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A Home Run for Mentors and Student-Athletes

Diane Bansbach hold a heart and WU sign in the stands at a sports game

Wilmington University Mathematics Chair Diane Bansbach has a relatively new screen-saver on her computer: a picture of her with nine international members of the men’s soccer team, taken the day after Thanksgiving last year at her house. 

“I invited the international students over for dinner because they didn’t have any place to go for Thanksgiving,” she says, “so we had dinner together and then hung out.” Then she adds:  “Some of them call me their American mom. That’s very meaningful to me.”

Dinners, pizza parties, one-on-one and group meetings — even the creation of vision boards and virtual graduations — those are just some of the activities initiated by 15 faculty mentors appointed in 2019 for each of the University’s athletic teams. The mentors — all volunteers — often attended games and practices, conferred with coaches, acted as liaison between athletes and faculty as well as tutors, and were available for phone calls or texts at all hours of the day and night.

The program had its genesis in early 2019 when Erin Harvey, the University’s NCAA Compliance officer, attended the NCAA National Convention, where a representative of McDaniel College, in Westminster, Maryland, described that school’s Faculty Mentor program.

“I loved the idea,” says Harvey, who is also the associate athletics director. She, along with Director of Athletics Dr. Stefanie Whitby and Faculty Athletic Representative Dr. Matt Wilson, are constantly searching for ways to support student-athletes and help bridge the gap between athletics and academics. A Faculty Mentor program seemed to be an ideal way to help accomplish those goals.

“I saw this as a unique opportunity,” says Dr. Wilson. “I don’t think a lot of colleges have something like this.”

When he gave a presentation describing the mentor program at the Faculty Senate in September, he says, “It was amazing the response from full-time faculty members who showed interest in helping out in one form or another.”

With the mentors quickly on board, the program was rolled out as the new 2019–20 academic year began. 

“It’s done wonders to provide another layer of support for our student-athletes and afford additional avenues of assistance for them,” says Dr. Wilson.

The “job description” states that “Each faculty mentor will have their own style and way of interacting with the student-athletes and coaches.” 

This has certainly been true for Dr. Adrienne Bey, director of the University’s Center for Teaching Excellence and mentor for the women’s basketball team.

Dr. Bey, who played basketball at William Penn High School in New Castle, met with the team and attended many of the home games during the 2019–20 season. She suggested and attended team-building activities, including a dinner to celebrate Thanksgiving.

She also led the team in the creation of vision boards.

“For the new year, we did a vision board to talk about their goals for the future,” says Dr. Bey. “You use poster board, scissors and glue, and cut out words and pictures from magazines that depict what your vision is. Then you stand up and explain what your board means for your future.”

She feels that she was able to support team members in meeting some of their life challenges. “We expect them to function in the classroom, on the basketball court, and in life, and that’s a lot of pressure on student-athletes.”

Says first-year Coach Jamie Hensley: I could not have been happier with Dr. Bey joining our family. She was a big piece of our team’s academic success this year and helped us reach our goal of a 3.0 team GPA. Aside from her academic help, her vision aligned with the coaches, in that we wanted to do more to prepare the young ladies for life after college.

Kiersten Comer, who plays first base for the Wildcat softball team, says Faculty Mentor Dr. Stephanie LoBiondo was a great help to her and the team.

“It can be hard living away from home and family, taking on the schedule of a college athlete, and doing it all with a smile on your face,” says Comer, from Long Island, New York. “I find that sometimes it’s easy to feel defeated when you have a bad game or practice, but Dr. LoBiondo did exercises with us that promoted self-confidence.”

Comer says a workshop led by Dr. LoBiondo last fall helped the team bond. “She explained how it’s during times like 6 a.m. lifts or extra-inning games that I have to be able to look at the girl next to me and know that my teammate is in the same position I am, and we will do anything to ensure that we achieve our goals.”

The pandemic postponed May graduation ceremonies, but Dr. Janice Wardle, chair of the Sports Management program and mentor for the men’s golf team, was determined to celebrate the team’s seniors. On May 13, she set up a virtual graduation for them. By that time, two were home in British Columbia, Canada, and another was in Georgia. They all “Zoomed” together to watch as Dr. Wardle, in full doctoral cap and gown, oversaw a well-orchestrated event that started with the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance” and the video of University President Dr. LaVerne Harmon’s address from January graduation ceremonies. That was followed by a power point spotlighting the athletic achievements of the seniors during their years at WilmU.

Dr. Whitby, Erin Harvey and Coach Mark Hall all spoke, as did the graduates, who thanked Dr. Wardle for her efforts.

“They’re great students and athletes,” she says, “and I just felt they needed to be recognized.”

While the Faculty Mentor program is aimed at supporting student-athletes, it’s been a mean-ingful experience for the mentors themselves.

“Personally,” says Bansbach, “being a mentor has done wonderful things for me because as chair I don’t have a lot of interaction with students. So this gives me a better perspective on what student-athletes have to face. They have a lot on their plates.”

As Faculty Athletic Representative, Dr. Wilson says his role is not only to support overall student well-being but also to help faculty members understand student-athletes and the challenges they face in dealing with practices, games and academics. “And if any questions come up, I’m there as a resource for the faculty and the athlete.”

Dr. Whitby says faculty mentoring of student-athletes is especially important at Wilmington University. “Because we’re a commuter school we don’t have the dorms, we don’t have those natural, day-to-day ways of running into faculty here,” she says, “and I think that’s a big reason why everyone’s so enthusiastic about the program.”

She believes the year-old initiative has just scratched the surface in terms of its potential. “We’ve encouraged coaches to think about how to bring their mentors into the fold of the team,” she says, “and many of them see that potential and are looking forward to next year.”

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