Academic Success Brings Intangible Rewards

Serving as an academic counselor for Illini football players requires perseverance, endurance, empathy and constant vigilance. But the rewards are often worth the effort. Kristin Kane has served the UI well in that capacity.

Kristin Kane has needed to balance academics and football in her role as academic counselor for the Illinois football team. It is important the players see her in both capacities.

"Our whole academic staff travels with the team to away games. For us, football has quick turnaround. We don't stay very long at our destination. We leave Friday afternoon and come back immediately after the game on Saturday. We travel with them more to show our support from the athletic side.

"I'll spend all week harping on a guy about school and a paper, reminding him of all the things he needs to do. It's important he sees me standing on the sideline cheering for him. So he can see I want him to do both things well. We're very lucky that we get to do that and be a part of the team."

Study time is essential during road trips for some sports, but not necessarily for football.

"There is some of that, but it is pretty rare. Other sports that we have, they may leave on Wednesday and miss two days of class. We don't have that issue with football.

"We certainly recommend, if we're taking a long flight, that the guys bring a book and get some reading done or study for a test. But we're lucky that they get to focus on football for four hours, and then they're back to the real world and do other things. So for the most part, it's just football."

Kane also helps student-athletes project into the future, after their football careers end.

"The part that has continued to grow as I'm a counselor longer, is the life skills part of it. It's not just academic and what you're doing in your classes. It's about how are you handling your life, how are you preparing for life after college, after athletics.

"Ninety-five percent of our team would tell you they'd like to play in the NFL. We tell our freshmen that 3% of all college football players play in the NFL, and the average career is 2.7 years. So it's not realistic to think everyone has that opportunity.

"For me, it's helping them figure out, not what's the next 3-4 years of their lives, but what they're doing for the next 50 years. Get them to focus on that. We need to help them think about what they are doing after college. Do they want to go to Grad School? Do they want to go to Law School, Medical School?

"Do they want to find a job? If so, how to write a resume, how to interview for jobs. Learn how to network to get in touch with people who work in their field. Whatever it is, we need to do more of that than what we do right now. So a bigger part of my job is helping them prepare for life after college."

Kane finds the intangible rewards of the job worth the long hours and complexities.

"When you have a student that comes in and struggles for any reason, whether it's because they don't have family support at home and they come here not knowing general life stuff, or if they're a student that struggles in school and have to put in 20-25 hours a week, when you see them be successful, you're proud.

"There was a student a few years ago, Charles Myles from Chicago. He came from a particularly difficult background. He was one of the only students I can remember who was a nonqualifier out of high school.

"He came and paid his way for his first year, gained his eligibility and eventually graduated from college. It was a struggle for him every semester to work and get to where he needed to be, and he did it. When you see that, there's nothing more gratifying in any job.

"To see kids grow up when they're maybe immature, and you see them grow up and be men. And then they come back. That's my favorite part.

"We have the barbeque bash before the spring game, and many of our former players will come back. When I see guys there who are successful in their jobs, and they're showing me pictures of their families. To see them be who we knew they could be, but maybe they didn't believe it, it's a great thing."

There is an honor roll board in the football computer lab with photos of all those who made the honor roll each semester with a "B" average or better. Nathan Scheelhaase, Zach Becker, Whitney Mercilus and Tyler Sands were among a number of football players who achieved academic excellence last semester. This is another indication of the success of the UI program.

Kane has the necessary qualities to take a difficult job and make it work for her. Some might burn out quickly from all the responsibilities, but she seems to gain strength from them.

"It's definitely time-consuming, but I enjoy it very much. I enjoy the environment I am in, I enjoy working with the guys. I like the challenge of working even with the at-risk students we have.

"So I don't see my self getting out of the field anytime soon. Because of the time commitment, I don't know if it's something I will do my whole life, but I enjoy it very much."

Kane recently received a promotion. At the end of summer, she will become Director of the Academic Services office. It will require her moving out of the football offices and into the Irwin Academic Center. She will still be able to help football players, but she will soon be helping all student-athletes at the UI.

Her present position will be filled by Jeff Guin. Annie White and Carla Suber will continue to work with football, and Cory Harbor has been hired as a third academic counselor.

Kane is excited for the opportunity but sad to be leaving football. She was asked if there is anything she would like Illini fans to understand about the football program.

"When you think about the University of Illinois in general, it is one of the top 10 public universities in the country. It's becoming harder and harder every year.

"I've been here for 13 years. I've seen the same classes get more difficult than they used to be 10 years ago. It's hard enough to get into school here. When you're an athlete, you're doing what would be the equivalent of a full-time job. It's not easy.

"When people harp on college athletes, we have really good kids who do things the right way and work very hard. I want them to know that.

"I wish that the general public got to see what I see from these guys. How hard they work, the kind of personalities they have, how enjoyable they are to be around, and what good representatives they are for Illinois. That's what I'd like them to know."

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