he makes his way to the batter’s box.  Takes a few practice swings and makes sure his batting gloves feel just right. Steps up to the box and digs his right foot in first, followed shortly by the left. He then taps home plate two times with his bat, the exact way he has for so many years before.  This is nothing out of the ordinary for him.

Nick Lingvay is a senior at UW-Milwaukee and is among the seven seniors on the team. He has been playing baseball for the last 18 years of his life.

There is something bittersweet about this day. So bittersweet that most players try to erase it from their minds.  Although the date is April 24, this is the last home opener that Lingvay and the three other graduating seniors will ever have at UWM.

This marks the beginning of the end of a long career for many athletes.  Although the transition can be difficult, some athletes take all they can from it.

“It’s going to be a tough transition, but baseball is a game of failures.  Because of that, I feel that it is a good way to help us better prepare for the futures and what they may have in store for us,” Lingvay says.

There are more than 450,000 student athletes in the NCAA. Only a fraction of these students will get the chance to play professionally after college.  For the rest, college is last chance to compete for a school-sponsored, organized team. The majority of athletes will be faced with a challenge they never have had dealt with before: life after sports. Universities around the country are helping their student athletes become better prepared for this transition.  But are athletes taking advantage of these opportunities?

The Old School Way

For some athletes, the competitiveness they experience throughout their childhood and into college carries over into their career choice.  A few even come back to their alma maters to continue working where they once competed.

At UW-Milwaukee, in the athletic department alone, there are two former baseball players, but many other former athletes ranging from women’s soccer to men’s basketball.

One of them is Steve SanFilippo.  He played baseball as a Panther from 2000-2005 and is currently working on fundraising.  He attended Central Michigan University as a freshman, and says things were easier there when it came to scheduling classes as an athlete.

“At Central Michigan…they say, ‘ here are you classes, you can change them, but practice is this and this, so this is the best schedule for you, with the best teachers.’  So they knew who the best teachers were who liked the athletes.  It was done for you.”  SanFilippo says. “Here they go, ‘get on PAWS and do it yourself.”

SanFilippo says that in Michigan, after the games there would be a meeting with other alums.  These alums had jobs in everything from construction, to media, to accounting, and were looking to hire senior athletes.  So the seniors leaving there would already have a job, or at least an internship lined up after graduation.

“Here, they say, ‘thanks for your five years, we paid for your school, there is the front door, have a nice life,” SanFilippo says. “We are really trying to change that.”

A Helping Hand

The University has made many changes since then. Making sure student athletes are getting good grades and job opportunities after college is now one of the primary goals of the athletic department.  The University has departments and programs specially put in place to help student athletes.

The addition of more academic advisors was the first improvement.  When SanFilippo played at UWM, there was only one; now there are three full time academic advisors. The majority of what they do is behind the scenes, but without them, the athletes would face many more problems.  One advisor deals specifically with the baseball team.  His name is Griffith Watson.  He is brand new to this position, just started in the fall.

“Our job is really to support the student athletes, both in the classroom and outside the classroom,” Watson says. “We basically help them juggle all of the things that come with being a student athlete.”

Watson says when dealing with baseball players in Wisconsin, academic advisors need to work harder than ever to keep things organized for the athletes.

“Biggest thing about baseball is that there schedule and their time restraints,” Watson says.  “Our baseball team is not only competing against the weather we have here in Wisconsin, but then all of the things that have to deal with traveling and time restraints.”

This year the team played 26 straight away games to start off the season.  They had had to fly out every Thursday, and come back every Sunday to make sure students would make it back in time for Monday morning classes.  This means the student athletes wouldn’t be able to use Thursday nights or Fridays for scheduling classes. When the team finally had scheduled home games, they were cancelled for two weeks due to the weather. This is where the advisors come in handy.

Advisors like Watson are in charge of putting together monthly schedules for every student athlete they are in charge of.  This means Watson puts together schedules for every athlete not just on the baseball team, but the men’s basketball and volleyball teams as well.

At the beginning of each semester, the athletes give their advisor a list of classes they will be taking.  The advisor takes those lists and lays them out on a calendar for each student, making sure to include scheduled practices and games.

“Even with the hassles of rescheduling, I try and make myself available at all times to the players, because I know that times like this can be very stressful,” Watson says.  “Whenever there is a cancellation that is another four hours hole that was once an opening. You can only close up so many of those holes.”

Over the past year, the athletic department has made other changes as well. In order to help student athletes succeed, many mandatory and optional events are scheduled.  Study hall is one.

Study hall is mandatory for all incoming freshmen. Griffith Watson says it then varies from athlete to athlete to determine how long students will have to remain in study hall after their first year.

“In the fall for baseball, all of the freshmen are in study hall for a full academic year,” Watson says. “After that, it’s basically the coaches and my discretion regarding upperclassman. A 3.0 cutoff is the gray area.  If the student is below that 3.0, they will most likely have to take a study hall.”

In addition to study hall, the University is now teaching a mandatory class in the fall for all freshmen student athletes.  This is an Ed Psych 101 class titled, “Planning Your Major and Career.”  This class helps student athletes determine what career path they want to follow faster, as many freshmen come into college undecided.

Kelly Diener is the Assistant Athletic Director for student services. She says this class has already made an impact on those who had to take it.

“After we had the class, freshman student athletes average GPA went from 50% getting a 3.0 or better to 67% getting a 3.0 or better,” Diener says.

Unfortunately for the graduating seniors this year, this class was never made mandatory for them as it was just put in place last fall.  This could be a reason why out of the four graduating seniors, none of them have jobs in their field of study lined up after college.

Watson says there could be a few reasons for this.

“This is their last chance to play baseball, and they are under the impression the rest of life can wait,” Watson says.  “For most, they will never play on a baseball team again after this spring, something they have been a part of every year since they were 4 or 5 years old.”

Regardless, the University is now also conducting career fairs specifically for student athletes. Diener says networking with possible future employees is a key to landing a job after college.

“We do a mandatory career fair in-house,” Diener says.  “The athletics department does it in February. It’s called Panther Day. It’s gotten remarkably better over the years. This year we brought companies that students have shown interest in through surveys that we take.”

The Career Development Center or CDC is a department all its own.   This is available to not only athletes, but all student, as well as UWM alums.   Students can go to the CDC to get help on anything job related.  From writing a resume to helping students prepare for employment after college.

Cynthia Petrites is the Director of the CDC.  She says the center works with students and alums one on one.

“We work with every student on their career needs on an individual basis and take the time to understand and address their particular situation, needs and questions,” Petrites says.

Drew Pearson is a senior on the team.  While he isn’t graduating this May, he is scheduled to next fall.  He says he uses the Career Service Center in Lubar hall.  This is an extension of the CDC in the School of Business.

“I have worked with the Career Service Center a lot to find out what internships are out there,” Pearson says.  “I have an interview for an internship for the summer coming up actually…they do a good job in showing you what internships are out there.”

Nick Lingvay, who will be graduating this May, has also been using some outlets of the CDC.

“I have recently been using PantherJobs,” Lingvay says.

PantherJobs is a website that the CDC constructed. It is a listing of jobs that UWM students and alums can use to find anything from a co-op or internship position, to part time, to full time jobs in their field of study.

“I actually have an over-the-phone interview coming up,” Lingvay says.  “That’s about as far as I’ve gotten though.”

The Career Development Center puts on three different career fairs each year, one in the fall and two in the spring. They too believe that networking is a necessity to finding the ideal job after college. They put on the All Majors Career Day in the fall, and Diversity Job & Internship Fair, and the Just in Time Job Fair in the spring.

The university has recently added a new club as well.  This club focuses on graduates of UWM.

The University once had something called the National Varsity Club.  It was a popular club with some well known people involved; one of the most famous was the voice of the Brewers, Bob Uecker. However, the National Varsity Club did not last, until this year when it returned with a different look.

A group of former UWM athletes got together two years ago and decided to make a push to create their own new alumni chapter. They wanted to give support to student athletes, support the department, and to spread the word about what a great thing UWM has going on in its athletics.

In September of 2012, The Alumni Association formally approved them as an affinity chapter, officially creating the new UWM Varsity Club.

DeeDee Merritt, the Assistant Athletic Director for Development of the Varsity Club got involved with the group last June.  She says the main focus of the group right now is increasing its members.

Merritt says the Varsity Club just sent out emails to about 2,000 former student athletes. The email was an invitation to the first official Varsity Club event on April 24th when it will be having a throwback baseball game at Miller Park.

The event was a success.  Making it better, the UWM baseball team was able to pull out a 5-0 win over Northwestern.

Membership in the club is free. However, students must be graduates and been involved with athletics throughout their college career.

The support starts at graduation. Merritt says the graduating seniors this year will be receiving a gift from the Varsity Club.

“The gift is a book called “Life after College Explained,” Merritt says. “It puts a humorous spin on what to expect when you walk out these doors.  It covers pretty much anything from explaining what taxes are taken out of your check, to how not to make a fool out of yourself at the dinner table with an employer.”

With the Varsity Club officially becoming a chapter earlier this academic year, Merritt is happy with the progress it has made in such a short time. She says with a little more work, it could be all that the creators and University want it to be.

The University believes it has taken steps in the right direction.  The Athletic Department is now able to grow as it was planned with the recent addition of a new athletic director, Amanda Braun.

But even with the help of these departments and programs, are the athletes seeing a difference?  It’s difficult to say the graduating seniors are. Of the seven seniors on the baseball team, only two of them have used any of these support systems outside of the academic advisors. Of the four graduating seniors, only one has.

It’s true that the athletes don’t know exactly how helpful the advisors are, but why haven’t they used any other departments?

Senior player, Jake Long says it’s difficult to utilize these programs with their schedules.

“I plan on using them eventually, but now I just can’t see myself doing it,” Long says. “With all of the traveling and practices and being a senior with demanding classes, it’s tough to find any free time when I could.”

Since some of the recently added help is directed toward freshmen, the seniors were not able to gain anything from it.

The athletic department’s staff believes the University is taking steps in the right direction. It is the goal of the athletic department for everyone, not only seniors or freshmen to get the needed support to have a successful career after graduation.

While four seniors from the baseball team will be graduating this May, 29 other players remain on the team.  All of whom plan on eventually graduating.  The University is always changing and making adjustments.  While the sport of baseball has been the same since the 18th century, the support behind the game is always changing.

Former player Steve SanFilippo says the university is clearly stepping its game up in the academic side of the Athletic Department.

“Our department GPA is right around a 3.2. That’s for all sports here, not just baseball,” SanFilippo says.  “So clearly we are doing something right.”

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