On a cold, blustery afternoon, the men’s hockey team is preparing for a two-game weekend road trip to play Princeton and Quinnipiac.
As the team bus idles behind Messa Rink, players, coaches and equipment managers stuff stick bags, a skate sharpener and video equipment onto the bus. One face stands out among those pitching in to load the vehicle: Andrew Rapoff, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
A member of the College’s new faculty mentors program, Rapoff will accompany the team on its trip. Besides watching the games, he will attend practices, dine with the players and staff, and offer whatever support he can.
“I don’t think many of our faculty know the demands our student-athletes are under,” said Rapoff, a rabid hockey fan who plays twice a week in Messa. “Part of the idea of this program is to get a better understanding of those demands and see how we can help.”
Modeled after similar programs at institutions like Princeton and Middlebury, Union’s program began in the fall. Mentors were recruited through the faculty listserv or recommended by students and coaches.
“We are always looking for ways to further integrate academics and athletics,” said Jim McLaughlin, athletic director. “We hope this program will provide additional support and guidance for our student-athletes and demonstrate our students’ passion in and out of the classroom.”
So far, 18 of the 26 athletic programs have mentors. Much like advisers, they are available to offer support to an academically strong group of students who collectively have an impressive grade point average of 3.2, in line with the general student body.
Discussions range from study skills and career preparation to personal issues.
Mentors are also encouraged to make at least one road trip with their assigned team as a way to bond.
Rapoff wasn’t sure what to expect when he agreed to be a mentor last fall. He met with first-year students, followed by the captains and coaches, “to feel my way into the team structure.”
A fixture at games for years, he has been careful not to overstep his role.
“Coaches and athletes are incredibly busy, and I certainly don’t want to intrude on how they prepare for games,” he said.
He recently met with a player struggling over what major he should pursue.
“It’s hard enough to be a college student,” Rapoff said, “but to be a Division I athlete on top of that? Sometimes you have to remind them that while they play in a team environment, sometimes they have to think of themselves.”
After the meeting, the student sent Rapoff a nice note thanking him for his support.
Coaches welcome the mentors program, viewing it as another resource to help them ensure athletes maintain the high academic standards expected at a school like Union.
“The program has been an incredible benefit to our student-athletes,” said Michelle Connors, the head coach of the women’s softball team. “It’s allowed the athletic department to strengthen its relationship with the faculty, which makes our community stronger.”
Brian Cohen, lecturer of biology and director of advising, has been a model mentor to her team.
“He constantly checks in with the young women to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed,” she said.
Allyson Staats ’15 is a pitcher/third baseman on the team. A biology major, she has worked closely with Cohen as her adviser. She is grateful the team has been able to benefit from his role as its faculty mentor.
“You can talk to him about anything,” said Staats, of Chicago. “When you have a problem, it’s great to have teammates, friends and roommates to talk with. But it’s even better when you have someone like Professor Cohen, who understands the workload and stress we are under as student-athletes.”
As the hockey season winds down, Rapoff is pleased with how his first year as a faculty mentor progressed.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve accumulated a little bit of wisdom,” he said. “To be able to share that, and to touch a student’s life, is truly special.”