KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The Sunshine State Conference hosted its first "Professional Women in College Sports" symposium on January 26 at Falcon's Fire Golf Club in Kissimmee, Fla. Fifty-four female student-athletes representing all nine SSC member institutions attended the event.
The purpose of the forum was to connect female student-athletes who may wish to pursue a career in college athletics with mentors who work in the industry and have ties to the conference. Becky Ahlgren-Bedics, who worked nine years in the NCAA's Educational Affairs Department, served as facilitator for the event.
The day began with a five-person panel fielding questions from participants. Panelists were:
- Dr. Kristen Migliano, Director of Athletics at Lynn University and former basketball student-athlete at LU;
- Jen Seidel, Assistant Director of Athletics for Compliance and Senior Woman Administrator at Florida Tech;
- Erika Brennan, Head Women's Golf Coach at Saint Leo University;
- Jessica Hanson, accountant for the Georgia Tech Athletics Association and a former intern at the SSC office; and
- Mark McClenney, SSC assignor of women's basketball officials.
Migliano told the student-athletes that mentors didn't necessarily have to be women in college athletics. They may be males or others outside the field. "Look for mentors who resonate with you on some level, regardless of gender or background," she said.
Brennan added, "It's okay to have more than one mentor. You may have a personal mentor and a professional mentor."
Hanson recalled taking a proactive approach when she was a student-athlete at NCAA Division III Transylvania. "I basically forced myself on people and said, 'Can I shadow you for a day?'" she said. "It's up to you to maintain that relationship, not the mentor."
McClenney told the group that mentors are also key for those looking to break into officiating. "Start by finding someone who will help you take the next step," he said. He explained that officiating camps are a great way to learn, gain exposure, and meet mentors.
Interaction between the panel and participants also focused on the panelists' paths to working in college athletics, which often began with experiences outside the field altogether.
Migliano counseled those who are still uncertain of their career path to stay active and continue working on their education while they explore different options. When finding a career you love, "the process is sometimes elimination," she said.
Brennan told the attendees that by being female student-athletes, they already had an advantage entering the workforce. "We as women almost get half a step ahead because people are looking to hire women," she said. "Take that and run with it!" Nevertheless, Brennan cautioned the students not to rest on that advantage. "You still have to work hard and be the best candidate," she said.
The student-athletes had lunch over round table discussions with panelists and nine other SSC female coaches and administrators who shared tips and answered questions. That chance for candid discussion in a relaxed environment was a favorite portion of the day for many of the attendees.
"I was able to ask questions face-to-face and get an immediate answer," Elise Clyburn, a basketball player from Saint Leo University said. "The answers that I received were very blunt, bold, and what I needed to hear. There wasn't anything that was fabricated. I was given the honest truth about every question I asked."
During the afternoon session, Ahlgren-Bedics spoke to the young women about findings their passion or "true north." Student-athletes participated in exercises that helped them to evaluate their values, skills, talents, and interests. Ultimately, they used those traits to develop a 30-second personal statement that could be used when networking and reaching out to prospective mentors and employers.
Maryanne Simkulak, who serves as one of the assistant commissioners in the SSC office, closed the symposium by sharing her unique perspective as someone with stints at three SSC institutions, as well as the league headquarters. Prior to assuming her current duties, Simkulak played soccer at Lynn University, obtained her Master's degree at Barry University, and served internships in the conference office and at Nova Southeastern University. She told attendees how actively seeking experience and making connections within Lynn's athletic department was a springboard to future opportunities and professional connections that helped her continue her education and career.
SSC Commissioner Jay Jones said one of his motivations behind organizing the symposium was to plant a seed that might lead to talented conference student-athletes returning to the fold as coaches, administrators, or officials someday. "We don't want to miss the next Kristen (Migliano) or Maryanne (Simkulak)," he said, referring to two individuals who ended up working with the very school/conference where they played their collegiate sports.
When the day concluded, participants took away valuable advice to consider as they prepare for their future careers.
"I thought it was a really great opportunity to meet women who have been doing this for years and get good advice to lead me on my future journey, hopefully into a career in athletics," Brandy Pikus, a softball player from Florida Southern said.