Hedy Tung, Staff Photographer

By the time Chelsea Kung ’23 arrives at her first Wednesday class at 10:30 a.m., she has already gone through a two and a half hour tennis practice. That first class is followed by three more, with no break in between. 

Typically, Kung has two or three classes in the morning and a short break for lunch, which she often uses to do her homework. Around 2:15 p.m., she heads to Payne Whitney Gym to take the shuttle bus to the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center, a 15-minute ride away. After weightlifting training — or “lift” — she and her teammates head to the courts for tennis practice. 

“It’s a really significant chunk of time,” she explained. “I’m busy from 2:30 until about seven when we finish dinner, sometimes 7:30.”

Being a student-athlete at Yale is a unique experience that a large portion of Yalies cannot relate to — approximately 13 percent of the student body are athletes — and the challenge of juggling classes and homework, honing your athletic skills and adjusting to your new environment can be overwhelming. Kung is one of 10 Student Athlete Mentors, or SAMs, that help first-year students cope and acclimate to such challenges. Kung mentors members of the cross country, baseball and fencing teams. Some SAMs chose to mentor their own teammates as well, but Kung wanted to mentor first-years on other teams. 

The SAM program was created by Jessie Hill, dean of Benjamin Franklin College and director of advising for student-athletes in the fall of 2020. In conversations with other faculty and students, Hill saw a gap in resources for incoming student-athletes. 

“We have all these wonderful upper level student athletes who’ve navigated this place successfully,” she said. “We should enlist some of them … to actually be official mentors.”

Each mentor is assigned to first-year students on different teams, with between 22 and 27 students in each group. They direct their mentees toward helpful resources, hold workshops and dinners to build community and serve as an extra source of support. 

Fitting It All In

While all first-year student-athletes have to contend with the challenge of transitioning socially and academically from high school into college, athletes must also manage the grueling time commitment of their sports.

Having to fit classes around already-set practice times is always a consideration during shopping period. EJ Jarvis ’23, a SAM on the men’s basketball team, has practices from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., but had to take a class required for his major, Urban Studies, that didn’t end until 4:40 p.m. 

“I talked to my coaches, and we found a plan around it,” Jarvis said. “The coaches will be very understanding because at the end of the day, you come to Yale to get a degree.”

As a SAM, he reassures first-year students who have been unable to take certain classes because of their practice times. 

“You have eight semesters here,” he tells them. “The likelihood that this class is going to be offered some other time in those four years, it’s going to be high.”

Still, the time constraints of practice have led student-athletes to gravitate towards flexible majors with more course offerings. Daphne Chao ’25, a first-year on the women’s golf team, explained that she and her teammates have to be done for the day by 2:15 p.m. As a result, she was hindered in choosing spring classes, she said. 

“I was thinking about potential majors, but I couldn’t really explore some of them because they were either later or were conflicting with other things,” said Chao. 

Many athletes also have to travel for competitions, which can cut into class times. On a Thursday afternoon, volleyball player Renee Shultz ’23 sat doing homework in the basement of the Humanities Quadrangle before leaving that night for away matches against Columbia and Cornell on Oct. 29 and 30, respectively. Because she missed discussion sections for these away games, she had to communicate with her Teaching Fellow to avoid marks against her participation grade.

Shultz also serves as a SAM and emphasizes the importance of communication to her mentees. 

“The last thing you want is to be flaking on something that’s important, like academics and athletics,” she said. “I don’t think you should necessarily prioritize one thing over the other. I take both of them very seriously. But sometimes sacrifices just simply have to be made.” 

Shultz stressed many of the other time-consuming aspects of being on a team, like watching film, meeting with coaches, showering, eating and transportation to athletics facilities. While Payne Whitney is just a short walk away for volleyball players like Shultz, many student-athletes that practice at the athletic fields near the Yale Bowl have to account for time spent on shuttles to and from the facilities.

All this can be further exacerbated by the physical exertion of the sport. 

At one of the team’s last matches of the season this fall, Shultz took to the court, spinning the volleyball in her hand and bouncing it off the court before serving it to the University of Pennsylvania Quakers. She and her teammates hustled around the court to return the ball each time, some of them diving to hit it or dropping to their knees to get the ball up before it hits the ground. During time outs, they wiped sweat from their brows and drank water while listening to their coaches in a huddle. Yale won the match after five sets.

“The physical and mental fatigue you experience, after a practice or after anything related to your sport, makes it a lot harder to just switch gears and go from being a competitive athlete to, ‘Okay, now it’s time to hit the books,’” Shultz said.

She described her experience as “very much a tough balancing act, but you figure out how to navigate it with time.”

SAMs in Action

A week before the class of 2025 moved onto campus, the Student Athlete Mentors arrived in New Haven — to the sweltering heat and the cautious joy of returning to in-person meetings — to attend training with Yale’s First Year Counselors, or FroCos, to learn about the different resources available to students on campus.

Before classes started, the SAMs held a meet and greet session to get to know their mentees. During the semester, mentors also meet with their groups for dinner. While some SAMs initially held office hours as well, many stopped doing so after reporting little traction within the first-year student-athlete population.

In addition to these more casual meetings, the SAMs also host structured, mandatory workshops in conjunction with the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. In September, each SAM held a workshop with their group where they presented the “SAMs’ Declassified School Survival Guide,” a slideshow explaining academic advising resources and athlete-specific information, such as how to study on a bus or how to best communicate with professors about missing class for a competition.

Prior to spring 2022 course pre-registration, the SAMs held a mandatory workshop on blue booking, the process by which students choose classes for the next semester. SAMs went over the Yale Course Search website and the early registration processes for courses with limited enrollment.

For golfer Sophie Simon ’25, these workshops provided both advice and a sense of community. 

“It made me feel more comfortable,” she said, “Because they all do the exact same thing that I do with practices, lifts and traveling. It’s good knowing everyone’s going through it.” 

Chao, who had already talked with upperclassmen in her prospective major prior to the workshop, concurred with Simon’s sentiments, expressing that the workshop made her feel less alone in juggling academics and athletics. 

These kinds of advising workshops are offered to all Yale students, regardless of whether they’re an athlete. 

“We’re careful to look at student athletes as still very much part of the general population of all students,” Hill said. 

Consolidating workshops in a space where student-athletes are expected to attend, though, ensures they show up. Yale’s time management and reading strategies workshops are often held in the afternoon during many teams’ practice times, or at 7 p.m. when many student-athletes are finishing up practice and grabbing dinner.

While all first-years can turn to their FroCos with questions about life at Yale, some find that they aren’t privy to the unique challenges faced by student-athletes. 

“Although FroCos are a great resource,” Jarvis said, “when it comes to day to day living, the life that student athletes have at Yale can be very difficult. And it’s tough to give advice from that perspective if you don’t live it.”

Belonging at Yale

At a school with such selective admissions, some athletes can struggle with feelings of imposter syndrome. Because most varsity athletes have been recruited specifically for their sport, some non-athletes have been known to feel that athletes don’t belong academically. The SAMs not only give voice to challenges faced by student athletes in the realm of athletics and academics, but also as they navigate their place in the broader Yale community. 

“Non-athletes sometimes have this stigma towards athletes where it’s like, you’re here for your sport solely, and you don’t really contribute anything else,” Kung said. “[I]t’s a negative opinion that I just don’t think is true.”

Recruited athletes do go through a different admissions process than regular applicants and are admitted from a list submitted by coaches. But, the admissions office still evaluates them on their academic and extracurricular merits. The Ivy League utilizes a measurement called the Academic Index, which combines high school GPAs and standardized test scores to assign each student a number. The cohort of recruited athletes must fall within one standard deviation of the mean Academic Index of all students admitted. There is also a minimum Academic Index score for recruited athletes

“I’ve been in conversations where people disregard student-athletes’ achievements in the classroom, because they think that they have it easy,” Jarvis said. “Although there are resources put in front of us, it’s our job to perform on the test. It’s our job to study. Those resources only take us so far.”

Statistics show that most student-athletes excel in their programs of study. The University maintains one of the highest six-year student-athlete graduation rates in the nation. In 2020, Yale Athletics had the top Graduation Success Rate in the country with 99 percent. This measure includes transfer students and student-athletes who have left in “good academic standing.” 

“I would hope that non-student-athletes realize that student-athletes do put a lot of time and effort into what they do, whether it is school or sports,” Jarvis said. 

Jarvis and the other SAMs hope that by pointing first-years in the direction of the correct resources and empowering them to find classes they are passionate about, they can alleviate some of the self-doubt that first-years may feel.

Hill said that the SAMs can serve as role models for first-year athletes who are questioning their place at the university. 

“We have a group of SAMs who are all-stars,” Hill said. “They’re successful in their sport, but they’re also successful in lots of other endeavors at Yale. When you see them, you say, this is a high flying Yale student.” 

Going Forward

Despite the benefits offered by the SAMs program and the energy put in by the 10 Student Athlete Mentors, they have at times struggled to maintain attendance numbers at their programs. While their workshops are mandated by team coaches and Associate Athletic Director for Compliance Jason Strong there is no consequence for not attending. 

Hill acknowledged that attendance has been an issue this year, but that she and the SAM team want to create a model of voluntary buy in. 

“If everything is mandated, then there’s a different vibe,” Hill said. “I think the challenge is, with some teams in particular, building that buy-in.” 

To entice first-years to attend events, the SAMs bring snacks like donuts and candy. 

Aidan Thomas ’25 on the men’s swimming and diving team says he has not been to many SAM events. 

“It’s helpful,” he said. “[But] if you already have a main source to go to, like I do, with the seniors on the team, then you don’t really need to go to the SAM.” 

Some first-years choose to talk to their older teammates instead, finding it easier to ask quick questions in the locker room. 

“I completely understand that,” Kung said, adding that she “was the same way.” 

For her SAMs group, engagement varies between teams. The women’s cross country team had “amazing” attendance at dinners, she said. “But then I also have a team where I’m struggling to get them to respond.” 

Kung noted that with all first years have going on, carving out an hour each night is a lot if you have only three hours to study. 

Men’s basketball head coach James Jones pointed out the problem with relying only on teammates.

“The upperclassmen on their teams tell you what ‘gut’ classes to take, as opposed to truly trying to understand who you are as a person and figure out what avenues you should be trying to pursue,” Jones said. 

Kung said one advantage of the SAMs program is that first years can receive more personalized advice from a range of people, instead of only those on their team.

“It is helpful for families to see that there are academic advising resources built into the athletics model,” Hill said.

Hill plans to survey the class of 2025 to collect data on their opinions of the program. 

Claudia Chang ’25, a first year on the women’s swim and dive team, suggested having a smaller group size, so first years could get to know their SAM better, or switching things up so that nobody gets a SAM who is also on their team. 

“Part of what has made it really enjoyable for me is that Alessandra [Baldari ’22] is my SAM, and she’s on the swim team,” she said. “Sometimes some of the other athletes from other teams don’t show up as much, but the swim and dive team always shows up.” 

The SAM program will spend the 2022-23 academic year with the same budget and number of mentors as this year, before working to expand its offerings. Until then, the Student Athlete Mentors will continue to be there for their mentees, to help build a community and to be a bridge between those on the academic side — professors, tutors, teaching fellows and even other students — and the athletics side in coaches and trainers. 

“We’re all in the school,” Jarvis said. “There’s no admissions process to go through. There are no more offers. There are no more scholarships. There’s no more anything like that. At the end of the day, we’re all Yale Bulldogs.”

Yale has 35 varsity athletic teams.