Liberty Bracken just won a UW award and a national honor recognizing her as one of the country’s top academic advisors for student-athletes. Her exemplary work with Huskies is the essential side of college sports that cameras don’t film, one that cynics don’t know – or want to know – exists.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Hau’oli Kikaha is graduating this week. And that is no small thing.
He is the first in his family to earn a college degree. He was raised by a driven, single mother in homes from his native Hawai’i to Ohio, Texas, Southern California and back to Oahu.
The Huskies’ leading pass rusher is a first-team, Pac-12 all-academic selection and academic All-American nominee. He will be a huge key to Washington’s defense again this fall as a fifth-year senior. He has a grade-point average of 3.5 and a desire to pursue a graduate degree through overseas study of the Polynesian culture in the South Pacific, where he’s studied twice in the last 12 months.
All this isn’t an accident. It’s because of the work by a dynamo that’s been motivating and advising and supporting him – plus hundreds of other Huskies -- for the last four years.
Liberty Bracken is boundless. She’s a 27-year old with a selflessness, an unending desire to help others. Her “others” are the nearly 700 student-athletes at Washington. She and her colleagues at UW’s pioneering Student-Athletic Academic Services office are the shadowed pillars of Husky athletics.
So what will Bracken be doing inside Husky Stadium on Saturday while she watches Kikaha and 117 other student-athletes receive their diplomas at Washington’s annual commencement ceremony?
“Probably crying,” she says.
This graduation weekend there will be just as many tears of joy for Bracken as from her.
Without her and her colleagues, that number of Husky student-athletes graduating this week sure wouldn’t be 118.
She along with 13 SAAS staffers led by nationally renowned director Kim Durand, plus a team of 80 tutors (ranging from 20-year veteran professors to UW undergraduates), are schedulers, cross-checkers, study-arrangers and test proctors. They are compliance stewards, friends, confidants -- and if not mothers, fathers then at least big sisters and brothers to the players on all 22 Huskies teams.
And that’s all just on any given Monday.
“There is no typical day for me,” Bracken said with a laugh Tuesday inside her office on the SAAS’ top floor of Conibear Shellhouse, next to a Toy Story Nerf basketball hoops and surrounded by UW team posters dating to before the Huskies won the 2001 Rose Bowl.
In the 45 minutes I spent talking to her on the second day of final-exam week at UW, Bracken had to leave twice to put out mini “fires.” As we sat, three Huskies popped their heads in to ask questions. Football quarterback Cyler Miles stopped in on his way to meet a study group for one of his finals.
Each work day Bracken takes a 7 a.m. bus from her and her husband’s home in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way for a 90-minute commute to UW. Once on campus she ensures athletes’ class schedules meet NCAA eligibility requirements. She helps student-athletes apply for the often-competitive majors of their choosing. She ensures their credits remain on track for graduation.
Last June she was in Oklahoma City with the softball team at the Women’s College World Series proctoring tests and conducting study sessions in a hotel conference room. She coordinated with professors back in Seattle for players to submit final projects via e-mail.
She meets regularly, often weekly, with student-athletes to track their academic performance, to recognize any potential issues or concerns, or to just be a friend to help them get through a college kid’s real-world issues: girlfriends and boyfriends, social pressures, homesickness. Even if for star students, UW requires each athlete to meet with his or her academic advisor a minimum of three times each academic year.
If she’s lucky, Bracken catches the last bus back to Federal Way at 6:30 each night.
“It does take a lot of patience – and time,” she says, laughing over saying she learned patience by being the youngest of nine(!) children.
“There are times when I think, ‘I need to get home, so my husband (Kasey) doesn’t kill me!”
It’s a side of college athletics ESPN’s cameras don’t film, a side those of us who buy tickets to watch the Huskies play don’t see. But if I polled Washington’s 17 head coaches asking to name their players’ most valuable asset on campus I’m suspecting every one would respond: Bracken and her academic-services staff.
That includes Washington’s newest coach. Chris Petersen’s only been leading the football program, the sport with which Bracken works most closely, for five months. Yet he’s already one of Bracken’s and SAAS’ biggest advocates – and vice versa.
“The SAAS staff here is second-to-none,” Petersen said Tuesday. “It’s been incredible to see the level of support each student-athlete receives – not just football, but every sport. From the academic advisors to the tutors to the learning specialists, everyone on Kim Durand’s staff has the best interests of our student-athletes at heart and are first-class people.”
Bracken is at the top of that class. She returned Monday from the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) convention in Orlando, Fla. She won one of the N4A’s five national 2014 Professional Promise awards for the top new academic advisors in the country.
A former high-school track athlete at Bishop Blanchet in North Seattle, Bracken graduated from UW in December 2008 with a psychology degree. The daughter of Larry and Linda Patos from Shoreline, Wash., has been working with SAAS since she was 18. She was an office assistant as a UW sophomore. After graduating she entered Washington’s Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership program, earning a master’s degree sponsored by UW’s School of Education in June 2010.
She’s been an academic advisor at SAAS for the last four years. That’s why this graduation week is her most special one yet.
“This is the first class I’ve seen go through, start to finish,” she said. “It is crazy to think that it is all happening, to see what they’ve put in and how they’ve grown in the past four years.
“I’m so excited to have been a part of that journey for them. I always think about when some of them first got here how much they hated school or didn’t have confidence to do well. To look at them now succeeding and finishing finals and proud of the work they are handing in, it’s pretty impressive. It’s a self-gratification, just being a part of it.
“There are some students that you aren’t too sure – Are they going to make it? – because of their lack of motivation or skill set. But when they actually push through, persevere, go through it and actually succeed and want it and make it, it is very fulfilling.”
“COMMITMENT TIME,” FROM 10 P.M. TO 2 A.M.
It wasn’t as if Husky football was broken academically before Petersen arrived in January from Boise State. Far from it. Under Steve Sarkisian, Washington football achieved its highest team GPA ever: 2.76 during the 2010-11 academic year.
Petersen has raised those high standards. Bracken says the new coach has made nightly, one-hour study tables Monday through Thursday for the first 10 weeks of every academic quarter mandatory for all freshmen. Bracken and her colleagues stand at the entrance to Conibear and collect each player’s smart phones at the start of each session.
One of Coach Petersen’s biggest rules is for his players to not just be on time but to be early. To meetings. To practice. To class. To study halls. To reviews with Bracken. To everything.
“It’s been incredible to see the level of support each student-athlete receives – not just football, but every sport. From the academic advisors to the tutors to the learning specialists, everyone on Kim Durand’s staff has the best interests of our student-athletes at heart and are first-class people.”
Petersen deploys his position coaches and graduate assistants across campus – “all the time,” Bracken says -- to check on the players’ timeliness. Many Huskies have already found out Petersen’s penalty for not being early: A player must sit with his position coach in the football office for four hours.
Not just any four hours. 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. On a Friday night.
Think that might get a college guy’s attention?
“And I’ve heard that once we get into the season it will be Saturday nights,” Bracken said. “Right after games, instead of hanging out with his buddies talking about the game, he’d be with his coach from 10 until 2 a.m.”
Petersen calls the punishment “Commitment Time.” Now there are a bunch of Huskies scrambling across campus in full sprint and sweat panting, “I don’t want CT! I don’t want CT!”
“What Coach Petersen has done in six months is amazing,” Bracken said. “His goal is a team GPA of 3.0. That’s never been done here before; it’s difficult to get a 3.0 at one of the top public universities in the world.”
Petersen has had a huge “3.0 Board” installed on a wall of the football offices. Each player who attains that GPA for a term gets his name on a plaque put up on the board. (Sarkisian had a similar board outside his office in the Graves Annex building).
Petersen has added a personal touch to this recognition. Each player achieving a 3.0 gets a glossy picture of him with the recognition in bold across the top sent from Washington’s coach to the Husky’s parents and to his high school coach back home.
His players love the hometown pride Petersen is creating with that.
“I’ve heard many of them say, ‘Oh, my God, I want that!” Bracken said.
Bracken also works with the nation’s most dominant crew program – four consecutive national championships for the men, and five in the last six years. Women’s crew had a 3.30 team GPA in the recent winter quarter; men’s crew had a 3.1. Last year Bracken had Ryan Schroeder and Ben Degang graduated with degrees in aeronautical and astronomical engineering. On Saturday Sam Dommer, the seventh seat on the Huskies’ varsity eight that just won another IRA national title, will get his degree in electrical engineering.
Bracken’s softball team is among the country’s most powerful programs. It was a national champion in 2009. It also has one of UW’s higher team GPAs each year. Bracken marvels at how those players effectively manage their time. She noted coach Heather Tarr’s softball team was gone playing on the road for 16 of February’s 28 days. Softball’s team GPA: 3.21. In all, 14 Husky teams had GPAs above 3.0 in the winter quarter.
All that – plus being part of the SAAS team that has UW Athletics in as good of shape academically as it’s ever been – earned Bracken this year’s Association of Professional Advisers and Counselors advisor-of-the-year award across all UW campuses.
Bracken received that honor last month. Bracken and the man who wrote her recommendation letter, director supervisor Rob Post, are the only two from SAAS among the 45 people who have been named UW’s advisor of the year since APAC gave the first honor in 1983.
PERCEPTION VERSUS BRACKEN’S REALITY
Bracken can hear the cynics saying she and her SAAS colleagues hold more of the players’ hands than I am portraying here.
She knows the academic improprieties across the NCAA that have become national scandals. She realizes many view the diplomas student-athletes get, especially in the highest-revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, as “token degrees.”
Bracken lives a life counter to the belief that it is impossible to genuinely succeed academically and athletically while playing big-time college sports.
“That is frustrating,” she says.
She calls it “unfortunate” when many outsiders ask her what she does.
“Oh, so you are the person who writes their papers,” many say.
“NO! Not at all. That’s not what we do,” she replies firmly.
“But that is a perception,” she said Tuesday. “I always set them straight, one person at a time.”
The cynics aren’t with Bracken and the football and softball players and rowers in the academic resource center at Conibear each night until it closes at 9. They aren’t studying on commuter jets late after a hard-fought night road game, as Husky guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews were under solitary seat lights aboard an Alaska Airlines plane last winter during a basketball trip.
“They work hard. It is a rough schedule for them,” Bracken says. “They do what they do in order to succeed. And when they succeed on the field, a lot of them are succeeding in the classroom. It tends to be more of a positive correlation that we see than a negative.
“The amazing thing is to see what other passions they have outside of their sport, what else it is they like to do. I feel a lot of people don’t think of that. They see a student-athlete and they think, ‘All you want to do is play your sport.’ What they don’t realize is they care about more than that.”
They care about youth -- as Kikaha and Keith Price, C.J. Wilcox, Phoebe Tham did during recent internships as teachers at Green Lake Elementary school in Seattle. (SAAS sets up that program, too).
“There are other goals and dreams that these people want to be successful in, besides just being an athlete,” Bracken says.
"When they succeed on the field, a lot of them are succeeding in the classroom. It tends to be more of a positive correlation that we see than a negative."
They care about how they are viewed as people. Last year Bracken was a key resource for Kikaha and Huskies linebacker and co-captain John Timu as they presented at the UW’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. Their presentation challenged how we perceive the intelligence of football players in top college programs.
Bracken is also the director of operations for the Taro Roots Foundation, the Seattle-area organization that UW SAAS senior counselor Ink Aleaga began six years ago. Taro Roots encourages Pacific Islander and non-Pacific Islander youngsters to pursue higher education through its academic and athletic seminars.
Bracken created a summer study-abroad program for Huskies football and softball players. She then joined 11 Huskies on a 10-day trip to Tahiti last June to see how that culture was struggling to survive French colonization, as I detailed in this column a year ago.
“It has changed my life,” football cornerback Tre Watson said of Bracken’s creation.
Kikaha was so into Bracken’s program that a week after he finished one of the best sack seasons in Huskies’ history in 2013 he returned to Tahiti with Petersen’s blessing into this March. He now sees helping Polynesians and their culture as his life’s calling.
There is a second trip leaving UW for Tahiti this week. Danny Shelton and Shane Brostek are returning to do graduate-level studying; Bracken is helping each lineman eventually apply for graduate school. Also going to Tahiti: national volleyball player of the year Krista Vansant and teammate Cassie Strickland, crew’s Amy Fowler, women's basketball's Alexus Atchley and All-Pac-12 scoring guard Jazmine Davis, plus football’s James Atoe, Andrew Hudson, Micah Hatchie, Cory Fuavai and Siosifa Tufunga.
Bracken’s next project is to expand the summer study-abroad program to many more Huskies student-athletes.
UW PIONEERED ACADEMIC SUPPORT
Bracken is leading Huskies down a path first blazed 44 years ago by a woman Huskies basketball coach Lorenzo Romar calls “a pioneer.”
Gertrude Peoples came to the Huskies' athletic department from an academic counseling office on upper campus in 1969. That year Washington’s African-American players protested what they saw as discriminatory treatment, and coach Jim Owens eventually suspended four of them for a November game at UCLA. The team finished 1-9 amid the turmoil.
"There was no excuse for some athletes to not have the academic opportunities other students were receiving," Peoples said.
Sam Kelly, who a year later would become the university's first vice president for minority affairs in the black student-affairs division, asked Peoples to come work for UW athletics in academic advising during that troubled '69 season. Then newly hired assistant football coach Ray Jackson started sending African-American student athletes directly to her.
Peoples calmed the players' tempest and essentially became their surrogate mother. She set out to make African-Americans feel more included in regular student life. Through her own will and effort, she intensified the amount of academic help student athletes of all races from all sports received.
That’s how in 1970 Gertrude Peoples started the nation’s first college academic support office for student-athletes. Solo.
In 1971 UW renamed her department Student Athlete Services and gave her two assistants. The office was ultimately called Student-Athlete Academic Services. That’s how it’s known today, as not only the first but one of the best such departments in the nation.
Bracken is proving to be one of the best of the best.
“She has great ideas and knows how to get things done,” said Pam Robenolt SAAS’ director of learning resources. “Her students appreciate what an amazing resource she is.
“I fully expect that one day she will be my boss. ... We think the world of her. She works so hard and cares so much. She is very positive and has great energy.
“I’m serious – I will probably work for her one day.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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