Citizen Leaders and Sports Ethics Community Impact Fellowship
Prepared by Rory Tasker, M.A., Ph.D. student, June 2021 (Updated August 2021)
Edited by Ellen I. Graves, M.Ed., June 2021
Last Update: September 2021
The Citizen Leaders and Sports Ethics Community Impact Fellowship is a groundbreaking initiative seeking to improve the lives of student athletes through the introduction of concepts of flourishing and wellbeing. The Fellowship builds on the foundation of The Art and Science of Human Flourishing course, and offers an opportunity for student athletes to develop innovative projects for enhancing student wellness. It then assists student athletes in introducing these initiatives into their communities.
The Citizen Leaders and Sports Ethics Community Impact Fellowship (the Fellowship) was born accidentally. The Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) at the University of Virginia (UVA) was expanding its flourishing initiatives through the undergraduate course “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing” (ASFH). The ASHF introduces material from a variety of disciplines including psychology, philosophy, and art to foster holistic well-being. The course culminates with students proposing a project that will enhance flourishing in their on-campus communities.
The Program Director for Student Engagement and Contemplative Instruction was impressed by the projects developed by many of the student athletes for the ASFH course. The projects addressed compelling issues within the student athlete population, a segment of students where wellbeing has not always been emphasized. Hubbard was so impressed that she, in partnership with the UVA Athletics Department, created the Citizen Leaders and Sports Ethics Community Impact Fellowship. The Fellowship provided opportunities for some of the student athletes to implement their projects.
The Fellowship is a year-long commitment where selected student athletes are responsible for implementing the programs they proposed during the ASHF course. The applied aspect of the Fellowship is particularly relevant for athletes, who sometimes miss out on internship and professional development programs due to their sporting commitments. The practical aspect of the program provides resume-ready experience and tangible skills for life after college.
The Fellowship complements the academic curriculum, specifically the ASHF course and introduces skills such as stress management, wellbeing, and vocational discernment. The Fellowship aspect of the initiative centers engagement with student athletes in a co-curricular, supervised setting, empowering them to implement flourishing within the athletic community.
In one classroom exercise student athletes identified challenges related to well-being and flourishing of their team communities. They subsequently chose concepts from the ASHF course that they thought were helpful for addressing the articulated challenge for their capstone project.
Initially, Hubbard identified twenty excellent proposals from student athletes with grades of B+ or higher and recruited the writers to apply for the Fellowship. Five of the twenty nominated students decided to apply, and four were accepted after the review process.
UVA student athlete Maddie was passionate about her volleyball team and sought to improve the team’s cohesion and relationships. For her project she developed peer-to-peer strategies for building compassionate team relationships through awareness of each other’s emotions. Her project built itself “from the bottom up”, stressing independent student participation without extensive staff involvement.
A member of the men’s lacrosse team, Quinn, developed a distinctive capstone project while taking the ASHF course, and was nominated for the fellowship. He filmed himself doing one-on-one mindfulness coaching with some of his teammates for the proposal and wanted to continue the practice for his fellowship year. Hubbard did a close reading of a book by a sports psychologist with Quinn to explore ways of sharing contemplative practices with his team. Quinn then crafted a contemplative curriculum which he piloted to his teammates.
Because the fellowship is developed and guided by the athletes themselves, it naturally and authentically addresses aspects of student athletic culture and lived experience. Its foundation is the connections between student athletes and their teams. The individual projects are value-building and contribute to team cohesion without onerous time and resource requirements.
As natural leaders, many student athletes have significant influence on the culture of college communities. For this reason programs that educate them in flourishing and well-being will permeate into other areas of the institution. As they are often passionate about their teams, athletes are invested in facilitating the success and mental health of their teammates.
Athletics is a central component of cultural life at UVA. The university boasts a highly ranked collegiate athletics program with 17 NCAA championships. While student athletes enjoy a respected status at UVA, they are under significant pressure to perform and face demands on their time and limitations on their social and personal lives.
CSC-Athletics Department Partnership
In 2018, the CSC was approached by the Athletic Department with a request to develop creative ways of engaging with student athletes to promote wellbeing. It was decided to pursue a co-curricular program in this vein as a pilot project.
The ASHF course provided a forum for student athletes to explore the importance of flourishing and wellbeing practices, although tailoring programming to this demographic presents specific challenges. Athletes are often busier than other students due to training schedules that sometimes exceed twenty hours a week, leaving little free time and making extra work unpalatable. In light of this, it was decided to use classroom time for the student athlete initiative.
UVA appointed a new athletic director in 2017. She wanted to enhance the well-being of student athletes by connecting them with resources on flourishing. Her leadership and support facilitated more buy-in from coaches and departmental staff, creating momentum for the initiative.
There are two stakeholders in the Fellowship: the Athletics Department and the CSC. The collaboration allows the CSC to engage a population of the university that has not always been deeply invested in student flourishing and well-being. Direct engagement with the Athletics Department also ensures that students are sufficiently encouraged to participate in the program.
Resources and Funding
In the period since its inception, there has been no direct funding for the Fellowship, it has been delivered very economically using existing resources. Individual projects operate without a budget, relying on the creativity of student athletes to engage their communities using existing resources. Staff from the CSC and the Athletics Department directly mentor the student athlete fellows. Hubbard uses part of her working hours to meet weekly with the fellows and offer support. The Athletic Department funds a ceremony at the conclusion of the program and provides some staffing for program coordination.
Ideally, bookmarked funding would support a dedicated staff, perhaps as one-half of a full-time position, to work specifically on this project. Hubbard is hopeful a permanent or part-time position will eventually be established. Generous funding would allow the formation of a leadership academy to introduce key aspects of ASHF to student athletes, offering them training ambassadors capable of flourishing in their communities.
There has been progress in terms of reaching out for support for the program. The Fellowship has attracted $50,000 in foundation funds beginning in the 2021–2022 academic year. It has yet to be decided how these funds will be utilized.
The most significant challenge remains securing buy-in from student athletes. Currently, only students who have completed the ASHF course are eligible to apply for the Fellowship. Since only a small portion of all student athletes at UVA have taken the course, the number of students who can be fellows is limited. Once fellows are chosen, they face the challenge of developing the necessary buy-in from their coaches and teammates to implement their projects.
The first year of the Fellowship faced a particularly steep challenge. The COVID pandemic presented numerous barriers to the implementation of student projects. Fellows who had invested their time and skills to craft thoughtful and creative initiatives were not able to properly implement them, especially in cases where in-person meetings were required. While it was disappointing for students not to be able to implement the projects they had created, the situation offered the fellows an opportunity to innovate new means of delivery.
The student athlete fellows were engaged, creative, and surprisingly resourceful despite their demanding schedules and limitations imposed by the global pandemic. They produced innovative projects and engaged in meaningful ways with their peers. The program demonstrates how, with initiative and flexibility, challenges like lack of funding can be easily overcome.
Participants and Impact
The Fellowship is a relatively new program, and it is hoped that participation will increase with time. In 2020, four athletes completed the fellowship, and in 2021 five athletes were recruited. In terms of the impact of the outreach of the fellows on their peers, it is estimated that 208 teammates were impacted through the program during the 2020–2021 academic year.
The University of Virginia
UVA is a large, top-tier public research university located in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is home to a student body of around 25,000. Around 6,500 of these are graduate students and the remainder undergraduates. There is a slightly higher ratio of women to men, and approximately 56% of the undergraduate student body is White. The remaining 44% is made up of students from a variety of racial backgrounds including Asian (15.4%), Black or African-American (6.6%), Latino (6.6%), with the remainder identifying as multi-ethnic or “other.”