In this Higher Ed Careers interview, the director of athletics and recreational programs at the College of DuPage discusses the value of athletics for students at the community college level and shares how the college redesigned its athletic program to better serve students.
Leah Jackson, HigherEdJobs: To some people in higher ed, athletics and community college may not always seem like they go together. However, there are many benefits to being a community college athlete. Are there common misconceptions about the value of this experience?
Ryan Kaiser, College of DuPage: Many students who attend community college are there to reap the benefits of an affordable education that is provided within their local community. Student-athletes who take advantage of the community college route truly are ‘betting on themselves.’ Not everyone has the means to go to a private four-year institution and afford that type of ‘experience.’
Students who attend community college get the same interactions whether it be social, mental, academic, or physical. The resources provided by community colleges are significant.
There are many benefits to participating in athletic activities whether at a four-year institution or at a two-year college. I honestly think the benefits are the same: a sense of belonging, comradery, pride in oneself and the institution that you represent, leadership opportunities, working through a season, weightlifting, practices, bus trips, giving of oneself for the betterment of the team. These are just a few examples…at the community college level. If a student-athlete had a successful career at the high school level and maybe is not getting recruited at the level they thought they would, instead of calling it a career, we get many students who ‘aren’t done playing’ and come to us. They inquire about the opportunity to continue playing at the college level and ‘tryout’ for the different sport they are interested in playing. We are all about student participation as we believe it helps them work towards a degree, keeps them better engaged as a student, and possibly helps the college in retention and persistence of that student at the community college level. We have open tryouts for all of our teams throughout the year.
Jackson: What about the benefits to the institution and the surrounding community?
Kaiser: One of the biggest benefits that we have here at the College of DuPage is we have built tremendous community relationships with groups and organizations that count on us to host their athletic events here on our campus. The district uses our facilities for their youth programs as much as we can host them, including for basketball, volleyball, community walks, football, track and field, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and softball. This means we constantly have prospective students coming to campus, as well as youth all the way down to eight years old. This wide range of ages allows us to market ourselves as being in the community…for the community.
Jackson: Earlier this year, you led a session at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual conference about redesigning your athletics program at the College of DuPage. What factors led to this redesign — and are they common issues for athletic departments?
Kaiser: I like to call the redesign of our athletic department a ‘COVID Blessing.’ When I first got here in January of 2020, I realized these students were not having the student-athlete experience that I wanted them to have. We want to provide our athletes with a four-year experience in a two-year model. The basis for the redesign was not having enough touchpoints for our athletes throughout the day with athletic staff who could help ‘gauge’ how our athletes were doing on a daily basis. Previously, they might interact with just their coach…and never speak to anyone else throughout the day. This is problematic because it is of my opinion that we need to meet these students where they are in their educational journey. This varies from one end of the spectrum to the other. Attrition and retention of students is a problem that every single educational entity has. How do we improve this so we keep the students who are here? How do we figure out what the issues are before a student decides they don’t believe in the institution anymore and need to move on?
Jackson: Tell us about the redesign. What changes did you make, and how did they impact the program? How did you get buy-in from stakeholders on the changes? Were there challenges? What advice or lessons can you share for other institutions that might be in need of an athletics program redesign like this?
Kaiser: I realized that we needed to have more touchpoints for our student-athletes as they went through their ‘regular day.’ At the time, the head or the assistant coach were the only touchpoints throughout the day…that was if they were in season. Most teams, after their seasons were over, would call it a day, and we would see the athletes again next year.
The athletic department was functioning in a manner that only provided our students with the opportunity to be an athlete during their season. As soon as the season was over, people disappeared. This is not the environment that I believed in. Being a student-athlete required a commitment for the 10 months people were on campus. It would involve: practice, film, games, travel, weight-lifting, and conditioning — on top of going to school full-time.
Having COVID happen in March of 2020 was a blessing in disguise.
We decided to review the amount of people we had working in our fitness center. There were certain individuals who desired to be forward facing with the students rather than just ‘fitness center monitors.’ We realized that most of our athletes did not have much connection to the rest of the athletic department other than through their coach. We repositioned two of our fitness center staff who desired to be more impactful in their positions. They became the new strength and conditioning coaches for the athletic department. Along with those individuals, we hired a new full-time assistant athletic director for student eligibility and services. This position works closely with our academic/athletic counselors and provides yet another touchpoint for our student-athletes on the academic and compliance side of the house.
The extra connection was essential during that time because many of our athletes were held up in their houses…most places were locked down and people were unable to see each other as colleges and universities pivoted to virtual learning. We secured approval through the administration to continue to allow physical fitness (weight training and conditioning outside). We realized very early on that the touchpoint that our strength and conditioning staff had with the athletes might be the one and only interaction these students were having outside of their living environment. This became very critical from the emotional, social, and growth aspect of the college students’ lives as this moment in time was something that none of us had ever experienced before. Students felt very alone, isolated, and depressed because most students only saw their professors and classmates in a virtual capacity. The student-athletes who chose to come into the college to get in a lift and conditioning reported feeling connected to and cared for by the staff they were working with. By making this subtle move, it restored a connection back to the college and a sense of belonging within the sub-group of student-athletes.
Providing the redesign allowed the athletic department to meet these students where they were in a time of critical need. It wasn’t until a year later we really understood how much impact this change had on our student-athletes. It allowed our students to persevere and accomplish their goals in an unparalleled time in the world. My suggestion to other colleges is to meet the students where they are. Don’t just listen to what they have to say — hear them and respond with appropriate care and concern. We realized, over time, this changed their level of commitment to the college, because we heard them and provided the outlet they needed to help get them through this challenging time.
In the three years since I’ve come to the College of DuPage, we’ve won nine National Championships (two for football, five for track and field, one for men’s cross country, and one for women’s volleyball), two Daktronics All Sports Trophies and one runner up, and the 2022-2023 Learfield Cup presented by NACDA to the best athletic department in the country at the junior college level.
We did all of this off the buy-in and commitment from our student-athletes and coaches.
Jackson: Tell us about your current role and what led you there. What keeps you engaged in your work and motivated to make a difference in athletics at a community college?
Kaiser: I am entering my fourth year as director of athletics and recreation here at the College of DuPage. Like many institutions recently and especially after COVID, I was last at a university right outside of St. Louis that could not financially make it and subsequently closed. Although that time in my life was very enjoyable, it was also the most challenging moment of my professional career. Standing in front of all of your peers and co-workers and telling them our school is going to close was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career.
So, I was losing my job and needed to find another one. Luckily, my best friend Wendy McManus had moved to Chicago in the past year and was the athletic director at Elmhurst University. On one of her walks, she walked onto the campus of College of DuPage. Like most athletic administrators, she walked around until she found the athletic department to look at their facilities. She inquired at the front desk who the AD was, and they said they were currently looking for a new one. She called me later that night and put me onto this opportunity. I am forever grateful to her for helping me identify this job and encouraging me to look at the community college level.
The College of DuPage has been my favorite experience so far in higher education. As a twenty year professional in college athletics, we are supported by the administration and can provide a high quality experience that allows our student-athletes to be successful both in the classroom and on the courts, fields, and fairways. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing our student-athletes compete for national championships, get their associate degrees, and watch them continue on to the next level to complete their college athletic careers.