DEGREE Program serves as a one-stop shop for struggling CSUF student-athletes

Located in the far end of second floor of Langsdorf Hall, Cal State Fullerton student-athletes shift from cheering crowds to a quiet area exclusive to them and their studies.

Between juggling time to focus on their sport and to study, CSUF athletes can find themselves in a bit of a predicament when it comes to prioritizing their class work in a space they call “The Lab.”

For a regular college student, sitting at the brink of a C- with the possibility of failing the next exam holds few penalties, but for student-athletes, not passing courses and failing to meet the benchmark for eligibility by the NCAA means the whole team can possibly go down with them.

The biggest risks are being banned from competing in postseason matches, reduction of scholarships and practice time.

Although the lab is open to all student-athletes, in the evenings, the small room turns into an even greater resource for at-risk students known as the Division I, Eligibility, Graduation, Retention, Engage, Empower Program (DEGREE).

Working as a “one-stop shop”, DEGREE is closing out its first full running year and takes a different approach as it offers tutoring and academic counseling sessions, a drastic change for student-athletes since they weren’t always held this accountable.

Taking a holistic approach in its resources, DEGREE serves as an academic support program for student-athletes enrolled in remedial course or those whose GPA sits below 2.50.

The NCAA creates stricter eligibility requirements each year, and Allyson Kelly, assistant director for Athletic Academic Services, said the program was introduced to make sure CSUF student-athletes had the resources to meet their expectations.

Before the introduction of DEGREE, athletes were required to complete at least five hours a week in the athletics study room. However, once administrators realized that most of these hours proved to be unproductive, Meredith Basil, associate athletics airector, and the rest of the department decided it was time to move in another direction.

They might have been quiet, following the lab rules, but were they really getting all of their work done? This is more of an accountable study time, so it’s a little more intrusive,” Basil said.

Although similar programs exist at other Division I universities, DEGREE is specifically tailored to fit the needs of Titan student-athletes, something Basil said is appealing to prospective students considering the success it has shown since the induction of the program.

Heather Konkle, DEGREE program coordinator, said there has been a positive upward shift in the overall GPA of student-athletes, as a result of the accountability that is pushed through the program.

Students inducted in the DEGREE program are required to set up appointments to meet with their mentors, who set up plans for the week to make sure these student-athletes aren’t missing any assignments.

Despite having one-on-one sessions with these tutors, Basil said the biggest support for the program comes from the coaches themselves, who are always pushing these students to meet with the tutors at hand.

“Everything gets reported to the coaches, so the coaches are always in the loop about what’s going on … initially, that was a rough transition,” Konkle said. “We’re finding that the lab is more and more busy compared to the first semester where everyone was resistant.”

The pilot semester was a big transition for both student-athletes and the coaches, but although there was pushback from athletes opposed to receiving extra attention, Konkle said the program has opened new doors for the relationships built with athletes.

“I think that the student-athletes feel supported,” Konkle said. “Between their academic advisors and us, they can always get the help that they need … even if it’s just for moral support and encouragement, we can do that too. I think we’re supporting them now more than ever and I think they’re taking notice.

Desran Desir, CSUF track and field sophomore, was one of the athletes who would visit the lab just to log in hours and not do any productive work, that is until he was put into DEGREE in spring 2017.

Although he is still adjusting to the novelties behind the program, Desir said DEGREE has “worked wonders” in the way his study habits have shifted.

“When I first started the program, I was treating it as just knocking off my hours because it wasn’t heavily focused on the tutors and the mentors,” Desir said. “Now, after my tasks are completed, I find out that I did six or seven hours when I only needed to do four. I used to just come in and stay in for four hours and now I’m actually doing stuff and going past that limit without knowing.”

Taking a slow-release approach for the athletes who are in DEGREE has given Basil and Kelly the peace of mind that their athletes are ready for the next step. Their most important objective is to make sure these individuals grow, develop and thrive along with the program.

“We want to make sure that they know where their resources are and we want to make sure that they transition well. They have all the resources they need, so they can really thrive and grow,” Basil said. “Their success on the field is great, that’s wonderful, but they’re students first. (The counselors) are here to make sure that that piece of their career is primary.”

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