A radio disc jockey for a contemporary jazz station? A community organizer who arranged candlelight vigils? A city parks administrator who organized youth leagues?
Today, China Jude is the assistant vice president for athletics at the nation’s fourth-largest Division II school, Queens College (New York). But her resume has not always pointed toward a high-level career in college athletics administration.
“I really believe my story is a little bit non-traditional,” Jude said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘accident.’ I just want to say I kind of stumbled into this career – but stumbled as in not even knowing where it would take me.”
Jude grew up in the Chicago suburbs, living in a home her parents shared even after they were divorced. She learned to play basketball in the basement of that house, where her older brother “guarded” her with pushes and shoves and taught her to throw elbows. “He wanted me to get used to people touching me when I’m playing basketball,” she said.
She tried several sports – basketball, track and field, volleyball, cheerleading – and graduated from high school when she was 16 years old. Despite her age, she landed a spot on the volleyball roster at Alabama State University, where she planned to major in broadcast journalism.
The immaturity, though, caught up with her. “I’m in college doing my thing: full-scholarship athlete, young, having a lot of fun – a little bit too much fun – and all of the sudden, I get my report card,” Jude said. “B. C. D. F.”
At that point, Jude said, she panicked. Without talking to her coach or her parents, she made a choice that none of them would be able to undo for her: She enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
The decision shocked her mother. “That was one bad report card, and you joined the Navy?” Jude recalled her mother saying.
“I think I partied too much,” Jude told the adults in her life. “I think it’s time to grow up.”
China Jude’s path from there to here:
Back on track
After Navy basic training and annual training, Jude returned to Alabama State. Her scholarship was waiting for her, and she made the Dean’s List. “Joining the Navy was probably the smartest decision I ever made,” she said. “It taught me discipline and taught me that my life can do greater good on a larger scale if I just focus.”
Emerging from the broadcast journalism program, her career goal was to follow the example of Robin Roberts, now a “Good Morning America” anchor but then an ESPN sportscaster. “My plan was to go after that job,” Jude said. “I figured she can’t have that job forever.”
After successful internships in college, Jude started her career in radio, working in Alabama and Illinois. She was a jack of all trades, trying her hand at sportscasting and as a disc jockey.
But she grew discouraged by the lack of growth opportunities in radio and began seeking jobs in community service. She worked for social service agencies, political candidates and community groups, trying to help young people make smart decisions. “You’re saying ‘no’ to an unhealthy lifestyle – gangs, drugs. You have to say ‘yes’ to something, and the ‘yes’ was athletics,” Jude said. “I began to incorporate my athletics experience into my work.”
The parks and recreation superintendent in her hometown called, asking Jude to oversee the youth league programs there. Jude began to feel she had found her calling. She returned to Alabama to pursue a master’s degree from the U.S. Sports Academy.
Finding her place
She emerged from the program and took a job as executive director of the Police Athletic League in Seminole County, Florida. While there, she also became an assistant volleyball coach at nearby Division II Rollins College.
“And that’s when it happened for me,” she said. “Somebody would say, ‘You would be pretty good at this,’” and her career momentum built. Within a few years she was head volleyball coach at Division I University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she was the first black head coach in school history.
In those years, she met Rita Crockett, a member of the U.S. women’s volleyball team, which won silver at the 1984 Olympic Games.
“We were recruiting in the same place. I was a DI volleyball coach, she was a DI volleyball coach – we have the same title,” Jude said. “She’s like, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. You’re my hero.’”
Jude took her first job in athletics administration in 2001 at Coppin State University, as assistant athletics director, then made a brief return to coaching before becoming assistant athletics director at the University of the District of Columbia.
Her first job as an athletics director was at Cheyney University, which she guided through a three-year NCAA probation and back into competition. Today, Jude said, she is trying to get better at professional relationships. “I try to find mentors who look like me,” she said. “But I have found there are some individuals who do not look like me who are willing to provide support.”
One such mentor is University of Memphis Athletics Director Tom Bowen: “He is very honest and has no problem talking about race or gender. I think a lot of times, when people talk who are from different backgrounds, there’s this sense of needing to have a filter. All I ever want from people is honesty.”