Kristin Kane oversees the academic progress of the entire Illinois football team. It is a massive job that requires the skills of talented, dedicated individuals like Kane. She has the background for the role.
"I was an athlete at Division-III Loras College in Iowa; I played basketball. I came to Illinois for grad school. I kind of thought I would go back and teach and coach at a small college.
"I got introduced to the athletic academic services here at Illinois. Where I went to school, there was nothing like that. You had to fend for yourself."
That exposure allowed her an opportunity to work in a field she enjoys.
"This type of career really suited my personality. You still were kind of involved in the competitive environment of athletics, but I was really on the education side of it, making sure students were able to balance both things.
"I feel fortunate that I was able to balance my college career very well, but I know that's not an easy skill all the time. So I found it very fulfilling to help others learn how to do that.
"This is the start of my 14th year in Champaign. I worked my way up, starting as a graduate assistant at the Irwin Academic Center. I did a year as an intern when I finished that, and then they hired me full time. I worked with our Olympic sports for my first couple years, track, gymnastics, softball. Now I've finished my eighth year as a football counselor."
At present, academic counselor Annie White and learning specialist Carla Suber also work with football. Kane has a complicated job description.
"As we tell students who go through the recruiting process, looking to bring them to the University of Illinois, my job is to help you. I help make sure you find your way through college.
"That's not an 8 to 5 thing. We work at night, and we help on weekends. We're kind of involved with the entire process. Coach (Ron) Zook talks about how it is a family. Everybody is involved all the time, it's not just the coaches who are working those crazy hours. It's trainers, equipment staff and us helping to make sure guys manage everything.
"There is a lot on their plates. For us, the one time we know they have free time is in the evenings. They have class during the day and practice, weightlifting, film and all that. Evenings is the time they can focus on the extra stuff they need to do for school.
"We're working with them a lot on the day-to-day, time management things. Making sure if they have homework, or if they need to study for a test, we can work with them to help figure out their best way of learning. My job in a nutshell is helping them figure that out."
She works until the job is done, giving her minimal time to herself.
"A light week normally is 50 hours, and it can probably go up to 75. The fall semester is typically more hectic because we we're working on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, and we do a little more evenings because the freshmen are really getting acclimated. During the spring, they kind of have it figured out a little bit more.
"My family is in Chicago, and I try to get there as much as I can. You're tied to the students. I don't have my own children, so these are my kids. My job is to make sure someone's taking care of them. I see them more than I see my own family and friends.
"I don't know if that's always the way I imagined my life, but it's very rewarding to be able to work with them and see them grow and mature and go out in the world and be successful."
She cannot avoid becoming emotionally involved with the athletes.
"Certainly. I think that's the very best part and the very worst part of my job. The best part is you see kids achieve things they maybe didn't think they could ever accomplish.
"I'm not a mother, but I think I know what a mother's pride is like as you see these kids achieve goals and graduate from college. Things they maybe didn't believe they were capable of doing."
Of course, disappointments are possible as well.
"You're going to run into kids at times who maybe don't have the motivation we want them to have. My biggest frustration is when I care about it more than they do.
"For me, it's a balancing act of figuring out where can we meet in the middle so I'm getting what I need out of it, and the students are getting the help they need and doing their part.
"Part of that is the recruiting process. It's important for us to bring in good kids who will work hard and who can be successful here. I think we've done a really good job of that."
Even the frustrating kids can mature before one's eyes, growing out of their difficult phase and becoming solid students. Of course, they have to improve because the University is changing also.
"We are becoming more and more difficult as a university. We're a Top 10 public university in the country, and I think our curriculum is as difficult as anywhere in the nation. So not only are they coming to a bigger level of football, they're coming to a bigger school now too."
This places increasing demands on student athletes' time and energy, on top of all their work for football.
"It's not an easy thing for them to do what they do. You hear people talking about college athletics and how these kids get a free college education. People don't realize how much time they put in outside of football.
"We're demanding of them from an academic standpoint in the same way football coaches are demanding of them from a football standpoint.
"They don't have free time. They're very structured, even from an academic standpoint. What they need to do every day is kind of rigorous. When you're at a university like Illinois, you have to study that much more to be on an even playing field with everybody else. We have the best students in the country."
In part two of this series, Kane talks about her involvement in the recruiting process and helping prospective student athletes have all the prerequisites required for acceptance into the UI.
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