BY Mike Barrett
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — A unique opportunity for student-athletes at Lake Superior State University presented itself during this past school year.
Freshman members of the women's basketball team were the first group of athletes to participate in a new student-athlete mentor program, which paired the three freshmen and one redshirt freshman with Laker women's basketball alumni with similar academic backgrounds.
"We were the first team at LSSU to start using this program," said Lake Superior State women's basketball head coach Brandon Lokken. "We paired up past women's basketball alumni with members of our freshman class. This was our first group of student-athletes to participate in the program and we improved upon it as the year went along."
In talking about the mentor program, Lokken explained the many connections that the current student-athletes have with their alumni mentors and how the student-athletes they may find it more challenging to relate with others, who have not been in their place at one time.
"They are alumni, but they are specifically women's basketball alums and they know what it is like to be a student-athlete," said Lokken. "They know what the tough morning workouts are like, what it is like to win and lose games, the highs and lows of the season, and being away from home for the first time. Each student-athlete can look to their mentor for advice, while also building a relationship with somebody that has been in their situation. The mentors provide support to the student-athletes in addition to the guidance that they receive from their families."
Mackenzie Kalchik is one of the women's basketball student-athletes to take part in the mentoring program and she spoke highly of having somebody to talk with, while undergoing the adjustment to university life.
"I think it is a great thing to have a mentor, especially as a freshman, because it is a big transition [to college] and the mentors can relate to you, both because of your sport and what you are going through in school as student."
One emphasis of the program is to pair student-athletes with an alumnus, who had taken a similar path academically. Kalchik, who is majoring in biology, is being mentored by Dr. Julie Vincent, a 1983 graduate of Lake Superior State. Vincent is the chief of the division of Pediatric Cardiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.
"You can talk about how you are feeling and any struggles you have without being judged," said Kalchik. "As time goes on, I would like to visit her while she's working and shadow her. It is comforting, but also provides a lot of opportunities for what I want to do for a career."
Vincent, whose undergraduate degree was in medical technology, came to Lake Superior State College from Central Lake, Michigan. She played basketball for four years, and was also on the softball team during her first two years.
"I would have loved to have had such a program when I was there," remarked Vincent. "There were all sorts of things that somebody could have talked with me about. In high school, we were all good [athletes], but when I got to college, we were playing with the best of the best and you had to push even harder. That is a hard lesson for a freshman in undergrad. Had I had somebody to talk with, who had gone through what I had and knew what to expect, it would have been much different."
While some of the alumni involved are recent graduates, others date back much further. Despite the gap in years — or, perhaps, because of it — the team members have found the connection with their mentors educational and comforting.
"I think it is really cool that they went through the same stuff we are going through, just at a different time," Kalchik said. "You can see where they are now and it is inspiring."
After piloting the program this past season, the Lake Superior State University Department of Athletics will soon begin implementing the program with other teams.
While some universities have programs similar to this, they are almost exclusively at the NCAA Division I level of intercollegiate athletics. However, Lake Superior State is working on tailoring the mentor program to its particular nuances, setting it apart from established programs and making it one of the few NCAA Division II institutions to have such a program.
"We found the University of Connecticut and USC had programs with basic similarities, but we wanted to make it specific to us," Lokken said. "We are still fine tuning what that is, but we have a good idea of where we are headed and are excited to keep the student-athlete mentor program going."