Cinnamon Sheffield, associate athletic director for student services, guides student athletes as they work toward degrees
When Cinnamon Sheffield, associate athletic director for student services and senior woman administrator, meets prospective student-athletes during recruiting visits she consistently asks them the same thing: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Cinnamon Sheffield works with a student athlete in the Mean Green Student Athlete Academic Center.
"I always ask them that question because that gives me an idea about what career path they may want to pursue. That is the main reason they will be coming to UNT -- to earn a degree which they will own the rest of their lives," says Sheffield. "And once they get here, we talk about it all the time, just like drills at training sessions or practice. We constantly ask them, what is your plan? What do you see yourself doing five years from now?"
Sheffield's role is one part academic coach, one part cheerleader and one part mother to the 343 student-athletes supported by the Mean Green Student Services department. She seamlessly brings these parts together with one goal in mind – try to make sure that every UNT student-athlete earns a degree.
The effort is paying off.
UNT boasts 34 student-athletes with a 3.5 cumulative GPA or better — including 16 with a 3.8 or higher — and 64 Sun Belt Commissioner's List honorees in 2010.
Five of UNT's 16 teams scored a perfect 1,000 in the NCAA's latest Academic Progress Rate (APR) report and all 16 were above the standard score of 925. The volleyball squad led all Mean Green teams and placed inside the 80th percentile nationally.
The APR data, collected between 2005 and 2009, measures a school's team-by-team academic progress.
In August the NCAA released Graduation Success Rate for 2008. The women's tennis team earned a perfect 100 percent placing it among the nation's best.
Rising graduation rates indicate that UNT continues to move toward the goal of awarding a degree to all student athletes.
"We remind them that athletics is a privilege, academics is the priority; it's the reason we are here – education is the meat and potatoes, athletics is the gravy," Sheffield says.
That attitude is also part of the reason UNT has been crowned national champions of the annual Gender Equity Scorecard released by Penn State York for two consecutive years.
Mean Green Athletics is dedicated to providing all of its student athletes the best chance for success in an athletic program that matches the quality of the university's academic programs.
For many student-athletes, Sheffield says, athletics is the only vehicle that can take them to their destination of higher education.
"A lot of our students wouldn't have the opportunity to be in college," she says. "Several are first generation students; athletics has given them an opportunity that they may not have otherwise had."
And once UNT opens the higher education door for student-athletes, Sheffield says there is campus-wide devotion to seeing them succeed.
"It takes everyone working together," she says. "Student athletes work hard, their academic advisors guide them, and many professors tell us when they begin to notice someone starting to struggle. It takes teamwork."
UNT is dedicated to supporting students to help them succeed – and that philosophy is no different for student athletes. They benefit from the same academic support services as other students, including tutoring, academic advising, help selecting a major and assistance with learning differences.
In 2005, Athletics Student Services started an innovative initiative, the Mean Green Wing program.
"That's where someone takes you under their wing and eventually you fly on your own," Sheffield explains.
The program consists of academic advisors who coach one-on-one the incoming student athletes. Sheffield says it helps to lay a firm academic foundation for student athletes during their first year. It allows them to transition into their new college life with less stress.
"I relate to them on a couple of different levels," says Chaunte Baldwin, academic advisor for the men's and women's track/cross country teams and the women's basketball team. "Mainly because I was a student-athlete, they know that I understand every facet of their daily life. I am not too far from their age, so they see me as a ‘cool aunt,' for lack of a better term."
Sheffield says because the student athletes build relationships with their academic advisors, they tend to open up to them in ways they won't with their sport coaches. This helps the academic advisors get to the heart of individual challenges and problems their student athletes are facing.
Last year, the office created academic pods – small groups of student-athletes in the same class sections. This creates automatic study groups for the athletes as well as peer accountability.
Sheffield, who was a student athlete while she earned her bachelor's degree, says student-athletes face obstacles that are unique – specifically schedules that are tightly packed with practices, games and travel; and exerting high amounts of physical energy every day.
Sometimes it can be hard for them to adjust to the demands.
"Their schedules are basically spoken for from the time they wake up until they go to bed," she says. "They rarely have time that is their own."
Academic advisor Rachel McMullen compares the commitment of student-athletes to "having a very demanding job."
"They practice about 20 hours a week and then you add in the competitions and travel," she says. "It can be very difficult to balance all of that while still being successful both athletically and academically."
Sheffield says though she is proud of the way the program is evolving and of its successes, there is always room for improvement.
"I'm never satisfied," she says. "My goal is to get the GPA for all of our teams up to 3.0. We're moving in the right direction, and I am excited about the progress our student-athletes are making."