Berkeleyan Article

Faculty Athletic Fellows program goes beyond good sportsmanship. New program gives Cal athletes a competitive edge off the playing field.
By Wendy Edelstein, Public Affairs | 20 October 2005
Sam Mchombo’s linguistics classes regularly attract a cross-section of student-athletes. Several semesters ago, two-thirds of the men’s basketball team was enrolled in his Swahili class.

The demographic mix in Mchombo’s classes didn’t always include a sizable number of Cal athletes. A change in his own attitude, says Mchombo, led to a new way of relating to students who spend much of their time and energy training and competing.

Mchombo, Sam”I was one of the people who really misunderstood athletes,” Mchombo says. The associate professor underwent a transformation three years ago, when he attended Faculty Night, an annual event the Athletic Study Center holds to increase understanding between faculty and entering freshman athletes. Whereas previously Mchombo grappled with student-athletes’ occasional absences, now he accommodates players when they return from road trips by offering make-up sessions to ensure they don’t struggle or lag behind.

“We love sports at Berkeley and want our students to project the great image of our institution. At the same time, we forget that for them to give us that glory, they must put in a lot of time,” he says.

Mchombo’s support of student-athletes now extends beyond the classroom, thanks to a program launched last fall by the Athletic Study Center, a unit of the Division of Undergraduate Education offering a range of academic support services to student athletes. Faculty Athletic Fellows is intended to help foster the success of student-athletes off the field. While cheering on the women’s soccer team from the sidelines, Mchombo also has an “informal arrangement” with the players, where he encourages them to talk to him about any academic challenges they are experiencing.

Faculty Athletic Fellows is designed to “enhance the relationship between student-athletes and faculty, and build intellectual, academic, and career-oriented mentorships,” says Derek Van Rheenen, director of the Athletic Study Center. “We’re trying to honor the institutional commitment to these young men and women,” he says, “and help them realize their academic, as well as their athletic, potential.”

Within 48 hours of e-mailing the program’s invitation last fall, the Athletic Study Center received 50 responses from interested participants — more than enough to pair each of the campus’s 27 intercollegiate sports teams with a faculty member. Faculty involvement can take any number of forms: talking to recruits, meeting with athletes interested in majoring in their field or their research, attending the Student Athlete Academic Awards Banquet, cheering from the bench at home games, or traveling with the team to away games. Faculty participants come from all over the campus — from architecture to the sciences to the business school.