Feb. 20, 2013

By Conor Davidson

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - For Blase Szyszko, a senior swimmer at La Salle, college hasn't just been about his exploits in the pool.

"It's a lot more than just going and playing your sport," said Szyszko, the A-10's representative on the Division I National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), who recently participated in the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. Despite his superiority in the pool, Szyszko says that his involvement with the A-10 SAAC has shaped him more than his outstanding athletic credentials. "SAAC has really opened my mind to other people's needs and to be more selfless," he said.

Szyszko isn't the only one.

The SAAC program - an NCAA initiative that bridges the gap between administrators and student-athletes - has done a remarkable job of bringing together students at every level, from national conferences to campus involvement. 

"You meet a lot of fantastic people," says Szyszko, who joined La Salle's SAAC his freshman year.

The stated goals of SAAC are to ensure student athletes from all schools and conferences have a voice in the NCAA governance process. As the A-10's representative on the Division I SAAC, Szyszko works with fellow representatives in conference meetings and attends the NCAA convention with all 31 D-I conferences. But in practice, SAAC serves more as a way to unite and galvanize student-athletes at their schools. In Szyszko's case, his work with SAAC has culminated in a breast cancer awareness group he and his friends started. The group, Explore-A-Cure, used SAAC as a starting point for support, eventually becoming a campus-wide movement, culminating in a dodgeball tournament. In total, the project raised $1,000 towards cancer research.

The SAAC at La Salle also joined a Big Brother/Big Sister program with a local elementary school.

"It's a great experience to build a relationship with these kids," said Szyszko. The students, most of whom are student-athletes involved with SAAC, eat lunch with their little brother/sister once a week. "We try to match up people with similar interests so we can help our littles aim for their dreams," said Szyszko. So far, almost 50 pairs of big and little have been matched.

The SAAC group at La Salle isn't the only one doing big things. At George Washington, an "Adopt-a-Team" program has led to more support for the Colonials' sports programs. A dodgeball tournament similar to the one at La Salle has raised money for the National Children's Hospital. Since student-athletes at GW are required to complete 10 hours of community service, the SAAC offers a list of potential programs, as well as hosting some of their own.

"Athletes are aware of all our initiatives and can take part in so many activities," said Alex Dadds, a senior cross country runner and GW's SAAC representative. "Most of our athletes end up with 15 more hours than required."

Similar SAAC movements are occurring at other schools. 

At Temple, the SAAC program is spearheading several university-sponsored outreach programs, including Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, a Christmas clothing drive, and a domestic violence awareness campaign where the men walk in high heels all day. Jennifer Abercrumbie, a senior track standout for the Owls, says she has seen a tremendous desire for her fellow students to get involved on campus. "I want to be an athletic director, and the experiences with SAAC have helped me toward that goal," Abercrumbie said.

At the University of Richmond, an anti-bullying programfeaturing student-athletes has started at a local elementary. "It's really helped me become something greater than I am. It's helped me be worthy to be called a leader," says Catherine Ostoich, a senior field hockey player and one of UR's SAAC representatives.

The increased involvement with community service coincides with Szyszko's own personal beliefs and strong desire to serve. And as SAAC does more for the community, it becomes an intrinsic part of campus life. Every student-athlete interviewed agreed that SAAC was more known and more involved on campus than in years prior. As SAAC grows, most student-athletes find their peers are shedding preconceived notions about them. "We're much more than a student-athlete," says Szyszko. "We want to show we care about the community as a whole."


Conor Davidson joined the Atlantic 10 Conference office as an intern in the compliance and student services area during the 2013 spring term. He is in his first year of enrollment at William & Mary.