While participating in the Richard A. Baddour Carolina Leadership Academy, UNC student-athletes learn to be nimble leaders who can react to change. Thus, when Carolina’s teams saw an uptick in graduate student-athlete transfers over the past few years, it only made sense that the Leadership Academy would display that same flexibility.
With that in mind, the Leadership Academy recently launched the Grad Leaders program, adding a fifth level to the already robust leadership training in which Tar Heel student-athletes participate. The new program supports the unique leadership challenges encountered by student-athletes who transfer to UNC as graduate students and don’t fit neatly into any of the Leadership Academy’s other levels of programming.
“The biggest challenge that a grad transfer faces when coming to a new school is finding a balance between being the leader that the coaches expect because you’re older and being able to quickly establish relationships with your new teammates,” said Grayson Atkins, who played for the UNC football team in 2021 after transferring from Furman. “It’s difficult being someone that the other players are going to look to for guidance while also not wanting to step on the toes of players who are younger than you but have been on the team longer.”
The Leadership Academy set out to address Atkins’ quandary and smooth the way for all the student-athletes adapting to a seemingly-contradictory role, that of experienced newcomers.
“Coming in as a grad transfer, you have so much experience, yet you feel like the oldest freshman on the team,” said John Gove, a member of the track & field team who transferred from Michigan State. “The Grad Leader program provides a space to both validate your experiences and allow you to learn from others, helping to smoothly transition into a new role as a leader on the team that you just joined.”
The increase in graduate transfers can be attributed chiefly to two factors: changing NCAA legislation and COVID. The NCAA now permits student-athletes who have earned an undergraduate degree and still have athletic eligibility remaining to transfer and compete immediately, rather than having to sit out a year. Additionally, student-athletes who competed during the 2020-21 season were given the option of using a fifth season of athletic eligibility.
In the process of developing the new program, the Leadership Academy researched the need for and interest in the program, as well as what form it would take. Graduate student-athletes participating in the Leadership Summer Intensive (LSI), a three-month leadership independent study, helped to tackle those questions by gathering input from graduate student-athlete transfers.
In short, they found that yes there was a need and that yes there was an interest. Ultimately, 15 student-athletes-three-quarters of the current graduate transfers-from a total of nine teams participated in the first year of Grad Leaders programming.
The objectives of the Grad Leaders program are three-fold: (1) Assist graduate student-athlete transfers to re-define, understand, and own their new leadership role; (2) optimally leverage the leadership experience of graduate student-athlete transfers on their teams; and (3) foster connection and camaraderie among graduate student-athlete transfer community.
To manage this, the Leadership Academy approached year one as a pilot program, mapping out a three-workshop sequence for participants. First is a welcome event, with the focus on food, fun, fellowship, as well as some fast facts about their new institution. Next participants examine the fundamentals of leadership while enhancing self-awareness and learning ways to connect with coaches and teammates. The final workshop wraps with a game plan for athletic retirement.
Each meeting includes a portion of time dedicated to former graduate student-athlete transfers speaking to the current grad transfer cohort. Their comments addressed helpful insights in adjusting academically, athletically, and socially; dealt with their biggest frustrations and challenges with those adjustments; and articulated the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of leading a new team as a grad transfer.
“After this program, I have a better sense of Carolina’s values, feel equipped to take on academic and athletic leadership positions, and have found a long-lasting support network,” said Emma Reynolds, a member of the volleyball team who played four years at Cal Poly before coming to UNC.
Over the 18 years that the Leadership Academy has been in action, student-athletes and coaches have evolved in their leadership training wants and needs. The pivot toward the new program for graduate students speaks to the Leadership Academy’s foundational goal of preparing student-athletes to lead when it counts, whether or not they started their careers at Carolina.
“I was incredibly fortunate to spend my fifth year as a transfer at the University of North Carolina,” he said Kerrigan Miller, a Southern California graduate who played the 2021 season on the UNC women’s lacrosse team and is still on campus finishing a master’s in sport administration. “The transition afforded me the ability to assess myself on a deeper level. I became aware of my strengths as a leader and the characteristics which I was compelled to improve upon.
“Now, in my second year at UNC, the Leadership Academy has afforded me the opportunity to mentor and connect with the other grad transfers at UNC. Our mentorship group has given me clarity on my experience as a grad transfer while helping those who are enduring the same transition. I’m feel grateful to be a part of this initiative. “