Feb. 18, 2010
SEATTLE - When Michelle Darby took her visit to the University of Washington from her native Massachusetts, the experience floored her. In the span of a weekend, the coxswain soaked up Seattle, the white-capped Cascade Mountains peeking over the horizon from Conibear Shellhouse and the view from the Rainier Vista.
In less than 48 hours, Darby was sure Washington was her new home.
But the spectacular backdrop to campus was not the only reason Darby is in Seattle instead of New Haven or Cambridge.
Darby came to Seattle from the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, a private boarding school that annually seeds the Ivy League schools and with incoming freshman. Darby, who was interested in studying engineering, could have had her pick of the elite East Coast schools.
She chose Washington.
"The thing with rowing is that there are a lot of schools with good engineering programs," Darby said. "But UW definitely has a great engineering school that's pretty competitive. And there's a research portion compared to schools in New England that are more liberal arts based; I just felt more comfortable here."
The academics at Washington are what make the university a special place. UW is one of the preeminent R-1 research institutions, which means the university offers a full range of baccalaureate programs and heavily emphasizes research. Washington is also in the American Association of Universities (AAU), a consortium of the 62 leading research institutions in the United States and Canada. These credentials provide student-athletes a road map to facilitate whatever academic experience may interest them.
Washington has produced dozens Rhodes Scholars, six Nobel Prize recipients and over a hundred Fulbright Scholars. Numerous Seattle corporations such as Boeing and Microsoft have partnered with the UW to enable research discoveries and provide an unmatched learning environment.
Among student-athletes at Washington, the rowing program is perhaps the best at taking advantage of those luxuries.
"(Rowers) get the full experience out of everything that the University of Washington has to offer. They compete at the highest level of their sport, but they also compete at the highest level academically," said Kim Durand, Washington's Associate Athletic Director for Student Development. "So that's the team that produces doctors, lawyers, business leaders, people who work on Wall Street, architects, and engineers. How they take advantage of those opportunities is really unparalleled."
Darby came to Seattle with a goal in mind (her parents are both engineers) and has sought to pursue it with a rigorous course load. A class teaching Computer-Aided Design (CAD) piqued her interest, and this segued to her internship last summer at Fuji Film Dimatix in New Hampshire where she worked with 3-D mapping software to create prototypes.
Professors have helped to guide and foster her interest, similar to how men's rower Simon Taylor discovered his career path at Washington. A meeting with his academic advisor, along with an assessment test, pointed Taylor towards the field of corporate training, a field of human resources and organizational development.
Considering how niche a career choice it was, Taylor nevertheless was able to pursue the option because of UW's academic flexibility. Corporate training isn't a major at Washington, but the school was able to facilitate Taylor's interests with independent study.
"I was encouraged to do a lot of independent studies and explore the option," Taylor said. "I did two or three classes researching various aspects of that field, I became really interested and I've been pursuing it ever since."
This led to an internship in Los Angeles with MTV working in corporate development, which further solidified what he wanted to pursue.
His path to Seattle is similar to the one Darby traveled, but from a much more roundabout standpoint. The New Zealand native bypassed an Ivy League school before landing at UW, lured by the excellent academics combined with the palatable climate.
"I realized that the people here and the environment was something I could really enjoy," Taylor said. "(Seattle) reminded me of home, and I felt it was a place I could really thrive in. It's been a great decision."
Combining academics and rowing is a challenge, but one a majority of the student-athletes readily accepted. The Student Athlete Academic Services (SAAS) provides a strong support network for all of Washington's athletes and is a frequent sounding board for concerns and questions. Durand noted the rowers are the most aggressive with their SAAS advisors in trying to juggle multiple majors, find internships and inquire about study abroad opportunities. Even better is that SAAS is housed right inside Conibear Shellhouse, so rowers don't have to venture far to connect with the tutors.
Darby said she enjoys telling recruits how convenient the Shellhouse is, where you can train on the lower floor in the morning, having training table in the afternoon and then receive tutoring help or work in the computer labs at night.
"It's a very tight-knit and supportive group," Darby said. "This facility, I could live here. We joke that throughout the day we gradually move upstairs. There's a great study area and there's a lot of drop-in tutoring."
Balancing the two has been a tricky act for Ty Otto, who manages to row while double-majoring in physics and political science. Otto is another East Coaster who was drawn to the Pacific Northwest, based on what he called the "intense vitality" of the team and the campus on his recruiting visit. He sensed a Type-A atmosphere, where rowers trained hard, studied hard and then took their weekends to climb and explore the backcountry of Western Washington.
Otto graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, a magnet for students interested in the sciences and technology. Naturally, he was looking for a school that could support this interest, but also offered an elite place to row. Otto was initially attracted to the biology department, but his academic interests evolved and he made the switch to physics, where he hopes to develop technologies for the Department of Defense after graduation. Otto comes from a military background; his father, Bob, is a brigadier general in the Air Force.
Political science was something he picked up after dabbling with a few elective courses.
"It's great having the high-caliber faculty here and a university that's capable of supporting your interests," Otto said. "That's one of the many benefits of being here."
But it's not the only benefit. The draw for many rowers to Washington is a university that provides not only a top-flight educational experience, where students are free to explore themselves academically, but also a chance to compete with the best the sport has to offer on a daily basis.
"A lot of rowers come to Washington because of the balance," Durand said. "They feel like they can do it all at a place like this. Win a National Championship, or four. Double major. Have a great academic experience. Have the ability to tap into an amazing network and really be able to follow their passion."