Spring 2016 semester has started. I have completed syllabus week and am now officially starting my second semester as a graduate student. Being a full-time student, being a TA and being a full-time athlete was a difficult balancing act in the fall semester. One would think that if someone could survive being a student-athlete for four years, there should be no difference to being in grad school for two years. Here is the difference. I am no longer a student-athlete. I am a student and an athlete. Being a student-athlete in undergrad came with accommodations that made balancing my studies and my sport possible. Because I was running for the school and using school facilities, the school in return provided resources to student-athletes that allowed us to better explain to our instructors and peers why we would miss certain classes or wouldn’t be able to hand in certain assignments on time. The Athletics Department also provided academic assistance more readily available to help student-athletes.
Buzzfeed sums grad life best with 21 photos that even now bring me anxiety to what entails in the upcoming 15 weeks, give or take. In graduate school, your social life in non-existent. Of course, I understand those with complicated majors, as I like to call certain majors, probably are already living the grad life just without the title. But there is a different mindset when coming into grad life.
It’s really that mindset that distinguishes the difference between being a student-athlete and being a student and an athlete. As a student-athlete, there is an understanding, depending on your reputation and/ or sport, that academics may not be your passion and sports may very well be the one and only reason you go to school. A former student I taught as a TA argued that college athletes should not get paid by NCAA because students go to college to hone their skills not just play sports. There is so much to say about that statement, but what I will focus on this. For a student-athlete, going to college includes honing their skills as an athlete. During my undergraduate years, I didn’t just improve in times while on the track team. I learned persistence and proper running technique and grew as an athlete. I also learned and was successful in my undergraduate classes, but it the lessons I learned as an athlete were equally as important in directing my career path.
But going back to being a student-athlete, you CANNOT be one without the other. You do not perform to the academic standards that the athletic department, your coach and/or the school sets, you do not compete and/or train. That simple. For some who are on scholarship, if you do not compete or train to the best of your ability and follow the rules of the sport (I leave that open to interpretation), not taking into account injuries or emergencies of course, you were not guaranteed the same amount of scholarship thus affecting your ability to pay for school thus affecting your education. As a student-athlete, education and athleticism are valued equally.
As a student and full-time graduate student, especially one with a teaching assistantship, these values and standards change dramatically. This scenario gives a better idea of what I mean. Last semester, I told one of my professors that I was an athlete, and although I did not plan on missing assignments, I did want to let the professor know in case I missed any classes for competition. The professor was understanding and told me that it is good that I was a runner because it is important to have a “hobby” outside of grad life. I cringe hearing the word “hobby” in regards to my running. But I understood why my professor would say that. In graduate school, at least my specific department, there is an assumption that those who attend graduate school share a passion for academia similar to how athletes share a passion for their sport. You come with the commitment to dedicate your time and energy to your assignments in class. You enjoy academia to an extent where research and reading educational articles are enjoyable. Anything not connected to what you are studying or does not directly benefit from your studies is a side attraction. It is something to break the monotony of studying. It is a hobby. Also, and this is merely an assumption, I don’t think professors teaching graduate level courses encounter athletes as often as they would at the undergraduate level. This means that the obligation, for lack of better words, to be more understanding and considerate of athletes’ competition and training schedules does not exist. This is not a critique of graduate school, but merely an observation.
This is where the balance of academia and athletics becomes difficult. When both aspects of my life requires a heightened amount of my time and dedication, it sometimes feels like I am being pulled in two different directions. As a student and an athlete, I can be one without the other. My athletic capabilities no longer affect my ability to afford school. If I decided right now to hang up my spikes, my academics would not be affected. My academics no longer affect my competition or training. If I failed out of school or quit school, I could still run and train. Of course it is not that simple. Graduate life also comes with the reality of bills and living expenses that need to be handled.
I knew that this balancing act would not be easy, but I didn’t quite expect why it was difficult. The limited time and extensive work was expected, but the expectation from my professors and colleagues that academia is this passion burning in you was not what I anticipated. How do you explain that, although I still value academics as a student-athlete who was consistently on the dean’s list, my heart is not in academics in the way they expect? Of course, I value everything I learn in grad school, but not to an extent that I would make a career in academia. How do I explain to someone in academia who may have never played a sport in their life or spoken to an athlete, why it is worth spending a year or years of your life to pursue goals of athletic excellence? There are many questions about dealing with this dichotomy and explaining this dichotomy to someone who does not share your goals. Although many times I am frustrated, I am also excited to have this unique experience. I don’t want this to be a discouragement to anyone. It is simply one of various realizations I have had and will have in this track journey.