Every team has to have an objective.
For football, it’s the end zone. For hockey, it’s the goal. For basketball, it’s the hoop.
For the Morgan Academic Support Center, it’s a graduation cap for every single student-athlete.
Don’t know about the Morgan Center? Then you probably aren’t one of Penn State’s more than 800 athletes across 31 teams.
Enter the Bank of America Career Services Building on campus, and most people go right through the wide double doors into the main lobby. But off to one side, a small sign directs student-athletes from all manner of sports to the elevator, upstairs to a suite of offices where 18 people are dedicated to scoring academic victory.
“It’s a unique situation,” said Executive Director Russell Mushinsky.
Look the center up online, and you can find its staff listed on the Penn State athletics website. It serves young men and women whose classwork has to fit around practices, conditioning and competitions. But technically, the office falls under the Office of Undergraduate Education.
“That has always been the goal at Penn State, but now it’s a pretty common model,” he said. At a school that prides itself on a history of academic excellence among its high-achieving sports teams, that’s important.
“Importance is an understatement,” said Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour. “We need to educate and provide experience both in the classroom and outside the classroom.”
Mushinsky heads up his own team, a group of advisers who help student-athletes balance their academic needs against the requirements of the sports that in many cases are making it possible for them to receive a world-class education. A former Penn State baseball player, he knows exactly what the challenges can be.
“It’s not all about those with problems,” said learning specialist Cheryl Anderson. “Sometimes a B-average student wants to be an A-average student.”
For the best, most prepared, most academically advanced student who happens to play a Division I sport, that can mean working on organization and making sure that scheduling works. For students coming in with academic challenges in some areas, that can mean working with tutors to help get up to speed, or providing additional support in other ways.
New students may participate in the summer bridge program, bringing them in to take a class or two over the summer and participating in other programming to help make the adjustment from high school to college easier.
But the Morgan Center staff does not take the place of the academic advisers from a student’s specific college. Mushinsky says the system requires a team approach, with the student, adviser and Morgan Center staff working together.
The adviser maps the course, helping select classes and making recommendations for this political science major or that would-be lawyer. The Morgan Center helps navigate that road.
“We can help make tweaks. We know what their practice schedules are, what their travel will be,” said Anderson. Friday classes, for example, don't work for football players in the fall.
But it’s still up to the student to follow the path. For Anderson, watching that is the most rewarding thing about her job.
“Even a student who, well, maybe school has not been their thing, but then they learn and buy into the whole academic support that we have. Then they realize what their degree is going to mean to them,” she said. “I think it’s really cool to have a student who comes in and they are all about their sport but then all of a sudden, they are all about the degree.”
Right now, Morgan Center activities are spread in four locations around campus. In addition to the main offices, there are other facilities at the Lasch football building, Rec Hall and the East Area Locker Rooms. Each has study space and computer labs. Students can meet with tutors or academic mentors, work on projects and focus on their real job on campus: learning.
“It can be hard,” said Mushinsky. “There is so much attention and scrutiny on their academic progress.”
In May 2016, those four locations will come together under one roof as a $7 million project creates a new home in the old ice rink. It will increase the total space for the center by about 11,000 square feet.
“The efficiency and effectiveness of what can happen in that space is going to improve drastically,” Mushinsky said.
Penn State already posts a graduation rate of 89 percent for its student-athletes. The university recently placed third out of all public institutions in the 65 College Football Playoff automatic qualifying conference schools and Notre Dame for its academic progress rate. Only fellow Big Ten schools Minnesota and Michigan ranked higher among public colleges.
It’s a challenge to keep the numbers that high, but it’s a challenge the staff loves.
“This is the best job I have ever had,” said Anderson.
Ask Mushinsky about the hardest part of his job, and it isn’t about getting an 18-year-old player from a poor-performing high school to keep his grades high enough to swing a bat or serve a volleyball. He laughs.
“Talking them out of taking 21 credits,” he said. But that is the kind of drive many of his students have, and what brings many students to the university in the first place.
“That is the expectation, from everyone. It’s part of our recruiting,” Mushinsky said.