Fall is a busy time for all Illinois football players, and it can be traumatic for freshmen. As academic counselor Kristin Kane explains, freshmen need special help managing their academic and football responsibilities.
"We're a little bit more intensive with them in the fall. In the summer they take two classes, but two classes in the summer term is pretty manageable. Typically, they're doing their running and lifting workouts, and then they'll do some 7 on 7 drills. But we can organize that around class schedules. It's a little bit less intense.
"When we get to the fall semester, those kids are playing right away, the meetings and film they're watching, but there's academics too. Their minds are having to work learning a playbook, making adjustments, all those things. That's mentally taxing, and then they typically have 12 to 15 hours of classes they're enrolled in.
"Their classes are going to be harder. There's more going on in their days they're gonna have to manage, their studies will be more intensive. They have to make sure if they have questions or need help, they're getting it, tutors or whatever, to make sure they start off well."
The first academic year is especially important.
"We tell them the freshman year, it's important to establish a good base. If you start off and have a good GPA (grade point average) base from your freshman year, it makes everything that much easier. It makes it easier to get into the majors you want to get into. That beginning is important, so we're on top of what they're doing."
Student-athletes may or may not be able to take the courses they want right out of high school. Course work must be complimentary to their football schedules and capabilities. Kane helps them figure all this out.
"We never tell anybody they can't take any curriculum. But what the students have to understand, if they want to do Engineering or even the College of Business, which is pretty rigorous on our campus, when we've got other guys putting in 12 hours a week of studying, they have to do 24. They're gonna have to be okay with that.
"If you get an Engineering degree or Business degree from the University of Illinois, those things are gonna set you up for the rest of your life. But what you have to do to get that is do twice as much as everyone else is doing. The students who are willing to put that effort in will do it. It's not easy, and I think it takes planning.
"Part of our job too is working with the academic advisors in the colleges to help make sure the students are scheduling things that they can handle. So the fall semester has to be a little bit lighter. It means that, if there's a particularly difficult class in a major, we're gonna try to hold off until spring semester for that.
"For instance, there's an Anatomy class on campus, and all our students who are Kinesiology majors are required to take Anatomy. It's a 5 credit hour class and a ton of work. It's typically one we hold off and have them do in the summer because they can focus just on that class."
Some curricula require many class hours a week. Finding room for all the hours of football can be difficult. Kane needs to understand all these factors to counsel her student-athletes.
"Any programs that have labs like Chemistry, or something like Engineering is difficult because a majority of those classes have labs that are blocks of hours. I don't think there's any major that we would say is too difficult.
"Certainly, there are students that can't handle Engineering. Football guys might come in and say they want to be a Civil Engineer. We'll let them take the beginning curriculum, the math and the chemistry. They either can handle it or they can't. If they can't do this, they're not gonna be able to do the difficult parts of the curriculum.
"We never tell them 'No.' We let them try, and then they decide whether they're capable of doing it. From a team sport standpoint, some of the majors in our Fine and Applied Arts College tend to be a little bit harder because of the blocks of time where they're in their studio. They have classes that maybe go from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. When they're in a team sport, they miss practice a lot.
"We had a football player a couple years ago who was in Aviation. He missed a ton of practice because he had flight time and all of that. Those majors that are structured with large blocks of classes tend to be more difficult. You don't see football players in Fine and Applied Arts. Architecture is in that same college. In my time here, we've had one student who's gone through it.
"They may want to go through it, but sometimes they have to make sacrifices so they can play football. My job is to help them explore. If you want to do it, I'll help figure out a way you can try it. And then we'll see. If you make it, you make it.
"So it takes some planning on our parts to know what's coming. I've been fortunate because I've been here so long, I have a good feel for the majors. If I expect this is coming, I will speak to the advisor in the college to work out a plan so he's still making progress towards a degree, he's getting everything that he needs. But he's also able to manage football.
"I tell them that too. 'I want you to be a good football player as much as I want you to be a good student.' So I'm the go-between between the two worlds."
Tutors are available to help student-athletes in addition to the academic counselors.
"We have three full-time academic counselors and a full-time learning specialist who work just with football. We have 8 academic counselors that work through the Irwin Academic Center, and one of the counselors there is also our tutor program coordinator. She's the one responsible for hiring and training our tutors, and assigning them to students.
"Any student who needs a tutor will do that at the beginning of a semester. They will be assigned a tutor for one-on-one the whole semester. They meet once a week for an hour or so. If they need more time, they can set that up with the tutor. That's entirely up to them.
"I would say all our students in all our sports have used a tutor at some time. Some guys use them for all classes. It just depends on what they need and what they want. Sometimes it's us requiring it of them, other times it's them seeking out the extra help."
A half century ago, football players had to avoid some curricula and some teachers due to discrimination. A few individual professors appeared to treat athletes more strictly than their other students.
Over the years, those problems have been minimized. While athletes are not given grades they don't deserve, Kane says there is now good cooperation between academic and athletic personnel.
"I think our campus is really supportive of what our student-athletes do. It's a credit to them because we're telling them you're doing what you're supposed to be doing in the classroom. If you're there, you have conversation with your teachers, you are asking for help when you need it, and you're doing all the things you're expected to do as a student, the teachers respond.
"They see these students are trying to be the best students they can be and also trying to be an athlete. I think our faculty is very supportive of what we do and are very helpful when our students have to miss class for travel. As long as the students are holding up their end of the deal in the classroom, they'll work with them.
"I think we're really lucky that way. I don't think there's any major that discriminates against students now."
In part five of this six-part series, Kane talks about progress toward a degree and what students must do to remain eligible for varsity sports.
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