New Committee Seeks to Address Student-Athlete Divide

In response to long-standing complaints and social and academic divides between athletes and non-athletes, a committee, formed in the fall of 2023, is exploring potential policy changes to address the existing disconnects on campus.

For decades, Amherst students have complained about clear social and academic divides between athletes and non-athletes, from self-segregated seating in Val to athletes feeling like impostors in academic settings.

A new committee, formed in the fall of 2023, will be investigating the student-athlete divide in social scenes and in the classroom, and tackling the issue. The committee, made up of students and faculty, will explore policy implementations to bridge the divide and build a closer Amherst community.

Professor Leah Schmalzbauer, chair of American studies, created the Student-Athlete Divide Committee shortly after she became the Faculty Athletics Representative for the college in the fall of 2023.

Schmalzbauer created the committee in collaboration with Jennifer Chuks, the associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion, Fabio Ayala, the assistant director of the center for restorative practices, and students who had previously expressed interest in the issue.

Schmalzbauer explained that the charge of her position is to build community on campus, particularly between athletes and non-athletes, and coaches and faculty. When she took on this position, she began thinking about what action she could take to bridge social divisions on campus.

Schmalzbauer turned to Chuks, who has worked at Williams College and Dartmouth College working on community building and diversity, equity, and inclusion for help. Chuks and Schmalzbauer initially intended to organize a panel event between athletes and non-athletes, similar to what Chuks organized at Williams.

Chuks explained that athletes and non-athletes tend to feel the divide differently. She believes that non-athletes often feel the divide socially, while athletes tend to experience imposter syndrome in the classroom.

Chuks said that during planning for the panel, they decided to “pull things back a little bit” and instead use this group of students as a committee. “We can use it to actually define what the divide is, see how it impacts different things on campus, and learn from the group,” she said.

Chuks and Schmalzbauer personally invited students onto the committee. Chuks pulled student-athletes from different leadership positions while Schmalzbauer had non-athlete students suggested to her by colleagues, and contacted students who had previously discussed the divide with her.

Oliver Spiva ’24, a member of the track and field team, is one of the students that Chuks reached out to. Spiva joined the committee because he feels that students are “missing out on a lot of really important opportunities for socialization” as a result of the lack of interaction between students and student-athletes.

Spiva believes that college is a time to explore new interests and to explore who they are. “If you’re spending all your time with people who share the same extracurricular interests as you,” he continued, “your worldview isn’t necessarily going to be broadened as much as it could be.”

Schmalzbauer explained that the committee operates outside official school policy. “It’s not a formal committee that was charged with something, it was something that Jen [Chuks] and I thought we would just start having, and students kept wanting to show up, and it’s turned into a weekly thing.”

Schmalzbauer and Chuks emphasized that the committee is in the beginning stages. The committee meets once a week, and is focused on learning from the students involved and having conversations with different offices on campus. President Michael Elliot, Student Affairs, Dean of Students Angie Tissi-Gassoway, and Provost Catherine Epstein have all been very supportive of the committee, Schmalzbauer said.

“We’re really just learning about how the students experience this place, and how they’re building and finding community and searching for community on campus,” Schmalzbauer said.

The group will be discussing whether to expand or formalize the group, Schmalzbauer added.

Chuks added that some students do not believe that there is a divide, while some believe that there is a clear one. Additionally, Schmalzbauer said that sometimes the divide is “almost just lore” that is highly talked about, even when students do not experience it. Even so, for Schmalzbauer, the goal of the committee is “about having a more inclusive Amherst where people also understand each other more.”

The main discussion among the committee, Chuks explained, is how it can implement systems and policies, so that all students feel like they are part of a community together that lasts throughout their four years.

Chuks recognized that athletes join campus with an already existing community in their teams. Still, she asked, “how can those communities be embedded and meshed into other communities, starting on the first days?”

Spiva told The Student that the committee is aiming towards longer-term structural changes. An example he gave was housing. The committee has been in conversation with housing operations at other colleges whose freshman-year housing plays “a much larger role” in facilitating friendships.

“We’ve been kind of doing research with other institutions, like Dartmouth, to see where we can borrow, where we reproduce, where we can make better the kind of things that they found success with,” he said.

While Spiva acknowledges that people at Amherst do make friends within their freshman dorms, he does not believe that it is one of the primary modes of meeting people. Housing and orientation, he believes, are areas with “high potential to make changes.”

Student-athlete divides are not just an Amherst issue, Schmalzbauer stressed. “It’s pervasive in academia, and if Amherst can be a leader on this issue in terms of really tackling it and talking about it openly, then that’s exciting, too.”