How the Rutgers Leadership Academy prepares student-athletes with the skills to achieve success after college.
Gazing at the ceiling from his hospital bed, Shawn Tucker, a promising wide receiver for the Rutgers football team, had a sudden realization: he wasn’t invincible, after all. It was January 2004 and Tucker RC’07, EJB’12, who had starred at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had just racked up 726 yards as a Rutgers sophomore in 2003, highlighted by a 186-yard game against Pittsburgh. Agents called. National Football League (NFL) scouts figured he would be a third-round pick, at the least. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that he would soon be realizing his childhood dream of playing pro football.
But he tore his groin muscle in the final game of his sophomore season and the surgery landed him in that Philadelphia hospital room. “I made a vow to myself,” Tucker recalls, “that I was going to start applying myself in the classroom. It shifted my entire focus.”
Today, Tucker is assistant athletic director for student-athlete development at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and in his seventh year guiding the Rutgers Leadership Academy (RLA), a privately funded initiative whose mission is to equip student-athletes with the skills to achieve success during and after their college careers. Serving more than 600 clients, Tucker and his staff—program coordinator Sheryl Spain and program assistant and former Scarlet Knights lacrosse player Candice Dandridge SAS’15—look at four areas: career enrichment, community engagement, personal development, and leadership training.
Tucker was hired in the spring of 2009, not long after the RLA was launched, after a group of Rutgers administrators and donors identified the imperative to do something more to prepare their college graduates. “Being a former student-athlete myself, I understood the needs of a student-athlete,” says Tucker. “Some come in with educational backgrounds that are very strong, but some are a little weaker in those areas. Every athlete has his or her own unique needs, and you have to make sure you’re addressing them.”
The RLA provides year-round programming based on a student’s graduation class, academic goals, and career interests. First-year students, for example, can participate in classes on effective study skills and financial literacy; upperclassmen can receive one-on-one career counseling and take part in networking events.
Men and women use RLA’s services equally, with women generally having a better idea of a career than men, Tucker says. Some student-athletes arrive as first-year students with a specific career in mind; others have no clue. By the spring of their final semester, Tucker and his team have already taken steps to ensure graduates have met with prospective employers, attended the program’s networking events and mock interview sessions, and applied for full-time positions. Young alumni who have established careers also attend networking events to help with training.
“Our students need to know the process,” Tucker says. “It’s about identifying early on what your passions are. Because your passions are going to line up with what your career goals will be.” As the end of their college career looms, students are invited to attend special events, such as Women at Work and Men at Work, which include breakout sessions on financial planning, first-job communication skills, and achieving work-life balance.
For football players projected to play professionally, the program hosts a Road to the NFL series each summer. Former and present NFL players, including past Scarlet Knights Mohamed Sanu and Jamaal Westerman UCNB’08, SMLR’13, along with retired NFL great Bart Scott, recently attended to share their experiences.
“I want to expose all of the students to as many career options as possible,” Tucker says. A big advantage is taking students to visit companies such as Bloomberg, IMG, AT&T, and Bed, Bath & Beyond to get a sense of the workplace and their potential place within it (the program has more than 600 corporate contacts). “Getting them out of the Rutgers bubble and getting them exposed to different careers is really what our goal is.”
Although some student-athletes are reluctant to join, Tucker says the program’s track record draws them in. Last year, 72 percent of graduating seniors in the program landed full-time jobs or were accepted to graduate school programs within three months of graduating. Graduation rates of students in the program are well over 90 percent every year, Tucker says. He points to Rutgers–New Brunswick athletics’ strong showing in the Academic Progress Rate (APR) as another indication of the program’s success. In 2015, just about all of the sports programs reported excellent scores in the highly regarded APR, which provides a snapshot of a team’s academic success each semester by tracking the progress of each student on scholarship. “Those are things we are very proud of,” Tucker says.
Today, the program is a reflection of its leader, although he admits that, had the program existed when he was a student-athlete, he wouldn’t have been knocking on RLA’s door. “I was totally focused on football,” Tucker says. “People would ask me what I was majoring in and I would say ‘football.’ I was that guy.”
A broken foot and a rash of groin injuries that required surgery cut his playing career short. But Tucker, a leader with the Athletes in Action campus ministry while at Rutgers, came to realize, thanks to its director John Maurer, that there was life beyond football. “He was such a huge help for me, just reminding me that, despite your ultimate goal of playing in the NFL, God has a purpose for your life.”
Tucker, who lives in Somerset, New Jersey, with his wife, Mary GSC’11, and their son, Miguel, feels he’s found it. “I knew there was going to be another way for me to give back to this world and I’ve been able to do that with this Leadership Academy.”