Athletes gone academic? Former equestrian and Canadian basketball player uses past to help athletes succeed in the classroom

by Caitlin Williamson

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Lisa Rawlins

Upon entering the Loyd All-Sports Center on a typical afternoon, a tension surrounds you. Athletes ascend the spiral staircase with their headphones on, “in the zone” preparing for practice. Coaches hustle about installing the latest game plans while administrators focus on the endless mission of recruiting the players.

In this moment, you can feel the pressure of an athletic department with the goal to win. But what about the additional stress on the left defensive tackle who has a chemistry exam tomorrow? Where is the focus of the point guard who has a big game and a term paper due next week?

Enter Lisa Rawlins, director of the Academic Development of Student-Athletes (ADSA) and lead academic counselor for the football team. Rawlins, a former Canadian basketball player and Fresno State collegiate equestrian, has led the ADSA since its inception seven years ago.

She chose this profession because she has the knowledge and collegiate athletic experience to assist student-athletes in achieving their goals, she said.

“I felt comfortable in the field, and did not want to leave the field of athletics. I didn’t have the easiest time throughout school, so I always felt that what my advisor did for me, I could do for somebody else,” she said.

While competing as a Fresno State horseback rider, Rawlins said she benefited from an amazing academic advisor. If she could provide similar support and guidance for student-athletes, Rawlins thought, she would never feel like she had a dull, unrewarding job.

The smile on her face when discussing the ADSA reveals the passion and dedication Rawlins brings to her student-athletes.

It’s the ADSA’s mission to help student-athletes with their school work through tutors, academic mentors and reading and writing specialists. The office, which has over fifty tutors and three specialists, serves to guide athletes by providing support and direction for off-the-field success.

Because of the amount of practices and travel required for the football and basketball seasons, tutors sometimes go on the road with the athletes, helping them maintain their schoolwork and educational goals while they are also preparing for the next big game.

As the lead academic counselor for football, Rawlins travels with the team to away games and even goes over to the team hotel on Fridays to make sure educational plans are maintained and supported.

Rawlins has a personal connection to her players, because she has experienced life as a collegiate athlete, she says.

“I think I just get it. I speak their language in terms of I know what their day was: getting up early, having a structure all day, not have free time, so I’ve lived it,” she said. “I’ve walked it, it’s not as though they can say I don’t get it.”

Beyond her own past, Rawlins can also call on the student-athlete experience of her husband Reggie, a letter winner in basketball at Sam Houston State. Athletics is in their blood.

The program’s success doesn’t just fall on Rawlins and the players, but on the coaches as well. If the coaches “don’t back you, it doesn’t work and that’s just the bottom line,” she said. Coaches have to understand the importance of the athletes’ educations and support the efforts to make them succeed, both on and off the field, she stresses.

Rawlins shrugs off her status as a female in a male-dominated environment, and instead raves about the support she receives from SMU’s male coaches. She’s never felt intimidated by a male coach or athlete at SMU, she says, but recognizes that it happens elsewhere.

She says she feels fortunate to work with great football coaches who, rather than challenge her, appreciate her and support the work she does for the team.

As for the male athletes, Rawlins says that “if you’re recruiting good students, which they are and good kids with good character, you’re not going to really have those issues.”

Rawlins’ passion for guiding student-athletes comes from her experiences in learning from some of the best. When asked about past bosses or mentors, Rawlins mentions one woman in particular: Nicki Moore. Moore, currently the senior associate athletic director at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, served as Rawlins’ senior administrator at the University of Oklahoma. Moore acted as an incredible female mentor who effected change and garnered respect in a male dominated field, Rawlins said.

When reflecting upon what makes her job worthwhile, Rawlins said, “the success of the kids, by far. There’s nothing else.”

Rawlins finds the most joy in helping an athlete achieve his or her goals off the field, because that’s simply not what most people understand or appreciate.

“I love seeing their victories in their own house on the field, but I love to see their victories in academics because the academic part is life. It’s not just an academic skill, it’s a life skill,” she said.

Rawlins’ work ethic means she never leaves by five o’clock and maintains a “crazy” schedule, according to her. All part of the job? Meeting with every player to go over their planners for the week, communicating with coaches about players’ athletic demands and scheduling concerns, bringing in special speakers to educate and inspire the players during the summer and traveling with the team every weekend in the fall to help ensure that each player stays on their academic tracks.

Rawlins’ inspirational life from collegiate basketball player and equestrian rider to now marathon runner and dedicated educator demonstrates to the SMU community a strong, confident, powerful woman with a passion for helping others achieve their academic goals. She absolutely loves her job in helping provide the student-athletes with the resources to win both on and off the field. Rawlins’ mission requires not only passion about what she does, but also an appreciation for the strong bonds she develops with the students with whom she works. To Rawlins, an “A” on an exam can be much more important than scoring that touchdown on Saturday night.

“You find the victories in the small things and that is inevitably what keeps you going all the time,” Rawlins believes.

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