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The Xcel retreat for student-athletes
Two years ago, Alison Quandt ’06, MBA’11, director of Boston College’s Student-Athlete Development Program, was reflecting on aspects of the Boston College experience that often elude the University’s 700 varsity athletes, and especially on her mind was: reflection. While these students have little time to participate in retreats and similar programs because of seasonal schedules and training regimens, they do have the same need as other students to think deeply about their present and future. As Quandt, who broke several Boston College records on the ice as a goalie and whose first team after graduation was the risk assurance group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, has observed, most undergraduates who play varsity sports “want to be professional athletes. Most are going pro in something other than sports.”
Quandt put in a call to Michael Sacco, director of the University’s Center for Student Formation, which sponsors programs throughout the academic year (including the off-campus Halftime retreats for sophomores, juniors, and seniors) designed to help students discern their priorities and paths in life. They talked about drawing student-athletes out of what Sacco calls “the Conte bubble,” referring to Conte Forum, where many not only play their games but also go to team meetings, do their weight training, and carry on various other sport-related activities. Out of those conversations came a three-day program, dubbed Xcel, which brings together captains and other players being groomed for leadership on their teams.
“There’s a gap between athletes and the rest of the University, and we could do a better job of closing the gap,” says Quandt, referring to signature Boston College experiences such as service to others in addition to retreat offerings. The challenge is hardly unique to Boston College. Many universities have responded by setting up student-athlete development offices like the one at Boston College, which debuted in 2010 and helps these students navigate academic and non-academic aspects of undergraduate life. At Boston College, involving student-athletes in retreats is the latest thrust. Quandt’s office has also designed service activities, including an annual student-athlete immersion trip to New Orleans in January to help build low-income homes.
On a Friday evening in early December, 33 student-athletes assembled for a weekend at a secluded camp and conference center in Groton, Massachusetts. The 13 men and 20 women—from the University’s sailing, track, soccer, rowing, golf, tennis, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, softball, and baseball teams—would hear from Campus Ministry professionals and alumni athletes, as well as Boston College’s athletic director, Brad Bates (whose closing remarks on Sunday focused on an ethical question involving New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter and a controversial 2010 bit of drama at home plate against Tampa Bay). During the weekend there would also be games, including late-night rounds of “Conte Jeopardy” with trivia questions tied to Boston College sports figures and teams.
This would mark the program’s second Xcel weekend. The first was held the previous December; another, planned for the weekend of April 19, 2013, did not materialize because of the lockdown of Boston following the Boston Marathon bombings. Quandt said football captains would have attended this recent gathering if their team had not won a bowl berth, lengthening their season. They’ll get another chance. She expects the winter teams, including ice hockey and basketball, to send players to an Xcel weekend being planned for spring.
Student-athletes on retreat are not altogether like other students who avail themselves of this opportunity. Sacco says that at other retreats, he and the student-formation staff practically have to pull participants out of bed, for breakfast. At this retreat many were up at around 6:00 a.m. for workouts, and—indicative of the punctuality demanded of them by their sport—were seated in the dining hall at least five minutes early. The only ones almost arriving late for Saturday’s 9:00 breakfast were two members of the women’s track team who had ventured beyond the 250 wooded acres of Grotonwood, the ecumenical Christian center that hosted the group. The runners logged about 20 miles and got lost before finding their way back.
The program that morning began in a small, ranch-style lodge, with remarks by Fr. Tony Pena, who directs Campus Ministry and serves as chaplain to the men’s hockey team. Pena had spoken there the night before, as well. “I presume most of you didn’t come on your own,” he had said Friday evening, eliciting chuckles from the students who sat in three rows across a low-ceilinged camp meeting room with foosball and air-hockey tables in the back. “You were nudged a little to come here.” (They were indeed assigned by their coaches to attend the retreat.) Pena was referencing the title of a 2008 book by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Back in the meeting room on Saturday morning, the priest, in blue jeans and a maroon-and-gold sweatshirt, resumed his blend of motivational speaking and homiletics.
“I’m psyched to be here again with you,” he said with an easy smile, standing in front of an old red-brick fireplace and alongside an easel pad. With his pen he drew a square on the surface and identified its peripheries as the “marshmallow” regions, representing “all the unimportant things” in life that call for “a lot of give and compromise.” Then he sketched a smaller square at the center of the figure—symbolizing what he described as a person’s “core.”
In need of a livelier prop, he called up to the front a tall young man sporting a light-gray ski hat and a chin beard. Pointing to the area of his heart, the speaker asked him, “What is your core value?” The student replied in an instant, “Family.”
“What else?” Pena asked.
“Give me a third one.”
Bringing his hand closer to the student’s gut, Pena added, “I can feel it. You’re not a marshmallow.” Later on, the student—Giuliano Frano, a soccer player from Toronto and a junior majoring in finance—said in an interview that he was quick on the uptake partly because of a 20-minute reflection exercise the night before. Students were handed envelopes containing 50 tiny segments of paper, with a personal value written on each one (for example, “Appreciation,” “Honesty,” “Loyalty,” “Communication,” “Friendship”); in a few rounds they had to winnow the batch to three core values of their own.
After Pena’s inspirations, five folding chairs were arrayed in front of the fireplace for a panel of alumni athletes. Quandt made the introductions and read them their charge: “Think of a moment in your undergraduate or professional life when you had enough courage to make a tough decision, and—despite doubts, fears, and pressures—it was the best decision for you.”
Tim Bulman ’05, who is built like the defensive lineman he used to be, spoke of his seven-year National Football League career that included five seasons with the Houston Texans before he was let go by that team and then by the New England Patriots, with whom he trained during the 2012 summer. “Football came to an end without my wanting it to,” Bulman said frankly. Turning aside thoughts of trying to prolong his football journey, he decided to make a fresh start with help from friends and Boston College’s Career Center. Bulman now runs his own commercial real estate firm in Boston.
The story told by Amy Cebulski ’05 had less to do with athletics than academics. A pole-vault competitor on the women’s track team, she entered the Carroll School of Management with the full expectation of family and friends that the high-achieving young woman would one day become a “rich business person.” In her first semester she took a statistics course taught by a professor known for his engaging lecture style. “I was so bored,” said Cebulski, who has shoulder-length black hair and a friendly, sympathetic manner. Meantime, she found her anatomy class absorbing and began picturing herself as a nurse—an idea strongly discouraged by everyone she knew, including her mother, who recalled for argument’s sake the time Cebulski fainted after donating blood. Today, with two degrees from the Connell School of Nursing, including a master’s (2010), she is a nurse practitioner at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, acting on what she came to realize were her strongest instincts of caring and empathy. Cebulski gently suggested that students puzzle out “who we are” before deciding on “what we should do.”
Other presenters included Jason Delaney ’05, a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers and an outfielder who reached Triple-A baseball in 2008, before grappling with a decision of the kind Bulman made; Kristen Madden Lauze ’06, a CPA with a Boston investment firm (and three-time All-American honoree in field hockey), who spoke of leaving a more high-powered position in Manhattan to be closer to friends and family in New England; and Matthew Greene ’08, an investment representative at Fidelity who talked about the importance of grasping one’s strengths and weaknesses, something he learned while playing on Boston College’s 2008 championship hockey team.
During the Q&A, Kellie Barnum, a junior from southern California who is captain of the volleyball team, asked a question that wound up occupying most of that segment. A finance major with a minor in philosophy, she asked the panel members: “Is there something you would do differently” if starting all over as student-athletes? The alumni responded practically in unison: “I’d really try to challenge myself to get to know non-student-athletes” (Lauze); “If I could go back, I’d immerse myself more in the culture of BC” (Bulman); “Engage your mind in different things” (Cebulski); “Try out new stuff” (Delaney).
Echoing the others, Greene added: “Be curious. Ask questions. Don’t live in a bubble.”
Read more by William Bole