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Athletics: Academic progress perseveres

Last May, Illinois State student-athletes set a semester departmental grade-point average (GPA) record of 3.31 during the Spring 2019 semester, topping the previous mark of 3.24 set during the previous two semesters, and five teams tied or beat their previous team GPA records. That kind of success comes from a lot of hard work not only by the student-athletes, but also from the coaching staffs, campus advisors, professors and by the staff at the Karin L. Bone Athletics Study Center.

That staff, led by ISU Assistant Athletics Director Joe Klausner, is tasked with making sure Redbird student-athletes have all the resources and support they need to achieve their academic goals. Illinois State has always prided itself on making sure that academics are a priority for its student-athletes, and that message is re-enforced throughout the year by various groups.

On any given day, if you walk through the Athletics Study Center across the street from the Bone Student Center, you will likely see students at computers or tables working on projects or papers. You may see them studying together to complete a group project, or you may see them in an office with one of the staff members getting some one-on-one attention to help solve an issue. It’s a safe, quiet place for Redbird student-athletes to get away from the pressures of the world and just focus on their academics.

That’s why, when the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, the main focus of ISU Director of Athletics Larry Lyons and the athletics leadership team was to make sure the Study Center staff had whatever resources and support they needed to make sure Redbird student-athletes were taken care of academically. It’s continuing to be a priority for Klausner and crew, as classes have been moved online through at least the end of the summer session.

“From a leadership standpoint, it’s great to have someone like Larry who understands the importance of our academic mission. Academics is a foundational piece for our student-athletes and if they come here, they are going to compete at the highest levels both athletically and academically,” Klausner stated. “To hear that from Larry, the leadership team and the University was great, and we felt comfortable with the support we had right from the beginning of all of this. It only re-enforces why so many of us over in the Athletic Study Center appreciate working at this institution.”

So many questions needed to be answered for Klausner and his team when initial talks began to surface about taking all classes online. Through meetings with campus and athletics leadership, they began to make a list and set out as a group to try and answer as many of them as possible. Things were changing so rapidly at the beginning, that plans made one day were often nullified the next.

However, that didn’t stop the Study Center staff from doing everything they could to put together the best plan moving forward for the student-athletes they work with.

“We came together as a group and came up with suggestions and ideas from the whole staff to see what could work logistically to continue to provide the resources and services to our student-athletes,” Klausner said. “Being able to come together and talk through all that at the outset I think gave us a big head start. I also had an inclination we were heading in this direction before a lot of my colleagues because my mother is a retired epidemiologist, and I was fortunate to get a bit of background information regarding the severity of this situation. That allowed me to start putting together some contingency plans maybe a week or two before we were asked to do that.”

Once a plan was put in place, it was up to Klausner and staff to effectively communicate the vision moving forward. They couldn’t afford for everyone to be waiting on them, because information was swirling all over the place only causing more and more questions from everyone involved.

“It was important to us that we didn’t skip a beat or have a lag time in getting information and plans to the student-athletes. We couldn’t afford to keep them waiting while we figured out what we were going to do moving forward,” Klausner said. “So, it was imperative that we crushed out a plan that so far seems to be working well. We’ve made some adjustments along the way to streamline some things, but for the most part it’s been going great. I’m hopeful that the student-athletes feel like they have the resources they need and are appreciative of the tremendous work our staff has put in up to this point in time.”

Without the ability to meet in person at the Study Center like normal, the Study Center staff moved most of its meetings online via technology like Zoom and FaceTime. Key programs like targeting and tutoring still needed to be available for the student-athletes that are vulnerable academically, so they had to take a different shape. The staff reached out to colleagues and peers around the country to see what they were looking at doing or what they’ve done in the past during summer sessions that could be put in place at ISU. Then it was a matter of reaching out to the tutors themselves to see if they had the time and availability to still be able to assist the student-athletes.

With most resources still available to the student-athletes, Klausner and staff have not seen many major issues with this new academic “normal.” Coordination across campus with University personnel, academic advisors and professors has kept the students informed and on task as the Spring semester nears its end.

Judging academic success during the Spring 2020 semester will not be as easy as it has been in the past for the Redbirds. New standards for department and team GPA records have been consistently set over the past several semesters at ISU, but those were under normal circumstances. Despite all the adjustments that have been made on campus by students and professors alike, Klausner still feels this semester can be deemed a successful one.

“Having the great GPA numbers the past several semesters have been tremendous, but this is an unprecedented situation,” Klausner stated. “I measure the success of our unit based off being able to foster good working relationships with our student-athletes. My hope is that our student-athletes can look back at this time and realize that even though it was crazy, they were still able to get the help that they would normally get on campus. That is going to be one way we will measure success at the end of all this. If we get some great GPA numbers at the end of this, it will only be icing on the cake.”

What impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on the academic success of Illinois State student-athletes is yet to be seen. However, no matter what the numbers show at the end of the semester, the staff at the Karin L. Bone Athletics Study Center can be confident in the fact that they did everything they could to put together a plan of action for ISU student-athletes that would put them in a position to succeed.

The amount of online Zoom meetings, conference calls and group text messages will be sizable for the staff as they continue to modify and improve their techniques to best serve the needs of their student-athletes. Someday, students will return to campus and sit in lecture halls and classrooms to get their instruction just like they used to. They will also return to the Study Center, which is something Klausner really looks forward to.

“So many of us in this field get our energy from working with the student-athletes one-on-one and helping them see those small growths academically, socially and personally. Being away from that, not being in the center and seeing it full of energy has been a tremendous change. It’s never going to be the same as being across the table from someone, but I think we are all taking it in stride, and we will get back to that someday. I’m extremely appreciative of our staff’s efforts during this time. I hope they know how important they are to our academic success here and we as an institution couldn’t do it without their hard work and dedication.”