Game changer: Spider athletes opt for grad degrees

November 15, 2021


As the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S., college athletes saw their spring 2020 seasons abruptly canceled. Some fall and winter sports later followed suit or had curtailed or postponed schedules.  

In response, the NCAA granted student athletes an additional year of eligibility — a decision that also created a dilemma for graduating seniors. They could graduate and move forward with careers and graduate school, as planned, or they could sign on for another year of competition while enrolling in a graduate or certificate program.

“It’s been a really difficult two years for a lot of our student-athletes,” says Ryan Colton, senior associate director of athletics for compliance and governance and chief of staff. “To be able to come back and still compete and be part of their team in what is hopefully a more normal environment — we think it’s great for them to have that opportunity.”

Imagine having a law student on a team with 18-year-olds. There are other positives outside of athletics.
headshot of Bruce Matthews
Bruce Matthews

Associate Athletic Director for Academic Support & Student Services

The University currently has 41 post-graduate athletes, about half of whom were able to seek an advanced degree due to the extension. Student-athletes are enrolled in all three undergraduate colleges, as well as the MBA program, the law school, and graduate programs offered by the School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

While Covid-19 created a surge in student-athletes pursuing graduate degrees, interest began growing several years earlier. NCAA deregulation surrounding transfer policies led to an increase in post-graduate students seeking transfers. In addition, student-athletes who had an additional year of eligibility after being redshirted or injured have been considering graduate school over a second undergraduate major.

Seyoum Settepani, an offensive lineman for the football team, was redshirted his first year and then gained an additional year with last fall’s cancellation. Now in his sixth year at the University, Settepani is enrolled in the Human Resource Management master’s program offered by SPCS. He’s still interested in playing football after graduation, but the master’s degree — coupled with his undergraduate studies in political science and entrepreneurship — will also support his career interests in politics and business.

Settepani says that juggling football and academics requires a different balance as a graduate student. For example, unlike his undergraduate years, most of his classes are in the evenings, leaving the daytime for football practice and class assignments.

Coordination between the Richmond athletics department and graduate program directors and faculty is key to ensuring students like Settepani are successful. This semester, SPCS held its first graduate student-athlete orientation for coaches and students to understand expectations and resources. Coaches and faculty also coordinate to help students understand their eligibility and the options available to them, and walk them through selecting a program and applying for admission.

“In SPCS, we have our chairs and advisors talk with student-athletes and figure out what might be a good fit for them,” says Tom Shields, associate dean for academic and student affairs for SPCS. “The chairs are very engaged and answer any questions students might have.”

While the academic benefits for graduate student-athletes are clear, their increased representation can positively influence others as well. They bring a team-oriented mindset to their classes, and they serve as role models for younger student-athletes who might be considering options for their own extended eligibility.

“Imagine having a law student on a team with 18-year-olds,” says Bruce Matthews, associate athletic director for academics. “[The younger athletes] start seeing new possibilities. There are other positives outside of athletics.”