Student-Athletes celebrate diversity and inclusion week
SAAC president Kristin Watson walks off the court after winning a set against UMass Lowell. Alex Mckenzie

Student-Athletes celebrate diversity and inclusion week

On any given night in the fall, you can usually find UMBC volleyball’s senior-libero Kristen Watson under the bright lights of the UMBC Event Center, or another stadium throughout the country, diving to the ground repeatedly in an effort to keep her team in the game with her superb defensive skills. But Watson, like many other student-athletes, does not just want to be thought of in the context of her skills on the court.

Watson is also president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which is a club on campus dedicated to taking care of student-athletes beyond the game. According to their description on the campus life website, SAAC is dedicated to “enhancing the total student-athlete experience by protecting student-athlete welfare, fostering a positive student-athlete image via community service, and providing a forum for student-athletes and institutional representatives to discuss rules governing UMBC, the America East, and the NCAA as a whole.”

Last year, Watson was the secretary for SAAC. During that year the club hosted its first annual “color games,” a day of competition which divides athletes from various teams on campus into random groups to participate in various team events. The event was held around finals week, which gave athletes the opportunity to relax amid a hectic time of year. The event was held during mental health awareness month, to “Fight the stigma of mental health and build unity throughout Retriever Nation,” according to the event’s website. This was a big leap for SAAC, as it helped unite athletes from different teams, and as president, Watson is looking to use that momentum to continue to grow the program.

Last week was a big week for SAAC not only at UMBC but for schools across the nation. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 5, each SAAC program participated in a social media campaign in honor of the NCAA’s diversity and inclusion week. Each day in the five day span had a different topic to address the aspects of diversity and inclusion.

Day one was dedicated to highlighting the multiple identities of student-athletes. UMBC’s SAAC chose to kick off day one by using a whiteboard that had “I am” written in blue marker in the middle. Student-athletes then put up Post-it notes surrounding the phrase, each note highlighting different parts of their identities. Some athletes focused on academics, things like majors and involvement in scholarship programs. Other notes addressed campus life with things such as Greek life affiliation. Some of the notes were particularly powerful. One pink note on the board read, “I am a king, lover, warrior, and magician.” Another powerful note read, “[I am] black and I’m proud!”

Day two of the campaign was dedicated to debunking athlete stereotypes. For this day, athletes took to videos which highlighted how they broke general stereotypes against them. Freshman-outside hitter Gabby Curran of volleyball defies stereotypes as a biology major, taking 19.5 credits during the season. Watson goes “beyond the label” as a volleyball coach and a role model for young girls. Gavin Prather of track & field defies stereotypes because of his love for skateboarding. There are many stereotypes that athletes have to face every day, but SAAC is committed to showing that each student-athlete is unique and goes beyond just playing sports.

Day three of the campaign was focused on highlighting the statistics that show the diversity of athletic teams on campus. UMBC is a diverse campus as a whole, with minority enrollment sitting at 45 percent according to the Diversity and Inclusion page on the campus website. Statistics included in the campaign ranged from racial/ethnic diversity to statistics regarding academics. According to the SAAC Twitter page, the Men’s Swimming and Diving team were ranked number 11 in the nation in GPA. Some individual athletes were recognized as well, such as swimmers Haythem Abelkhalek, Alex Gilese and Hania Moro, who have competed internationally in addition to their careers at UMBC. Swimmer Sotiria Neofytou perhaps had the most impressive fact, as she was the only female from Cyprus to compete in the Rio Olympics.

Day four of the campaign was focused on what diversity and inclusion meant to athletes. To do this, UMBC’s SAAC took to social media with pictures of various athletes. In the pictures, each athlete was given a whiteboard, on which they wrote what diversity and inclusion meant to them. Men’s soccer freshman-midfielder Ali Nakhid had a particularly powerful sign, stating: “Diversity is sharing & loving our differences which make us individuals.” Many of the other signs spoke of being accepting of other cultures and uniting, but one simple sign may have been the best. Sitting in a blue folding chair, men’s lacrosse senior-defender Keller Falkenstein aimed a slight smirk at the camera, holding a sign that said, “Diversity is love.”

The final day of the program is called “I pledge” and is dedicated for athletes to come up with their own plans on how they can be inclusive. For the final day, SAAC pledged to follow UMBC’s diversity and inclusion vision, which reads, “Our UMBC community redefines excellence in higher education through an inclusive culture that connects teaching and learning across disciplines, and civic engagement.” The statement continues, “We will also advance knowledge, economic prosperity, and social justice by welcoming and inspiring inquisitive minds from all backgrounds.”

Watson commits to focusing on diversity and inclusion throughout the year. “There can always be improvements with diversity and inclusion,” said Watson. “I think for UMBC Athletics, we need to include more of one another. Inclusion starts by communication and being aware of each other — we are a very diverse student-athlete population, and we just need to be more aware of that.”

Watson plans to expand the group’s presence both on campus and in the surrounding communities. SAAC currently has two members from each team that serve as representatives. They also have representatives in budget hearings and in the America East Conference SAAC. The group has focused on community outreach by sending volunteers to the National Eating Disorders Association walk and is currently focusing on creating a partnership with My Brother’s Keeper. They also continue to participate in various America East Conference initiatives such as “Spread Respect,” which aims to ensure that “athletes, coaches and fans alike are guaranteed equality, respect and safety without regard to not only sexual orientation and gender identity, but also race, religion and more,” according to Watson.

Student-athletes sometimes face negative stereotypes, but it is fair to say that SAAC will continue to throw those stereotypes out the window and make a positive contribution to the both the UMBC campus and surrounding communities.