Kelton Jacobsen, SUU External Assistant
The 2021 graduating class from Southern Utah University was the largest in school history, an impressive feat considering the obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic presented.
Classes usually taught in person were placed online, "Zoom" became a household word, professors and students lost precious time together and masks were required on campus at all times. But hidden underneath all of the barriers of the COVID year were some remarkable advantages.
Not only did SUU see its largest graduating class ever, but it also saw the most graduate degrees awarded to students ages 29 and older in the school's history. According to SUU's office of institutional research, the university saw 293 students aged 29 and up graduate with master's degrees.
Much of this is due to the flexibility of SUU's graduate programs. Still, because of COVID cancellations, several SUU athletic coaches finally had the time and motivation to go back to school and earn their graduate degrees.
"I had always talked about going back to get my Master's," said gymnastics assistant coach Jeff Richards. "But because of COVID, I suddenly had the time."
Richards, 20 years removed from receiving his undergraduate degree, admitted to having several in-depth conversations about going back to school with fellow assistant coach Jaimie Wysong who also desired to return and get her graduate degree.
"I graduated with my bachelors in 2017 and then planned on taking a year off before getting back into it," Wysong said. "But then with coaching the team and coaching in the [summer], life happened and suddenly it was three years later."
With an open summer schedule, Richards and Wysong finally felt that it was the right time to go back and get the degree, but there was a bit of reluctance.
That was until 30-year head gymnastics coach Scotty Bauman pushed his assistants into the deep end.
"I remember talking with Jeff one day about it and then Scotty asked if we had registered already," said Wysong. "That was the push we needed to finally do it."
Both Wysong and Richards were excited to learn new things and push themselves harder, but the fear of attending school again after being removed for several years posed a little stress.
"Not doing anything for 20 years and then going back in… it's a lot," said Richards. "All of the sudden you have to remember how to cite your papers and worry about plagiarism."
Nonetheless, SUU's body of dedicated and understanding professors assisted the coaches every step of the way and provided them with every ounce of advice and help they needed to accomplish this lifelong goal.
"The professors are wonderful," said Wysong. "They really focus on your creative side. It's more than just reading a book and writing a paper on it."
Wysong and Richards are both currently enrolled in the Master's of Interdisciplinary Studies program at SUU and both are emphasizing leadership in hopes they will enhance their coaching abilities. They plan to graduate in 2022.
Another coach that took the plunge into earning a graduate degree was women's soccer assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Mario Felix-Suarez.
Felix joined the SUU coaching ranks in January of 2020 and immediately got to work with newly announced head coach Kai Edwards. Edwards and Felix, along with the remaining staff, set out with the goal of turning around a soccer program that finished with a 1-15-2 record in 2019.
However, after the March 2020 cancellations, the Fall 2020 soccer season seemed to slip right through their grasp.
With the uncertainty that lay in front of him, Felix, like Wysong and Richards, determined that now was the time to go back and get his graduate degree, ten years after completing his undergraduate degree.
His goal? Complete the degree in one year.
With the fall season gone, Felix doubled and sometimes even tripled up on class credits to give himself the ability to finish his degree within one year. Nonetheless, Felix remained committed to his team and his coaching career.
"I made sure there was never any conflict," Felix said. "It required some early mornings and late nights, but I made sure it never got in the way of coaching."
While completing the degree, Felix noticed that not only was he gaining a greater understanding of his studies, but his interpersonal skills increased.
"Going back definitely made me rethink the way I approach coaching," Felix said. "There are so many nuggets that I learned about how to approach our athletes and how to communicate with our athletes, and how to delegate within our assistant coaches."
To Felix, there is no question that his expanded education directly correlated with his team's success, as the SUU soccer team finished 5-3-1 this season.
Advantages of Furthering Education
Each coach had their own reasons for continuing their education, but each had a few common themes emerge as they delved into graduate degrees.
First, the online degrees offered a level of flexibility necessary for full-time Division I NCAA coaches and professors who understand and want their students to succeed. Richards, Wysong, and Felix handle recruiting for their respective clubs, which requires plenty of attention outside of practice.
"After practice, I'm coming back [into my office], and I answer emails and look at Instagram for recruiting," said Richards. "It's easy to get behind."
Because of the online nature of the various programs, however, students can access class material any time at any place.
"It's kind of been fun having to do homework on the bus," said Wysong. "It was stressful, but it was nice doing homework at the same time my athletes were."
It also led to each coach developing greater empathy for their athletes.
"There's some definite overlap," said Felix. "It was challenging. But the professors are awesome."
"We put a lot of emphasis on our athletes to get good grades," said Richards. "Which has pushed me to get good grades, and right now I'm holding onto that 4.0. Before I would just ask them how their classes were going, but now when they voice their frustrations, I understand exactly how they're feeling."
In addition to the increased empathy, completing the degree also gave each coach a personal feeling of success outside the gym or off the field.
"I felt like I was getting a little complacent just coaching and not doing anything else, so I did something outside of my comfort zone," said Richards. "I always tell my athletes to get outside their comfort zone, so now I'm doing it myself in hopes to make myself better."
"Scotty once told me when you reach excellence in one part of your life, it transfers into the other parts of your life," said Wysong. "I'm doing that now."
"I enjoy coaching, I love coaching, I want to do it for the rest of my life," said Felix. "But if I ever get into a predicament where coaching is no longer a part of my life, I want to have a backup plan. Getting my masters is a pursuit of having that option."
With more emphasis on continuing education, SUU's flexible graduate degrees continue to be an excellent resource for people from all walks of life who have all sorts of experience levels.
Currently, SUU is offering 16 graduate degrees, ranging from business administration to sports conditioning and performance. Each degree provides professors who care, professional development opportunities, and the ability to become better in all aspects of life, even coaching.