Academic success and social happiness for student-athletes: mentorship and support is just as crucial off the field as on the field

Story by LEIF THULIN

Collegiate student-athletes aspire to reach the highest level in their sport. However, the reality is that only one NCAA sanctioned sport, baseball, has a percentage above 2 percent for college athletes becoming professional athletes. 

Many students who attend universities like the University of Utah travel far from home for the first time, naively entering college with expectations of becoming a professional athlete. They may have assumed that there would be no problems adjusting to the academic and social demands of their new situation.

Though the racial demographics of colleges are less skewed than that of the city within which the campus is located, many students experience culture shock. Salt Lake City is 87.2 percent white, University of Utah students are 70 percent white, yet an average of only six starters per collegiate football team is white. 

What this means is that many minority athletes attend the University of Utah for athletics and encounter entirely new racial demographics everywhere but the field of play. School alone is an adjustment for adolescents, but especially for minority athletes. There must be a liminal space or person to create a space for minority athletes to acclimate and grow academically and socially within the new environment. 

T.J. Burnett, who worked as the U’s football learning specialist, helped create comfort and prowess in the classroom. 

T.J. Burnett was the the University of Utah’s football learning specialist. Photo courtesy of T.J. Burnett.

Burnett, a former four-time Academic All-American, and a five-time All-American track athlete, proudly aided African American student-athletes at the U in their educational and social maturation on campus for two years. 

Burnett knew firsthand from his experience as a first-generation African American student the importance of prioritizing academics and social transitions. These can be overlooked, yet adjusting to these challenges may prove more difficult than the leap to collegiate athletics, which can form a shelter from the outside world. 

Burnett recalled in a Zoom interview, “Transitioning from high school to college, I honestly had no idea what it was going to be like to go to school, to go to college. When I got letters from schools, a lot of times it would be overwhelming. I didn’t really know what it would be like for me to go to college. I didn’t know if it was even affordable or accessible.” 

Nearly five years removed from his final days as a student, Burnett reminisced about his growth as an individual. He attributed much of it to the importance of education, and his gratitude for having African American role models to show him that people who look like him can thrive in the world of academics. 

“I truly believe education is the great equalizer in terms of getting people to have the opportunity for vertical mobility but it isn’t accessible to all students from all backgrounds,” he said. 

Burnett, who hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke of Dr. Damon Arnold, the special associate to the athletic director at Grand Valley State University.  Arnold inspired Burnett to take a job that remained within the realm of athletics while influencing students in a long-lasting way through academics. 

“He was somebody that young Black athletes could look at and be like, it doesn’t matter where you start it matters where you finish,” Burnett said. 

Burnett gratefully reflected that without the mentorship of Arnold and other mentors, many student-athletes including himself would have been worse off in their college experiences. 

“When I was graduating, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I wanted to have this impact on student-athletes as well, paying it forward, and also it is meaningful work,” Burnett said.

U offensive lineman Braeden Daniels said in text message, “He [Burnett] helped relate the school material that was being taught in our classes to our lives as student athletes, men, and real life examples … He understood life from our perspective as he was a student athlete.”

Elijah Shelton, an African American Salt Lake City native and transfer from Utah State University to the U, did not struggle with culture shock, or making friends with either team. 

Elijah Shelton practices for the Utes. Photo courtesy of Elijah Shelton.

Though his transition from high school to college was not difficult, Shelton recognized that many of his former teammates who came from other states struggled mightily adjusting to the academic workload and the 82.4 percent white population of students at USU.

In a Zoom interview, Shelton noted that at Utah State, a class called Connectionsbecame important because it explained Utah’s culture and the importance of getting to know people and appreciating the cultures of everyone.   

“We kind of made our own culture within the Logan culture,” Shelton said. 

Josh Nkoy, a collegiate rugby player at Stanford University from Salt Lake City,  acknowledged several facets in his university experience that contributed to his academic and social acclimation and success. He listed campus organizations for African Americans and members of the African diaspora, including the Black Cultural Center, where Black people can congregate and study.  

People like Burnett provide a Black athlete an excellent academic role model, and can relate to issues of culture shock inherent in attending predominantly white institutions. He understands the balance of school and athletics, and can remind students to prioritize academics because there are worthwhile jobs beyond professional athletics. 

While sports fans focus on athletic feats, Daniels, Shelton, and Nkoy have found succeeding in college relies on a confluence of mentorship, university support, communities of peers, and cultivating a culture of prioritizing academic excellence. 

Nkoy put it best when he observed, “You’ll see a Black face doing good things at all times — I guess all of that really mitigates culture shock for everyone.”