Louisiana Academics Staff Embraces “New Normal” Head On During Pandemic
From an outsider's perspective, finals week went as expected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Student-athletes were at their respective homes around the globe, taking tests and submitting papers online and studying with their peers through Zoom calls and over the phone. Internally, however, it was a different story for Louisiana's Academics staff, who, like their colleagues around the country, faced a new normal of their own. Already tasked with maintaining academic eligibility and providing specialized learning services for nearly 450 Ragin' Cajuns student-athletes, the staff of five worked tirelessly to provide the same detailed attention through the new virtual landscape. "The biggest challenge my student-athletes seem to be facing is juggling all aspects of their lives at one time in one place," Learning Specialist Ashlee Jennings said. "Before remote learning, they were very compartmentalized. Academics was on campus. Sport was at the complex. Family was at home. Now everything is together but with a lot of the same expectations and even less accountability. They're expected to take an online exam within an allotted amount of time- while also taking care of the six chores their mom left for them while also getting in a workout, a Zoom mentor meeting, and a Zoom team meeting. All while eating right and staying hydrated. There are sometimes toddlers, grandparents and siblings in our mentor and tutor Zoom meetings. That's okay, though. We get it done. Our student-athletes make me more resilient and adaptable because they rise to the standard." The distractions created as a result of the new social-distancing guidelines presented a new set of issues for the academics staff, who no longer have the luxury of helping tutor student-athletes in the state-of-the art Student-Athlete Academic Center which is housed on campus. "It's difficult to stay focused when you're not in an environment that is conducive to learning or there is a high level of pressure placed on you," Academic Counselor Tambria Bradford said. "This is true for even the very best students. To help my student-athletes with this, I focus on what they want for themselves and we plan. Many of the student-athletes I work with have been told what to do their entire life. You work harder for your own passion so I ask "why" in each advising situation to ensure that they know they are heard, their thoughts are valid and they have a support system in place when they make decisions, decisions that may not be what their parents want." But what about next year? This is the question that the academics staff is helping Louisiana's student-athletes try and navigate while continuing to guide them through the end of 2019-20. "My message to our student-athletes during our weekly meetings is always centered around worrying about the things in life you have control over," Academic Counselor Jill Abbott said. "Despite the fact there are no college sports at the moment, they are still a collegiate student-athlete. I encourage them to study and train harder than anyone else on their team because it will show in the classroom and on the field or court next year." Despite the unknowns inherent in this pandemic, the dedication and support provided by the academics staff has been unwavering. They are a group of professionals who have had to completely change their norms to cater to the needs of 450 Ragin' Cajun student-athletes. "By being present, we've been able to maintain some consistency, accountability and normalcy when every other aspect of life has been flipped on its head," Academic Counselor Phillip Pinkston said. "This has been a trying semester for all of us, but I think that it has strengthened our relationships even more and shown the importance of those bonds." So, during finals week and as the academic year comes to a close, who better to take advice from than the late, great Tony Robichaux? "Coach Robe said a lot of people choose to sit down when it's time to stand up," Abbott said. "I remind myself of that on days where the frustration and monotony start to seep in. You can either stand up and get to work, or sit down and watch Tiger King or play Fortnite – the choice is yours. While it has been a challenging few months and the future remains uncertain, the Louisiana Academics staff is up to the task. Thank you, Christy, Phil, Tambria, Jill and Ashlee.