|Scholar-athletes, past and present, spend a lot of time in the library, Jessica Ellerman ’03 (right) when visiting her Newville, Pa., home from Pitt Medical School, and Becky Harker ’07 and Matthew Keys ’06.
Meal times aside, the real hub of activity at Dickinson these days is not the HUB (Holland Union Building). Morning, noon and night you’re likely to find countless student bodies flexing their muscles at the Kline Center for Athletics. Whether studying for an upcoming psych test—textbook propped on the bookstand of a stationary bike—running defense drills with the varsity basketball team or blowing off steam with intramural kickball, most students are involved in some form of athletics.
Athletics, whether played with high commitment on a varsity team or casually through a five-week intramural league, “are a critical element of the educational experience for a much higher proportion of enrolled students here than at an NCAA Division I school,” according to Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment management and college relations.
A full quarter of Dickinson’s student population participates in varsity athletics, a “little on the high side for a small Division III school,” says Massa. That’s 550 athletes playing intercollegiately for 23 teams. About 60 percent of students play on intramural teams or club sports, such as ice hockey or men’s volleyball. Club teams compete against other schools and have Student Senate funding but do not have college-provided coaches. Intramural sports, says Les Poolman, athletics director, are “low-key [on campus] competitions that students see as a form of catharsis.”
Division III schools often are called the last bastions of amateur sports because, unlike at Divisions I and II institutions, no athletic scholarships are awarded. Division III officials have been mindful about keeping athletics and academics in healthy balance, voting at a 2004 NCAA convention for requirements that would help colleges keep their athletics programs amateur. A key new measure requires each member college to conduct an annual audit of financial-aid packages, measuring aid granted to athletes against allocations to nonathletes.
Though the paperwork is tedious, Poolman welcomes the reform. “This is one more step to keep D III athletics pure. At Dickinson we found that we give the same amount of financial aid to athletes that we do to everyone else.” Schools that provide sweeter deals to athletes will face NCAA sanctions, Poolman says.
The rules help to keep academics in the forefront. “I do not want student-athletes to come here primarily to play a sport,” says Massa. “They need to be in line with the college mission—becoming a citizen leader in a global context and they can play their sport. They can do both at Dickinson.”
Division III athletes, though not financially rewarded, are no less talented than scholarship athletes. Notes Dina Henry, women’s basketball coach, “some of our athletes could go to D I or D II schools but like D III’s emphasis on academics. Sometimes I ask my players why they chose D III. It’s the same answer that I give about coaching at a D III school. I want to have a life. I want to spend time with my child and my husband. When you’re at a high-profile scholarship school, you don’t have as much freedom.”
Matthew Keys ’06, a small forward who reached the 1,000-point mark during his four years with varsity basketball, concurs. “I love basketball and giving time to it, but at a D I school, it’s your life for years. I would have been in the gym all the time. Certainly, it would have worn on me. What I love about this school is the good relationships I’ve developed with professors.”
He also values the great friendships he formed with players and coaches. “Over four years we bonded,” he says. “My best friends were met through basketball, and I hope we stay in touch after graduation.” Though he often was spotted walking with the tallest guys on campus, Keys says he had plenty of friends outside the team. “This is a small enough school that you have friends in different clubs.”
An international business & management major, Keys maintained a 3.5 average and, this spring, anticipated launching a career that combines two passions, sports and business. A two-year fellowship with the U.S. Golf Association in Colorado Springs will put the ball in his court.
One of six fellows—the others are from Middlebury, Penn, Columbia, the University of Kentucky and Michigan State—Keys will travel to evaluate grant applications submitted to For the Good of the Game: The Grant Initiative. The Golf Association’s charitable program provides $5 million to 175 organizations each year around the country to introduce disadvantaged children to golf.
“I had fun with basketball, but it’s time to move on,” Keys says. “Golf is my first passion. I had a great education, and now I want to use that education to go into the business world.”
As with Keys, the scholar comes before the athlete in Becky Harker ’07, who was recruited to play field hockey. “I was looking at a bigger,
D I school. But I liked the atmosphere of D III,” says the chemistry major. “It’s very relaxed, but we still play hard. Our farthest game is two-and-a-half hours away on a Saturday, so I don’t have to miss classes.
“The coaches put academics first,” Harker adds. “People are always coming late to practice, but we are never encouraged to miss class. This helps, since I have labs in the afternoon. I can focus on academics while still playing sports.”
The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes. Harker received a scholarship this spring from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. The scholarship will support further research in medicinal chemistry, an ongoing project she’s shared with David Crouch, associate professor of chemistry, during the academic year and now for her second summer. The 323 Goldwater scholars were selected for their academic merit from among 1,000 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide.
“I would like to do research work in pharmaceuticals, but I also like my political-science classes, so I may go into law or law and policy,” Harker muses. Will sports remain a part of her life? “I’d like to play club field hockey after graduation.”
Another student/athlete who’s kept her sport alive is Jessica Ellerman ’03. Now at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine with an interest in surgical oncology, Ellerman continues her other love, running. A cross-country standout, Ellerman has run in three marathons since graduating from Dickinson, recently placing third in her age group in the Harrisburg Marathon.
Working out “is an effective way to deal with stress,” she says. “There are people in my class who smoke and are overweight. Very few did a competitive sport in college—three or four out of 150 did. I can’t imagine having a life without the opportunity to go outside and run.” As a future physician, Ellerman also feels it is important to be a role model for her patients by exercising and maintaining a healthy diet.
While cross country encouraged a healthy lifestyle, the competitive level of Dickinson’s program, perennially top 10 in the country, has enabled her to deal with the pressure to excel.
“It’s helped me enormously to realize that I don’t have to kill myself to be number one in medical school,” Ellerman explains. “I had to deal with that fact, because we were all similar coming to Dickinson from high school as number-one runners. I’d think, ‘Hmm, she’s number one, too.’ It’s the same in medical school. We’re all Phi Beta Kappas.”
Learning through the cross-country program to be a team player also has helped Ellerman. “Medicine is a team-based community. You have to be an effective member of a team and not always get your way.”
Lessons learned on the lacrosse field have assisted John Devlin ’90 as a senior vice president at Lehman Brothers in New York City. “When I was an athlete [at Dickinson] I was kept very busy and had to have discipline to get my work done,” he relates. “The time commitment was 25 to 30 hours per week in season, with travel. I had to have discipline to train and get ready for the season. These are values I apply in my work in investments.”
Devlin enjoys relaying how his Dickinson lacrosse experience enriched his life in college and after. For the last five years he’s helped former teammate and current men’s coach Dave Webster ’88 with recruitment, sending out letters on his company letterhead and meeting personally with prospects.
“I like giving back,” says Devlin. “I’ve seen a difference in this place in the last six or seven years. It’s a great school becoming greater, which only helps the value of my degree. President Durden and Dr. Massa really listened to the alumni and student base—that’s why I’m involved. They put an emphasis on athletics as a key part of the overall success of the school. As a result, the quality of the coaching has improved dramatically.”
Improving athletics was a key strategy when Durden and Massa arrived in 1999, the latter confirms. First, the administrative team moved athletics from the academic-affairs division to one tasked with student recruitment and alumni relations.
“It was in the college’s best interest to align recruitment efforts of coaches and the recruitment efforts of the admissions office,” Massa explains. “Over the last seven years we’ve been able to recruit student-athletes who were an appropriate academic fit with Dickinson to a greater extent than in the past.
“Coaches visit areas of the country where Dickinson has admissions objectives,” he adds. “Coaches are part of the strategic-planning exercises in admissions.”
Another imperative of the Durden administration was realignment of the coaching staff. Some sports, namely softball and volleyball, field hockey and lacrosse, had coaches pulling double duty.
“We had split positions,” Massa says. “In order to win more games than they were losing, coaches needed time to recruit the right kind of student-athletes, students who can handle the work at Dickinson and excel at athletics. When you’re responsible for recruiting for two sports, the deck is stacked.
“We also had a strong desire to build a men’s and women’s lacrosse program,” Massa recalls. “If we had them, we wanted them to be competitive.” The women ended the regular spring season 12-3, their best ever, and the men were 11-3.
“We’re pretty much where we need to be with every sport now,” he says. “This was our most successful win/loss year ever.”
Poolman confirms Massa’s claim, noting that “the state of Dickinson athletics success is cyclical. In the early ’90s the football team won championships seven years in a row. Our strengths have been cross country and track for the last several years. Men’s and women’s soccer, women’s basketball and both lacrosse teams are now coming on.” But there is no danger that Dickinson will become “a jock school,” he says assuredly, for the coaches are adept at recruiting “kids who are a good fit for Dickinson athletically and academically.”
From the coach’s vantage point, Dina Henry says, “If we don’t graduate students with high marks, we’re not staying true to our jobs—building leaders to go into the world and succeed.”