Cole Tilden ’18 starts his Wednesday with a 9 a.m. physical-chemistry lecture. Afterwards, he runs down Science Hill for 10:30 L3 French, heads to 11:35 physics lecture and spends 1–5 p.m. in physical chemistry lab. A 9–5 class schedule could overwhelm anyone, but Wednesdays are one of Tilden’s easier days. Wednesdays are the only day Tilden — a chemistry major and pre-med student on the heavyweight crew team — doesn’t have practice.
Tilden describes his Monday as being a “typical practice day.” It starts with classes from 9:25 a.m. to 12:50 p.m., includes a three-hour practice, and ends with a section after 7 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Tilden splits his time between class and the Hazari chemistry research lab, where he works for a few hours before heading back to practice.
Varsity athletes at Yale, despite their 20 hour-a-week practice schedules, are held to the same — if not higher — standards as other students. Yale, like the rest of the Ivy League, recruits athletes without offering athletic scholarships, and it doesn’t lower its academic admission standards for recruits. Student-athletes majoring in STEM fields are the first to explain that while their lives strike a fine balance between practices and problem sets, they don’t mind: They came to Yale both for the academic challenge and the athletic opportunity.
Tilden, who has wanted to be a doctor since his sophomore year of high school, says that he chose to row at Yale over playing baseball at a state school because of the academic opportunities the Ivy League provides. The fast-paced culture of academics and extracurriculars at Yale fits in with the training schedules many athletes are already used to.
Brittani Steinberg ’17 — a psychology-neuroscience major on the volleyball team — has wanted to go to medical school ever since she pretended to be a doctor as a kid. Although she began playing volleyball in eighth grade, she didn’t plan on playing in college until her sophomore year of high school, when coaches began to contact her.
Academics were of the utmost importance for Steinberg. She says she knew she wanted to attend a school that would “really challenge me academically, so if a school was below my standards, I would be a little less interested.” Before choosing Yale, she spoke to STEM majors on the volleyball team about their academic experiences.
Of the 11 athletes majoring in STEM interviewed, almost all said their choices of major were made early in their Yale careers or even before.
Karl Marback ’18 — a biomedical-engineering major and the starting center on the varsity football team — did not even think of playing football as an intercollegiate athlete. Originally from Detroit, Marback had always planned on following the same pathway as his peers at his engineering-focused high school. Before Yale, he took the equivalent of five full years’ worth of engineering courses and planned on attending the University of Michigan for their engineering program. It wasn’t until he switched positions from linebacker to defensive end and had a strong junior-year season that coaches broached the topic of playing college football. But Marback would not settle for just any college. On a visit to Central Michigan in the spring of his junior year, when asked if he would seriously consider CMU, he told the coach no. Other schools — like Michigan — had better engineering programs, even if he could not play football there.
Marback was recruited to Yale in January of his senior year and spent the summer before freshman year researching Yale’s engineering opportunities. Instead of following the mechanical-engineering pathway and deciding to work at one of the “Big 3” auto companies — Michigan’s General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — Marback said he decided to pursue BME at Yale because he thought it would be the best way to challenge himself scholastically.
“I came to Yale, declared immediately and got to work. It wound up being something I loved doing and while I feel like there is this trope that no one at Yale knows what they’re trying to do, that doesn’t apply to me,” he said.
While Yale emphasizes the liberal arts and humanities, many athletes — both recruits and walk-ons — find that their passion here has always been in STEM.
Aria Pearlman Morales ’18 — a pre-med BME major on the women’s soccer team — started playing soccer when she was five because she was jealous of her brother being on a team. But after a childhood of the Discovery Channel and watching two open-heart, still-beating coronary bypasses, she was certain that biology was her passion.
Although she knew she wanted to play soccer in college, Pearlman Morales was more attached to what school she would end up attending and consequently applied to many different schools. She was told by women’s head coach Rudy Meredith that she would have a spot on the team should she be admitted to Yale, and once she was accepted early, she elected to play for the Bulldogs.
Similarly, when Sarah Caldwell ’19 arrived at Yale as a Level 9 gymnast, she walked onto the gymnastics team and started following the pre-med dreams she had set for herself as a four-year-old. And then she made another big decision: to switch majors from Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology to BME. When asked how gymnastics has affected her drastic change in coursework, she says dealing with the physical exhaustion after practices is the hardest part of her schedule, especially since she is usually up until 2:30 a.m. doing work. On days that she has exams at 7 p.m., Caldwell says that having practice directly before can sometimes affect her academic performance.
“One day when we were out of season. We didn’t have practice the day before an exam and I did so well on that exam because I had hours before to prepare. So it means you have to really manage your studying schedule,” she says.
But for Caldwell — who has been doing gymnastics since she was four — having the structure of regular practices is something she is used to. She adds that she actually feels more productive in the hours after practice on a typical day.
Gymnastics head coach Barbara Tonry writes that because gymnasts have been in the sport since the ages of four or five and clubs require a time commitment all year, gymnasts learn how to be excellent time managers with regards to their studies and academic commitments. By watching her team — three-quarters of which is majoring in a STEM discipline — she says she notices that the discipline demanded both by gymnastics and STEM coursework lead to her team members’ “outstanding academic success.”
Due to practice schedules, athletes on most teams — including football, soccer, gymnastics, swim, crew and volleyball — cannot take classes that end past 2:15 p.m. Most coaches have allowed for one practice-free day a week to accommodate lab schedules, specifically for STEM-major athletes. Since labs take up three to four hours of an afternoon schedule, however, that leaves little time for athletes to take other afternoon courses.
For Adrian Lin ’19, a pre-med psychology major on the swim team, missing practice on Tuesday afternoons for organic chemistry lab is something that his coaches accept, granted he makes up his lost practice time on Tuesday mornings. He’s not alone in his dedication to his studies — his teammates consistently achieve one of the highest team grade-point averages in the country. But Lin, who is interested in studying child psychology, forfeited taking Child Development — a psychology class in which students study children in kindergartens and day cares on Yale’s campus — this semester because missing two practices a week would be “a stretch.”
Lin says that while his coaches would understand if he missed two practices a week, he isn’t comfortable sacrificing his athletic goals in favor of his academic ones, noting that swimming helped him to reach for his dream school, Yale.
“Something my coach always says is that swimming is the best class I’ll ever take at Yale, in that it teaches me so much about myself, my limits and my ability to cope with all sorts of things. I think you can ask any athlete and they’ll tell you that, or anyone who is involved in something with a big time commitment,” Lin says.
Some athletic commitments have impacted more long-term personal goals. For Steinberg, the fact that she participates in a fall sport makes it “nearly impossible” to interview for medical schools, and she has consequently had to push back her applications by a year. However, while that decision was initially due only to her volleyball conflicts, Steinberg says that her choice to delay medical school is a “blessing in disguise” that allows her to refocus.
Lin concurred, adding that while it’s impossible to travel during the year and difficult to do research at the Yale Child Study Center in-season, he will take a year before medical school to dig deeper into his academic interests.
Pearlman Morales recalled times during freshman year when she doubted she could handle the engineering major in addition to her practice schedule. She said that because of the medical school application requirements and the fear that everyone around her was earning a 4.0 GPA, she often felt she wasn’t “smart enough,” and questioned why she was “making things so hard for [her]self.” She says she never thought about quitting soccer, but rather thought about switching to an easier major. However, once she got to know the BME department better as an upperclassmen and started taking classes outside of freshman prerequisites, she says she realized she’d chosen the right major.
Director of the Health Professions Advisory Program Kristin McJunkins has over 800 appointments with pre-med students every year, many of them athletes. McJunkins writes that athletes are “very well-regarded” in the medical-school application process. She adds that while athletes may not have time to participate in as many extracurricular activities as non-athletes, she has seen students utilize their time wisely, even working during the summer. She says that medical schools take into account many parts of a student’s application when making an admissions decision.
“Medical schools have a holistic admissions process, meaning they value many other qualities in addition to GPA and MCAT scores. Athletes often excel at achieving the competencies valued in the admissions process by the nature of their sport, and the dedication and commitment it takes to play on the collegiate level,” McJunkins says.
Tonry agrees, recalling that in the many years she has worked at Yale, she has noticed the STEM fields have become more accepting of athletes. She noted that one of her gymnastics alumna even has her own lab at the University of Michigan.
Associate Athletic Director of Student Services Brian Tompkins wrote in an email to the News that student athletes are “encouraged to explore the full range of academic opportunities available to them, including STEM classes.” He adds that because coaches are well aware of labs conflicting with practice schedules, the labs and classes that conflict “take precedence” and that many coaches have moved practice times or have given their athletes days off to accommodate scheduling conflicts.
For the women’s ice-hockey team, newly implemented 7 a.m. daily practices have had both benefits and downsides this year, according to Jordan Chancellor ’19, an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major on the team.
Chancellor, who says she has been on the ice as long as she has been walking, decided to become a marine biologist around the same time she started skating. She says that she loves hockey, particularly the speed of the game and the strong team mentality.
Hockey is in a unique situation: The team’s early practices allow players to schedule classes with more flexibility in the afternoons. But because hockey season is year-round, players have limited opportunities to do research. To make up for it, Chancellor took advantage of her time off hockey this summer to travel to Turks and Caicos for marine-biology field research.
“I did [research] during the summer because it was really the only time I had to study abroad because the hockey season goes for both semesters. It was amazing to do something different and new in another country. I learned so much about the culture and lifestyle on the islands that I would have never gotten anywhere else,” Chancellor said.
Older athletes, like Pearlman Morales, Tilden and Steinberg, have found time to accommodate some aspect of research during the year. For Pearlman Morales, that means switching to outside-lab data analysis instead of the wet-lab work she was doing this summer in a cellular-biology lab.
Pearlman Morales also said that as a STEM student athlete, it’s often easier to take problem set-heavy, work-intensive classes during her season, since there is rarely time to go “above and beyond to do the creative work” many higher-level STEM classes require.
Steinberg agreed, recalling that her busiest days often happen during the spring semester, when volleyball has its off-season. She said she likes to take classes with lighter workloads in the fall so she can focus on sleep and volleyball. But last spring, she took 6 classes for 5 credits, including two labs.
“I was constantly in class, constantly taking tests and doing p-sets — but I think I’ve learned really good habits from my teammates in the past. They give really good advice about really balancing your schedule in the fall so you are not super stressed over schoolwork when you should be focusing on volleyball too,” Steinberg said.
The athletes interviewed said Yale pushes them to succeed in both the classroom and in athletics, but that does not mean they escape the negative stereotypes associated with being an intercollegiate athlete.
Pearlman Morales has found that students are the first to stereotype, rather than professors or TAs. Having a student directly tell her he “thought [she] would be dumb because [she] was on a sports team,” has caused Pearlman Morales to believe that some people at Yale look down on the athlete population.
“I think it’s a mental misunderstanding. If you’re an athlete here, you’re here because you love the sport a lot. You’re not here because you’re getting paid, there are no scholarships or anything,” Pearlman Morales said.
Marback agreed, acknowledging that while many players on the football team know athletes at Southeastern Conference or Big-10 schools who have scholarships and get stipends to play, Yale athletes have to “bear the brunt of the load.” Marback added that how people see athletes is a discussion that often comes up, and that he works to dispel people’s preconceptions.
The family aspect of Yale’s athletic teams are what athletes interviewed said not only drew them to athletics but also reminds them of why they joined on a day-to-day basis.
Lin finds it frustrating when his friends spend time together during the hours of 4 and 6 p.m., when he is always in practice. But he said that he “could not imagine [his] life without swimming,” because of not only the structure it provides him but also the team mentality.
“I came into this school with 35 friends already — which was amazing — who are big mentors in my life, in the pool and in academics,” Lin said.
For Sara Lee ’17, a coxswain on the women’s crew team and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major, the group of women on the team were what drew her to walking on in the first place. Lee played multiple sports in high school but never thought she would play in college. She said that it is now one of the most important things that she does on campus, adding that the team feels like “a second family.”
While Brittany Simpson ’19, a chemistry major on the women’s soccer team, dislocated and fractured her ankle during a September game this season, she says her teammates have been with her throughout her entire recovery. Simpson says the team visits her in her room, checks in to see how she is doing, and even watches her do therapy every day. Simpson — who will not be able to “touch a soccer ball” for another two weeks — says her teammates not only ask her how she is doing physically, but also mentally.
For Tilden, rowing is simply an “important part of his process,” because he has been doing it for so long and because he appreciates the time away from New Haven, on the river with his team. He said that while he can get some work done on the 25-minute ride to the river, once he is there, he is in a “sanctuary.”
“You get in the boat, you’re with your friends, you’re with these guys that go through so much with you and it is just a couple hours to forget whatever else is happening with school. There’s something to be said for that,” Tilden said.
Athletes in STEM at Yale, by principle, cannot cut corners. Their coaches, teammates and classmates hold them to standards that are no different from those set for other individuals. With near-daily practices and as many as 22 course requirements for their majors, balancing their athletic passions and academic goals is a difficult task that is often overlooked.
Tilden acknowledges that his road has been tough as a STEM-major athlete but says, “if science is something you are passionate about and crew is something you are passionate about, I don’t think you have to let either one of them go. It’s definitely reasonable to do both.”
From the time most of these athletes laced their first pair of soccer cleats or were fitted for their first hockey stick, they had also knew they wanted to be doctors and engineers. Their academic goals have not been sacrificed because they treated their long-term goals with the same passion and determination they have learned in their sports. These athletes have shown Yale that the stereotypes are ill-founded. And while it is never easy, with the help of their teammates, coaches and advisors, Yale is where they have learned to cultivate their passions on and off the field.