Life Skills department guides athletes


The Nebraska Athletic Life Skills Department provides much needed guidance to NCAA athletes regarding their future career and life choices.

Photos and story by Derek Brandt, News Net Nebraska.

Blaine Hoppenrath, a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has swum competitively for most of her life but she knows she’s won’t be joining the likes of Olympic medalist Penny Heyns or others on the pro circuit. The industrial engineering major, however, has plenty of career options thanks partly to a novel program at the university athletic department.

“My future is still to be determined,” Hoppenrath said. “I would like to get a job in the field of industrial engineering, and if that doesn’t pan out, I might go to graduate school and work, oddly enough, in an athletic department.”

Fewer than 1 percent of college athletes, across all sports, make it to the professional ranks. Every year thousands of college football players, for instance, dream about going to the NFL, but fewer than 250 are tapped. It’s even tougher in less commercial sports such as swimming or running.

Schools such as UNL offer these hopefuls career training and counseling to prepare them for lives off the field. The Life Skills program takes what it calls a “total person concept,” aimed to develop the athlete competitively, professionally and personally.

“We see our lives after college,” said Nebraska bowling senior Danielle van der Meer. “Its been nothing but a valuable resource for us.”

Keith Zimmer, Associate Athletic Director at Nebraska and the Life Skills director, wants students to develop a realistic perspective even as they dream of medals and big contracts.

“The focus of our Life Skills program is to help all of our students get prepared for the eventual transition from the life of sports to the world or a graduate program,” Zimmer said. “Our goal is to help develop a well-rounded, student-athlete who has options outside of their sport. We do not discourage professional athletics, but we are here to instill a degree of realism for them, knowing that the statistics clearly show that very few athletes have a chance to become a pro-athlete.”

Services provided by the Life Skills program for students range from identifying career options to resume-building. All the student-athletes gets the attention they need to stay focused on their goals.

“We meet with each student and call them in individually starting during their freshman year,” he said. “We will work with them on creating a resume, and based on where their deficiencies are, we will create a goal list for them, based on information we can accumulate.”

So if an athlete wanted to work in medicine, the Life Skills department would help him or her to coordinate a shadowing program at a hospital. The program also helps the students identify the fields they may wind up in.

“We offer internships, along with other things that will help them towards their goals, whatever they may be,” said Zimmer.

Blaine Hoppenrath, left, sees recreational swimming in her future

Hoppenrath ruled out a career in professional swimming early on. She expects to swim all her life, but will likely do so in recreational triathlons. She’ll rely on swimming, too, to stay in shape. Hoppenrath credits the people in the Life Skills program for helping her set her priorities.

“They have helped us out ever since we got here. They helped me with my resume, and they had a student-athlete career fair, which is where I landed my internship with ConAgra Foods,” said the senior, who this summer will work for the Omaha food-products company. Life Skills encouraged me to do things outside of the pool, like getting involved on campus so that once we get out of here, we know something other than the pool.”

“It was really nice to get that sort of help,” said Hoppenrath, adding that her stint at ConAgra will help her decide on whether to stay in engineering. ” If I don’t fall in love with it this summer or at least enjoy what I am doing, then I am going to open up all of my options for when I graduate.

Danielle van der Meer plans to continue bowling

Even students who see careers for themselves in sports value the tutoring they’ve gotten in Life Skills. Just ask Nebraska Bowling star Danielle van der Meer.

“I absolutely want to continue bowling,” said van der Meer, a sociology major. “I’m planning on joining back up with my national team once I graduate. I’ll bowl a lot around Europe during the year. It takes up a lot of time but it is fun. I’ll never say no to an opportunity to represent my country.”

Van der Meer, a transfer student from the Netherlands in her final year at UNL, was a member of the Dutch National Bowling team from 2004-06 and earned two gold medals at the 2006 European Youth Championships, along with an NCAA National Championship in 2009 with Nebraska.

She prizes the counseling she got in the Life Skills program. It will help her map out her career path after Nebraska, she said.

“They taught me a lot about representing myself, and representing the University,” van der Meer said. “We set up our resume in a professional way. There is more to just listing what we have done. I don’t know if I’ll ever actually do anything with my degree, but thanks to Life Skills, we don’t have the burden of stepping into the real world.

The Nebraska Life Skills department is helping student athletes become future achievers, whether it is on the field of play or not.

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