A new school year is both an exciting and daunting prospect, whether you’re an incoming first-year student or heading into your final year here at Gonzaga University. Stepping onto campus for that first time in fall brings with it a whirlwind of emotions for all Zags.
Those first few weeks each fall are all about finding your footing again and finding a routine that is going to set you up for success.
For new student-athletes, this routine is a little bit more complex. Not only are they finding their rhythm in their classes and making new friends, but they’ve also got to figure out how to work in their training and practice schedules, which at the end of the day, are akin to a full-time job.
For freshman tennis player Caroline Wernli, this adjustment didn’t happen overnight. Wernli, who has been playing tennis from the age of eight, said that although she knew she wanted to pursue tennis at a collegiate level, planning for the transition to student-athlete and living that life are two very different experiences.
“Last month there were times where I would have to pack up for the whole day because I would leave my dorm in the morning and I wouldn’t have time to come back until late at night,” Wernli said.
For student-athletes, they’re thrown into the deep end from day one, but this isn’t to say there aren’t support systems in place to help them tread water along the way.
“I love our trainers and our athletic staff, they’ve been really supportive in helping me adjust to our intense schedules,” Wernli said. “My teammates also motivate me a lot and offer so much support. It helps when you’re on a team where everyone has the same goals, and we all want everyone to be at their best to reach those goals.”
Wernli said one of the toughest adjustments to life as a student-athlete was the sheer physical demand on her body. She was accustomed to rigorous practices but said college sports are an entirely different level.
“It’s really hard to give it your best shot each time,” Wernli said. “I’m not used to having my whole body being super exhausted each day.”
Wernli once again credits her coaches and team for helping her get through those days where getting out of bed for morning practice feels impossible. She said the support she’s received from the athletic department energizes her and gives her that extra push she needs to make the most of every practice.
For freshman baseball player Liam McCallum, his transition to GU included a transatlantic flight. McCallum packed up and left his home country of Australia to come play baseball in Spokane, a decision that he explains was not made lightly.
“In 2018 I was one of the players in a company that did a bit of showcasing within Australia to colleges for baseball,” McCallum said. “They would bring out a team each year to Arizona for the Arizona Fall Classic… teams wanted me to come and visit and at the end of it I had five schools I wanted to visit and pick between.”
For McCallum it came down to academics, which are incredibly important to him and his family. GU stood out as the clear winner and his decision was reaffirmed after they flew him out for an official visit.
“[GU] looked after me and was able to show me what they preach when it comes to family, which was really big for me especially being an overseas person coming to the U.S.,” McCallum said. “I know a couple of Australians over here, but you know you’re kind of on your own for a little bit, which is challenging but it’s been going alright.”
Creating this sense of community support and a “home away from home” environment is something that GU athletics really prides itself on.
Emma Moon, the assistant athletic director for life skills development at GU, has dedicated her career to helping new Zags adjust to the demands of being a full-time student-athlete.
Moon, a graduate of GU and a former women’s soccer player for the Zags, has a unique perspective when it comes to creating programs to help new student-athletes. She can draw from her own time at GU and use her inside knowledge of the day-to-day challenges that come with being a Zag athlete.
“The time demands are one of the hardest parts of adjusting to life on campus,” Moon said. "To be successful academically and athletically, and also making sure you leave time to take care of yourself and find that typical college experience can be really difficult.”
GU offers a program for incoming freshman athletes in the fall which is geared towards equipping them with as much information and as many life skills as possible to help make the transition easier.
“The class is workshop based and each week is a new topic,” Moon said. “Through this class, they get the support of knowing that if we manage our time as best as possible, we can be successful in all areas and make the most of our opportunities.”
The Student-Athlete Leadership Institute created a program called “Zag Olympics,” which focuses on community leadership and team building by bringing together Zags from various sports and creating a common space for them to meet and create friendships.
Zag Olympics pairs an upperclassman “team captain” with a mixed athletic team who compete with one another throughout the semester to get to know other freshmen athletes and help create a sense of campus community.
Moon explained that through this program, as well as their orientation course, it allows new student-athletes to feel empowered to create a community for themselves on campus.
“We structure our space so that we have an ‘open door’ environment which really helps create an open and inviting community space,” Moon said. “We run our leadership program in a way that allows anyone who wants to have a voice to have the space to share that.”
Community is the backbone of GU as an institution, both academically as well as in the athletic department. Cultivating an environment where new student-athletes feel that they’re being supported is crucial not only for their success but their happiness as well.
By creating and upholding this safe and supportive space for student-athletes, student-athletes able to focus on their goals and relax knowing that they’ve got a life line through all the ups and downs.
“There are highs and lows, not everything is great all the time,” Wernli said. “There are days where I’m upset on the court, and I’ve struggled with negative self-talk. Taking it day by day is my strategy, some days won’t be fun, and I can’t expect every day to be perfect… but I’m just going to play by best and play the way I want to play and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”