SASS provides support, helps student-athletes reach academic goals

SASS provides support, helps student-athletes reach academic goals
Mikenna McManus, first-year student and member of the women's soccer team, studies in the Office of Student Athlete Support Services. / Photo by Riley Robinson.

By John Hagerty, deputy sports editor

Northeastern student-athletes earned a cumulative GPA of 3.226 during the fall 2017 semester, the 20th semester in a row they have exceeded a 3.0. The NCAA’s most recent annual report lists NU’s graduation success rate at 91 percent, placing it 4 percent higher than the national average.

Behind this success, there is a story: For Gina Bouchard, an athletic academic support specialist in the Office of Student Athlete Support Services, or SASS, the recent results are a testament to the student-athletes reaching goals they set for themselves. But GPA and graduation rate are not the sole focus for the SASS staff.

“I don’t think about those things on a day-to-day basis,” Bouchard said. “Obviously the results have been great over the past 20 semesters, which is amazing, but we just try to help the students reach whatever their goals are. If a student’s goal is to get a 2.7 then that’s fine and I will do everything I can to help them get that.”

SASS is a very small department, with four specialists and one intern tasked to advise and mentor around 450 student-athletes. Each specialist is assigned to be the primary contact for three to four Northeastern athletic teams.  

The specialists collaborate with student-athletes in order to help them create their schedules and manage their workload.

First-year engineering major and member of the men’s rowing team Jan Hennecke is one of about 450 student-athletes working with SASS to manage the workload of being a full-time college student and an athlete. / Photo by Riley Robinson.

“We’re extremely supported in the athletic building,” said Alyssa Seales, a member of the swimming and diving team and a fourth-year communication studies major. “We can get tutors, have study hall. Our advisers are always emailing us, wanting updates on how we’re doing in our classes. It helps us be more responsible and up to date with our work.”

The support office’s current specialists came from a variety of backgrounds, but they find commonality in their passion for helping student-athletes succeed and watching them develop.

Bouchard started working as a math tutor for student-athletes at Eastern Michigan University while pursuing her master’s degree in sports management. She was drawn to the field of student-athlete support because it connected her interests of sports and academics.

On the other hand, Senior Athletic Academic Support Specialist Stefanie Walsh graduated from Northeastern in 2009 and held a position in event planning for athletics. SASS’s mission of personal growth hooked her.

“I think seeing students — who come from all different backgrounds, have different interests and play different sports — connect the dots between what they’re passionate about academically and what they’re passionate about athletically is exciting,” Walsh said. “The first time you see that and you see them succeed in both things, it’s a really exciting thing to be a part of, helping them develop from coming in freshman year to graduating.”

Though the specialists mentor so many students, their services are holistic in nature and focus on handling each student-athlete’s academic journey independently.

“We want everything to be individualized, which can be time consuming,” Walsh said, “and it can be difficult, but the more you target your support for what each student needs, the more successful they’re going to be.”

Office staff take myriad factors into account when they approach a specific student-athlete’s situation, making it a complex process.

“Everything we’re doing is very targeted to each student, especially considering what team they’re on, how much they travel, what challenges they might be facing, their level of motivation, their level of interest, [and] what professional aspirations they have,” Walsh said.

The office also spearheads initiatives for student-athletes, notably the Husky 360 program geared toward first-year students. Husky 360 prepares students for the challenges of adjusting to life as a college level student-athlete academically, socially and physically.

SASS not only provides extensive support and resources throughout a student-athlete’s time at NU, but also aims to foster independence.  

“We are going be there to support them, but we are also give them to skills to develop and do things on their own,” Walsh said. “There is that stigma that student-athletes don’t do things on their own or they don’t care about school and that could not be less of the case.”

Specialists also collaborate with coaches constantly and each has become an asset for how they develop their respective programs.

“That office is a huge help to the academic success of our team,” women’s swimming and diving head coach Roy Coates said. “It’s a great selling point to be able to have the resources to help you academically while you’re training. It’s a huge recruiting tool for us.”

In the future, SASS hopes to continue to adapt and evolve, all while pursuing its supportive vision. The specialists remain steadfast that GPAs and graduation rates do not tell the whole story of their advising because of how well they prepare student-athletes for their lives after Northeastern.  

“It would be a mistake for us to set our goals on their lives and their achievements,” Walsh said. “Because we have made everything so targeted and made it such a comprehensive support program, we don’t have to worry about the numbers.”

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