Watching the Wave

March 31, 2000

Nick Marinello

Rob Koonce can be the best big brother a student athlete never had. Or he could be a no-nonsense adviser. It all depends on what the occasion calls for. Koonce, assistant athletics director, and his staff of four in the Office of Athletics Student Services daily walk the delicate and difficult line between friend and motivator to the 280 student athletes at Tulane.

"The most important thing we do is transition our students from high school to college," says Koonce. "It is difficult for most students coming out of high school to begin in a four-year private school. But if you are a student athlete, you have the added responsibility of competing at the 1A level,and it is competitive."

Koonce says freshman life at Tulane may be "a little harder" on athletes than other students because they typically carry an additional 20- to 25-hour-a-week work load in terms of their participation in Green Wave sports.

"If you are not an athlete, you can decide whether or not you want to be in the band, newspaper or social club," says Koonce. "With our student athletes on scholarship, they have to jump into that commitment right away."

Koonce estimates that 80 percent of the students under his purview hold athletic scholarships. The four academic advisers, Sharyn Orr, Alfred Johnson, Shane Olivett and Jessica Hammond, divide the responsibility of counseling athletes from Tulane's 16 sports. They routinely meet with each during a semester's registration period and then monitor each one's progress.

Koonce says 70 percent of Tulane's athletes have no problem adapting to the university's academic and social challenges and are "doing well and are on track to graduate in four years." It is the smaller balance of students that need more attention. Johnson, who currently monitors approximately 40 athletes from the football and volleyball teams, says he typically works with approximately 18 students who are identified as at-risk.

"Most students demonstrate that they understand what it takes to be in college," he says. "The others have been in elementary and high school situations where they have just been pushed along and have not picked up the necessary skills along the way." "Basically, you'll find these students are not used to the complexity and amount of reading they encounter at Tulane," says Koonce. "That's really what it is. Once they spend time doing it and get a sense of how to handle it they pick it up pretty well."
Incoming athletes who do poorly on a basic skills test administered by the Office of Educational Resources and Counseling are typically required to meet with advisers in athletics student services several times a month, says Koonce. Students in need of additional skills training are then steered toward tutors.

"We tap university resources." "This year we had one of the instructors from ESL (English as a Second Language) come by and conduct a writing workshop," says Koonce, who adds that Tulane graduate students are often hired for one-on-one tutoring.

Beyond that, Koonce says his department helps freshman athletes acquaint themselves with other student support services on campus. "We instruct them where to go if they have a particular problem, how to get to know their teachers, how to handle their assignments and improve study skills."

Within its office space, athletics student services provides athletes with their own "study hall," equipped with 19 computers. Hammond, who monitors the progress of members of the women's basketball team, men's and women's tennis teams, and men's and women's cross country teams, is developing programs to enhance the "life skills" of the athletes.

"It started out as simply programming to help them in issues such as alcohol abuse, substance abuse and sexual assault, but now has branched out into teaching manners, dining etiquette, and we now have a strong career component."

Koonce characterizes his office philosophy as one that encourages independence in athletes. "As you become a sophomore and a junior, we pull back and say you should be able to handle your own academics," he says. In keeping with this philosophy, Koonce, who joined Tulane in 1998, says he is developing a kind of exit strategy for his athletes.

"A lot of the counseling we do is directed at getting kids to think about life after competition," he says. "Some days I spend much of my time telling people that they need to have something to do when they can't dribble a basketball or run a football any more."

This year, athletics student services has initiated a career-development series, says Koonce. Advisers from Tulane's Department of Career Services and representatives from the Atlanta-based Competitive Resources Group have visited with athletes to, among other things, teach them how to transform the skills they've acquired in competition into positive traits in the workplace.

"Many of our athletes don't know how to express and bring out the positive characteristics of self-discipline and teamwork that they have learned," says Koonce. "When all is said and done," he says, "we should be able to look the coach and the student athlete in the face and say, we've done all we can for you. Ultimately you write the paper, you take the test, and you take notes. It is still the student athlete's responsibility to perform."

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