Students compete in the classroom, on the field

June 9, 2010

When the elevator doors open on the second floor of the Carson Student-Athlete Center of Arizona State University, a large mural greets visitors with the words: “Sun Devils GRADUATE!” It’s a goal given equal weight and effort to winning a national championship.

So it was with no surprise that student-athletes, coaches and staff at ASU reacted to this week’s news that they are ranked second in the Pac-10 Academic Progress Ratings, bested only by Stanford. It’s a point of pride they rank right up there with their 12th place in the Learfield Sports Director’s Cup, given annually to the top all-around athletic department in the nation. Download Full Image

“When you’re talking about Arizona State, you’re talking about one of the top performing athletic programs in the country and that includes academic performance,” said Lisa Love, vice president for University Athletics. “We stand on a three-legged stool – academic achievement, championship achievement and doing it all with honor.

For more than a decade, ASU has seen a trajectory upward in terms of academic performance. It is the result of the dedication and hard work of the Office of Student-Athlete Development, led by Jean Boyd, associate athletic director, as well as the student-athletes, themselves, coaches, tutors, mentors and faculty.

ASU has had a well-developed academic support unit for student-athletes during the past 20 years, according to Boyd, as athletic departments across the country have increasingly focused energy and resources toward the academic success of their student-athletes. 

In 1997 an academic task force was convened at the university to focus on improving retention and graduation rates of student-athletes. Some important strategies were put into place such as mandatory academic advising for all student-athletes each semester, enhancements to tutoring support, and the implementation of academic mentors to work with at-risk students.

In 2003 Boyd became director of student-athlete development and implemented programs across the entire department that had been highly effective in working with football student-athletes. An assessment tool was created for all incoming and continuing student-athletes to put them in categories of low, medium and high risk.

“For the high risk students we created an individualized education plan to provide the structure and resources required to achieve academic success,” Boyd said. “For sports such as men’s Basketball, baseball, football, and wrestling, the office of student-athlete development partnered with faculty and other university support offices along with coaches to create academic improvement plans to create effective support systems. These improvement plans have been fully executed and in part are producing many of the outcomes we are seeing today.”

Men’s basketball, under head coach Herb Sendek, has seen its APR scores soar 129 points, from 843 to 972, while baseball improved from 853 to 966, and wrestling shot up from 883 to 946.

“Much of the credit goes to our student-athletes themselves,” Sendek said. “At the end of the day they’re the one’s who open their books and actually do the work. We are also really blessed here at Arizona State with a phenomenal academic support system and our sport, in particular, has had some tremendous academic coaches. We do an excellent job of meeting students’ needs – it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Jean and his staff do a tremendous job of evaluating, of really staying on top of what a particular student needs.”

Allante Battle, a student-athlete in track and field, takes advantage of the services offered through the Office of Student-Athlete Development. A strong academic support system was important to both him and his parents – both former ASU student-athletes – when he was looking to attend college.

“I have some learning disabilities and the academic coaches help me with testing and staying on track,” said Battle, who was recently studying for finals in the student-athlete lounge. “I have two tutors and a mentor I meet with everyday and we go over what I need to work on and accomplish.”

Battle is studying sociology and education and said he may follow in the footsteps of his mother, Anna, who is principal at Desert Vista High School.

Boyd said the APR ratings, and particularly the improvements ASU teams have made under his leadership are “gratifying and humbling,” and the credit belongs to the entire ASU community that supports its students, as well as his staff.

“I’d line my team up against anyone in the country,” Boyd said. “They clock in every day to make a difference in young people’s lives.”

Sharon Keeler

Senior named one of top students in the country

June 9, 2010

At 22, Josh Niska has an eye-popping record of achievement, not the least of which is having been involved in cancer research at the Translational Genomics Research Institute since he was a student at Gilbert High School.

He has trekked through the Amazon region of Ecuador with a surgeon and a shaman, exploring the connections between cultural traditions and modern health care among the indigenous people of the Napo province. Download Full Image

He has published peer-reviewed research papers, presented his findings at national conferences, captained intramural basketball and soccer teams, tutored at the ASU Writing Center, learned Spanish, mentored students at Mesquite High School through Young Life and served as song leader at his church.

Now Niska has been named one of the top 20 college students in the country by USA Today. Having graduated ASU in May in biochemistry with an emphasis in medicinal chemistry, he is featured in the newspaper’s June 9 issue as one of 20 students named to the All-USA College Academic First Team for exceptional intellectual achievement and leadership.

ASU has had more students named to the prestigious award than any other public university in the nation, with 13 students winning First-Team honors in 18 years. Only Harvard and Duke have had more students win the honor.

“Josh is a remarkable young man, a serious and successful student, and also a really great guy,” says Jane Maienschein, Regents’ Professor and director of the Center for Biology and Society who was his honors thesis adviser. “He never took the easy way, but wanted to try on new ideas and approaches. His thesis does a terrific job of exploring the complex issues involved with modern medicine, and especially with its global challenges.

“In addition, he cares about doing good in the world and about his own values and principles. He volunteers not just to get an addition to his resume but to help and learn.”

As a high school senior, Niska’s fascination with science led him to volunteer in the Brain Tumor Unit at TGen, exploring the effects of gene expression levels on invading cells of brain cancer. Once at ASU he won a position in the Breast & Ovarian Cancer Research Unit, spending his summers in the lab, and he was awarded funding during the school year as an ASU School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellow.

When he won a Goldwater Scholarship last year, Heather Cunliffe, TGen investigator and adjunct faculty at ASU, said Niska is “without question, the most talented student I have ever interacted with. He is a delight to mentor. He truly is the ‘dream student’ that laboratories wish to have.”

Niska was named outstanding graduate from Barrett, the Honors College, and he also graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In recent weeks Niska has accepted admission to Harvard Medical School. He also has just returned from his honeymoon, having gotten married on May 23 to Emily Cole, who just graduated in English literature and women and gender studies and will pursue a dual master's at Brandeis. It’s an exciting and busy time for an impressive young man.