Nebraska working toward a student-athlete experience like nowhere else.
Wake up. Eat breakfast. Go to class. Eat lunch. Practice. Workout. Study. Bed time. This is what a typical day looks like for student-athletes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Football senior DeMornay Pierson-El,starts his day with an early-morning workout, followed by hours of practice, film and studying.
“I’m literally busy from 6:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night,” Pierson-El says. “Every single day is a grind.”
Like Pierson-El, there are 600 other student-athletes that represent 24 sports at UNL.
The athletic department has been working to better the Nebraska experience for these men and women for several years. Change began with former athletic director Shawn Eichorst emphasizing a new mantra in the department – there is no student-athlete experience like Nebraska.
Since then, providing resources and the support necessary for Husker students to excel in academics, athletics, and life has been top priority.
What does Nebraska do different?
Nebraska focuses on seven staple programs – academic services, life skills, sports medicine, athletic training, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and the Nebraska Athletics Performance Laboratory.
According to Keith Zimmer, Director of the life skills department, the entire university must provide student-athletes with the resources needed to succeed on the field and in the classroom.
Zimmer, who has worked for the athletic department for nearly thirty years, says he’s been able to see significant change in regards to the student-athlete experience.
What Nebraska provides its student-athletes?
Within these programs, support staff and other resources are provided to student-athletes to assist them in meeting their goals.
The Dick and Peg Herman Family Student Life Complex serves as the academic hub for UNL’s student-athletes. With two computer centers, multiple study rooms, and accessible tutoring, this is where a majority of athletes working on schoolwork spend their time.
Track athlete Reka Czuth says the complex’s quiet and calm environment helps her focus on schoolwork.
“It doesn’t have many distractions,” Czuth says. “Whenever I need to get something done, I know I can go there to learn the material.”
Czuth, like many of Nebraska’s student-athletes, find a terrific amount of success in the classroom. The Huskers’ long tradition of leading the nation in academic All-Americans continued into the 2016-17 school year, where there were 329 in total. That same year, Nebraska led the nation with 17 recipients of the NCAA’s “Today’s Top Ten” Award, which honors outstanding senior student-athletes. The Husker football team’s nine honorees were the most of any program in the nation.
Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson says this national recognition could not be possible without UNL’s academic support staff.
“They’re great people,” Ferguson says. “They go above and beyond to help you succeed in the classroom. That’s something I really appreciate.”
UNL’s athletic department encourages its students to be active participants outside the classroom as well. The Life Skills department specifically offers students a variety of opportunities to give back to the community.
Based on a NewsNetNebraska survey that polled nearly 100 student athletes, more than 80% said they believed the amount of community outreach opportunities offered through the program was impressive.
Senior distance runner Austin Post says departments like Life Skills played an instrumental role in his decision to choose Nebraska.
“It was awesome to see the number of opportunities I’d be able to take part in as a Husker,” Post says. “I don’t know of any other place that encourages its athletes as much as Nebraska does.”
The Life Skills department also helped introduce a first-of-its-kind program: the PEO, or post eligibility opportunity. Because student-athlete schedules make it difficult to travel, hold jobs, or hold an internship while competing, the PEO grants letter-winning athletes a one-semester scholarship valued at 7,500 dollars. The money can be applied toward an internship, a study abroad experience, or a semester of graduate school at UNL or the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Former Husker soccer player Jaylynn Odermann was one of the first recipients of the PEO scholarship. She says the opportunity helped her internship experience with United Way of the Midlands, a social service organization located in Omaha.
“Even though the PEO was new when I got it, it was still great,” Odermann says. “It allowed me not to worry so much about the financial side of my internship and how much I got paid. I could focus more on the actual work I had to do.”
The PEO scholarship is still just one way Nebraska offers its student-athletes help in gaining experience beyond athletics. With busy schedules, many student-athletes aren’t able to hold jobs throughout college, making it difficult to make money. To combat this, the athletic department offers the “opportunity fund”.
The opportunity fund essentially serves as a stipend for Nebraska’s athletes. Depending on their scholarship type, these individuals can turn in receipts for clothes, gas, bills, etc., which the athletic department then reviews and later refunds the athletes for their purchases. The fund is limited to 700 dollars per student each year.
Former Husker soccer player Jaycie Johnson says she actively used the opportunity fund to pay for life expenses.
“It was a great way to use my money to buy what I needed,” Johnson says. “It’s just so hard for us athletes to have a job on top of the lifestyle we have, so I always loved having it.”
Beyond the borders of Nebraska, the Life Skills department is designing trips for students to help those in need. Over the past three summers, groups of Husker athletes and staff have traveled to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua as part of Nebraska’s “NoFilter” trips. The goal: to help improve impoverished areas by building houses, schools, etc.
Emily Wood, a guard on Nebraska’s women’s basketball team helped build a school in the Dominican in August 2015.
“It was a difficult trip, but it was also life-changing,” Wood says. “We got a taste of what it’s like to live in a place with very few material resources and yet we were still able to create friendships and make a difference.”
How does Nebraska compare to others?
Around the United States, universities like Nebraska continue to use their own facilities and resources to offer their student-athletes a tremendous experience. While many schools strive for success in academics, athletics, and life, each school has their own way of crafting their programs to achieve success.
Zimmer says that he believes the right thing for institutions to do is to do more for their student athletes.
Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Enhancement at the University of Alabama, Jessie Gardner, says Alabama takes a holistic approach to supporting their athletes. Like Nebraska, she says the school provides a variety of resources to help its athletes succeed on the field and in the classroom.
Gardner specifically highlights Alabama’s Life Skills department, which has a student-athlete enhancement program that helps athletes develop financial literacy, personal branding skills, social media training, automotive care, healthy food preparation, and leadership.
“We ultimately want to build our athletes ability to network, search for jobs, and connect with professionals in their field of study,” Gardner says. “These are opportunities we feel like we must provide.”
Nebraska’s athletic department is continuing to build programs and offer opportunities to its student-athletes that will better their experience. From support Husker athletes receive in the classroom to the opportunities given to them in the community, Nebraska continues to build the slogan first introduced by Shawn Eichorst: there is no student-athlete experience like Nebraska.