By Maria Evangelou, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Penn State women’s and men’s gymnastics teams may be known for their flips, sticks, and landings in the gym, but the teams are also highly renowned in another, arguably more important category- their academics.
With such a prestigious gymnastics program and standard Penn State sets for its student-athletes, the university emphasizes the importance of having academic support on campus. The gymnastics teams are linked to Sarah Cowart, their academic advisor who is their right-hand person for anything academic, career development, or study related. Both head coach Sarah Brown of the women’s squad, and men’s head coach Randy Jepson, work closely alongside Cowart and their athletes to ensure a close relationship and involvement between student and advisor.
“Sarah has been great in that she understands the kind of give and take of the different majors we have,” Jepson said. “We have a lot of engineers, biomedical engineers and that kind of thing. Certain times of the year they have a pretty regimented curriculum.”
“She helps with our guys when they are going on the road and helping them get those excuse letters out so there is a good correspondence with the professors and those kinds of things,” he added. “Rescheduling exams too, she’s even organized exams to be proctored on the road if they had to be. There is a whole host of things that are really appreciated by our guys.”
The men’s team consists of many student-athletes in tough majors, including redshirt junior Noah Roberson. A stellar competitor on the squad, Roberson is a double-major in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. Roberson took 19 credits this past semester, and is also a member of Shreyers Honors College while maintaining his 4.0 GPA. He has earned a number of prestigious academic and athletic awards through the NCAA and Big Ten.
Out of last semester’s 21 male gymnasts, 13 made Dean’s List, with many pursuing a number of engineering and pre-med majors.
“Sarah’s been a great help with keeping us as a whole and me organized with classes we have to take and being on track towards not only graduating but meeting NCAA requirements and such,” Roberson said. “It’s good having that resource at your back to kind of make up for any mistake you have.”
This summer, Roberson has been given the opportunity to work with prosthetics at Stryker, a medical devices and equipment manufacturing company. He hopes this internship will also call upon his gymnastics background and interests. In the past, he has also interned with Delphi Technologies.
“She has access to basically watch what we do and make moves academically,” he added. “So, she makes sure we are taking the right classes, make sure we are eligible, she’s texting us talking to us when she’s see something come up right away. She’s been really on top of that.”
The men’s squad isn’t the only group with challenging degrees, as the women’s team is right there with them. Amber Autry is a junior majoring in kinesiology, Alissa Bonsall and Tess McCracken are both taking on biomedical engineering, senior Brianna Tsang is a biobehavioral health major, and Kourtney Chinnery studies biology, to name a few.
“Sarah Cowart is a huge part of our team’s academic success,” Brown said on Cowart with her athletes. “She assists with scheduling classes around practice time and guides our athlete through the necessary steps to be prepared for graduation. We are so thankful for all that she does.”
The student-athletes, both men and women, spend a large amount of their time in Morgan Academic Center, a student-athlete specific study space and academic advising hub, where Cowart is headquartered. The building, which opened up for student-athletes in 2015, houses a team of academic advisors, sports psychologists, and other academic specialists supports all 31 Division I teams at Penn State. The staff’s goals are academic preparedness, supporting them day-to-day in and out of the classroom, study skills, what classes will work best with their athletes, etc.
Cowart specifically works with men’s soccer, wrestling, and men’s and women’s gymnastics.
Her role begins as soon as freshmen student-athletes come in, when she meets with them once a week to make sure their schedules work, their time management is under control, and what the semester ahead is looking like.
McCracken has her hands full between gymnastics and her rigorous major, and the extra help has been huge for her.
“This semester I’m taking my first biomedical class and it’s the hardest class I’ve ever taken,” she said. “The coaches are really accommodating and Sarah was extremely understanding and helpful and just really helped to work around practice to make sure I was focused on school.”
Despite having a number of student-athletes under her care, Cowart believes in specialized plans and individualization for each of them.
“Everyone’s different when they come in,” Cowart said. “Everyone comes in with a different academic background and learning style. When you come in as a student-athlete, I don’t think your background and your sport matters specifically, because each student is different, and every case is going to be different.”
Through advising, Cowart organizes individualized tutoring programs, where she says that key components include honing in on study skills that a student might have missed in high school or even middle school. She serves as a secondary advisor to each student-athlete’s specific college advisor, who focuses on their major specifically. Cowart is their first call if they need anything academically, especially on heavier or more stressful weeks. In addition, she not only helps with major selection for undecided athletes, but also finding what they’re passionate about and pushing them towards grad school or a job right after college.
“Sarah’s a much more specific advisor, she’s the one that we go to with all of our classes and she helps us organize it around our practice schedule,” McCracken said. “She is great with pertaining to the fact that we’re student-athletes as well as just students and that’s helpful as well. On the team, we all hold each other accountable to make sure that we’re completing like we need to. If we miss study hall hours, the whole team is held responsible because we are a team, not just a bunch of individuals. We want everyone to succeed.”
Cowart’s mantra is to keep the student-athletes focused, organized, and committed to all their responsibilities, following into graduation time.
“We know that gymnastics is going to end, so what does that five to ten-year plan look like after gymnastics is over?” Cowart said. “We want to prepare them for making an impact after they walk out the door at Penn State, and it comes down to them as an individual person.”
Overall, Cowart is confident in the strong set of gymnasts that she is proud to work with at Penn State.
“It comes down to the recruiting, the student-athletes we recruit, and what our students stand for and value,” Cowart said. “And I highly believe that our students not only value being student-athletes, but also students.”
“They know that not only will they come to Penn State with an amazing athletic experience, but also a Penn State degree,” she added. “As a whole, both gymnastics teams really strive hard to succeed in the classroom. They put in a phenomenal number of hours in study hall, not only completing study hours and homework, but also meeting with tutors and mentors. They really strive to meet their goals and they set the bar high. It comes down to what they want to do in life.”
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