Illini student-athletes take advantage of Irwin Center services

Freshman in LAS and center on the basketball team, Jenna Smith, goes over political science notes in Irwin Academic Services Center in Champaign, Monday, February 19, 2007. ME Online

Freshman in LAS and center on the basketball team, Jenna Smith, goes over political science notes in Irwin Academic Services Center in Champaign, Monday, February 19, 2007. ME Online

By Dave Fultz

With her mind focused on the task ahead of her, freshman center Jenna Smith is poised to solve any problem that comes her way. Normally, this would mean making the tough decision between backing down her opponent in the paint or passing the ball back out to a teammate on the wing.

But the basketball court is not her focus right now. On this day, the 6-foot-3 low-post powerhouse has traded in her now-familiar orange and blue practice gear and sneakers for street clothes and headphones. Instead, she’s putting in valuable study time at the Irwin Academic Services Center.

“I see myself as both a student and an athlete at Illinois,” Smith said. “But if you asked me that question a couple of months ago, I probably would’ve said that I was an athlete first.”

Illinois women’s basketball head coach Theresa Grentz has long held the education of her players as a high priority. Upon graduating from Immaculata University in 1974, Grentz chose to forgo playing basketball professionally to raise a family and become a sixth-grade teacher. The same principles that led her to a career in education still guide her vision for her players’ academic achievement.

“I think that academics and athletics are married together,” Grentz said. “You come to Illinois for both. It’s always a combination of doing what you’re supposed to do in the classroom and on the court.”

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    In order to meet Grentz’ high standards, the Illini take advantage of the resources available to them at the Irwin Center. Along with providing Illinois’ student-athletes with a good studying environment, the Irwin Center also houses academic counselors and life-skills coordinators.

    “It’s a great thing because there is so much hands-on help available,” Smith said. “If you need a book, they’ll help you find it. If you need a tutor, they’ll help you get one. It’s great.”

    Through the combined effort of the athletes, the coaches and staff, and the advisors and tutors at the Irwin Center, the women’s basketball team has become a very strong academic squad.

    “This group makes my life a lot easier,” said Jason Holtman, the academic counselor for the women’s basketball team. “The majority of the team is freshman and sophomores and they have all done an extremely good job. They all seem to care very deeply about their education. Across the board, from their coaches and me, it was ingrained in their heads that their education is important. They’ve taken that and just ran with it.”

    Open since the fall semester of 1997, the Irwin Center has provided the University of Illinois’ student-athletes with top-notch facilities for almost a decade.

    “As far as Irwin is concerned, I believe that we are on par or above most other Big Ten schools,” Holtman said. “We are in the process of adding onto our current facility which is just going to make it that much better.”

    The Irwin Center is undergoing a $4.6 million expansion which will add an extra 11,400 square feet of space to the building. This will help to provide more than 600 student-athletes with improved amenities, ranging from a new general study area to an expanded computer lab.

    “(The Irwin Center) is a huge advantage,” said sophomore guard and top student Lori Bjork. “They provide us with any help we need to succeed academically. There are so many resources that are made available to us. It is a place we can go between classes or just stop in and talk to Jason (Holtman). To have people who know what is going on academically and following what we are doing makes a big difference.”

    All of the efforts of the student-athletes and advisors are organized into a program that the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has entitled the Illini Life Skills program. According to the DIA, the program is “designed to meet the total needs of the student-athlete.” The five main aspects stressed within the program are academic excellence, athletic excellence, personal development, service and career development.

    “(Illini Life Skills) helps to develop us as people off the court so that we aren’t strictly athletes,” senior forward Erin Wigley said. “It’s important so that when we aren’t able to play basketball anymore, we are prepared to go out into the real world.”

    Each semester the student-athlete is given certain goals through the Illini Life Skills program that they will meet through completion of the program.

    “I think that program is absolutely excellent,” Grentz said. “I really think that has been a large benefit for our student-athletes.”

    Wigley is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and is the lone player that will be leaving this year’s squad. Wigley will venture into the working world for the second straight summer. Last summer she interned with the NBA in New York and is required to do another internship before graduation.

    “I haven’t decided where I’m going to go yet, but hopefully (the internship) will be with another professional team in the WNBA or NBA,” Wigley said.

    Bjork, the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore, has a near-perfect GPA and was honored by the College Sports Information Directors of America and “ESPN the Magazine” last week when she was made an Academic All-District selection.

    “At this point, I definitely identify myself as an athlete,” Bjork said. “I still think of myself as a basketball player. At the same time, I don’t think that either is something that is mutually exclusive. When you do both, they each enhance the other in your life.”