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By Brian Hendrickson
Ali Teopas never knows what her day of scrambling might require.
Ali Teopas is an assistant softball coach at Wittenberg in addition to her assistant athletic director duties.
In one moment the Wittenberg assistant director of athletics could be recruiting alumni to mentor incoming freshmen. The next, she could be strapping on rain boots and heading to the softball diamond. She has established a home to display the academic achievements of student-athletes, helped teams coordinate overseas trips and organized student-life programs. She quickly learned to keep a pair of sneakers and change of clothes in her office for moments when her work gets messy.
The days were unpredictable, but her efforts started Wittenberg’s ambitious Tiger GAME Plan program, which provides opportunities for student athletes to enhance their education through new cultural experiences and academic support, network with former Wittenberg athletes, and participate in service projects. It was viewed as a signature program even during the brainstorming phases. And when Teopas discusses her efforts to link multiple university departments, add programs and lure potential mentors while turning the program from boardroom fantasy to an admired reality, she sounds like a veteran administrator.
In actuality, she was only an intern.
Teopas is the latest success story to emerge from the NCAA’s Division III Ethnic Minority and Women’s Internship Grant program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer as the 2011 class of interns visits Indianapolis for orientation Aug. 5-6. The program has started the careers of academic advisors, coaches and assistant athletic directors, among others, while enhancing the diversity of athletic administration staffs. As its organizers look back on its first decade, they see an inspiring success.
Members of the 2011-13 class, the program's tenth overall, share their thoughts on its advantages and opportunities.
“It’s made a difference for the institutions, and collectively for the division,” said Dan Dutcher, NCAA vice president for Division III. “It’s served as a successful career path for many athletic administrators in Division III, and it’s helped diversify the Division III administration to better serve our student-athletes.”
The program spawned from a desire to provide future administrators with entry opportunities while also promoting diversity on collegiate staffs. Breaking into athletics can be challenging, sometimes requiring starts in unpaid positions as volunteers or graduate assistants. It’s particularly true among Division III schools, which often operate on small budgets with staff members playing multiple roles. It can make the start of a career in athletics an intimidating prospect.
The Ethnic Minority and Women’s Internship Grant helped open opportunities both for institutions and talented future administrators. The program provides schools with $20,100 each fiscal year to cover an intern’s salary, and an additional $3,000 to fund professional development opportunities. Schools can apply for the grant by detailing their intended purpose for the position, and the professional development opportunities it will offer. Fourteen grants were awarded in 2010, creating positions that help interns develop areas of expertise that can be used to start their careers.
Garnett Purnell, who hired Teopas as the school’s second Ethnic Minority and Women’s Internship Grant recipient, said the program creates a win-win situation for both schools and interns.
“It allows you to address a void immediately,” Purnell said. “You’re able to bring in a young person, teach them, give them the exposure they need, but also fill a very important need within the athletic department.”
Purnell illustrates his point with Teopas’ work on GAME Plan, a program that was conceived by a member of the school’s board of trustees and was received as an exciting idea. But with only eight employees on the athletic administration staff, Wittenberg lacked the necessary resources to lift the program out of the planning stages.
The Ethnic Minority and Women’s Internship Grant, however, closed that resource gap. It provided the necessary funds to hire Teopas, a former softball player at conference rival Denison who was finishing an internship with the Detroit Tigers and yearned to return to college athletics. She developed networks with the faculty and alumni, explored opportunities to partner with the local Special Olympics program, and assisted the men’s and women’s soccer and women’s basketball programs in coordinating trips to play and perform volunteer work in Europe.
“It was a challenge, but as a student-athlete I thought, ‘This is a great program,’ ” Teopas said. “People believe in what I’m doing.”
The work paid off: Wittenberg hired Teopas this summer as the internship was ending, helping to make the program’s diversity efforts permanent. Stevie Baker-Watson, an assistant athletic director at North Central College who has been involved with the Ethnic Minority and Women’s Internship Grant for six years, believes the hiring of interns like Teopas by their host institutions is one of the program’s most important achievements.
Watson effortlessly recalls the names of interns who have used the program as their portal to an athletics career. Mary Helak became the volleyball coach and assistant athletic director at Franklin after interning at Stevens Institute of Technology. D’Andre Phillips was promoted to associate director of Gettysburg College’s Orange and Blue Club after interning at Washington College, and Megan Valentine was named assistant athletic director at Fredonia State after interning at MacMurray and Wellesley. And several others got their break through the program and advanced to the highest levels of college athletics.
Their backgrounds often vary. Some recently finished their undergrad work. Others were high school coaches looking to break into college athletics, or people seeking a career change. But whenever they move on to full-time positions, Watson sees the internship program succeeding.
“The whole point of this program is to retain diversity in Division III,” Watson said. “The fact that they (Wittenberg) were able to add a position is fantastic. That’s adding to the pool of diversity.”