The real win

September 14, 2020

Sports, Portrait

UR student-athletes just completed their most successful academic year on record, and it’s a bar they’ve been raising for years. Credit for this success belongs with the students themselves, with their faculty and coaches, and with athletics’ academic support services. Courtney Hughes, ’06, (back row, second from left) is a longtime member of the academic support staff.

By Josie Holland, '23

Nearly two decades ago, Courtney Hughes took her position on the starting blocks as a sprinter on the University of Richmond’s women’s track and field team. When she looked down her lane, she prepared to run knowing she had the full support of her team behind her. Today, she still stands with the track and field team, not as a competitor but as a member of the academic support staff, helping student-athletes on six varsity teams achieve their academic goals.

For as long as she can remember, Hughes wanted to work in athletics. She was also determined to work with students. When an academic support position at UR came up in 2007, Hughes jumped at the chance, saying, “I knew that I wanted to make a difference in student-athletes’ lives. To have the opportunity to do so, and to be able to do so at Richmond, my alma mater, it’s just been a dream for sure.” She’s worked with athletes in every UR sport in one way or another over her time on staff.

Hughes remembers her athletic adviser from when she was a student-athlete — he left a lasting positive impression — but she says she didn’t really understand the full scope of what he did for her and her peers at the time. Now that she’s in the same position, she can see the challenges of managing a competitive Division I athletic program and the challenges of being a student-athlete in a rigorous athletics program.

Her approach: Meet student-athletes where they are. “Our department as a whole really cares about developing genuine relationships, really getting to know student-athletes and who they are as people,” she says.

On a typical day, Hughes assists with study hall, helps students with time management and academic planning, and provides academic coaching. But her job takes her outside of the university as well. Sometimes, it even takes her outside of the country.

For the past two years, Hughes has led student-athlete study-abroad experiences, including one in Cuba and two in South Africa. In the summer of 2018, as she stood on Robben Island and visited Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, basketball player Nick Sherod, ’20, who had been reluctant to travel abroad, turned to her and said, “This was absolutely the best decision that I’ve ever made.” He went on to complete an independent study on South African apartheid.

For Hughes, advising is a student-centered, empathetic practice that means including the families of student-athletes in the conversations that start with recruitment and continue after graduation.

“It starts with them,” she said of the families, “They entrust us with their sons and daughters for four years and support us throughout this journey.”

Collectively, Richmond’s student-athletes completed their most successful academic year on record for the fourth year in a row, as measured by average GPA. With this string of results, it can be easy to wonder how they can keep it up, but Hughes has confidence in the competitive mentality of student-athletes.

“I was a track and field athlete, so you know, every time you have a PR [personal record] you try to beat your next PR, right?” she said. “You just keep reaching for the next highest mark. I think that as athletes, they want to just continue to be successful and keep breaking records. That’s the way I look at it.”