University of Iowa athletes get an up-close look at potential careers

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Alexa Kastanek wrestled with an anxiety familiar to college students entering their senior year.

What comes next? And am I prepared to handle it?

For University of Iowa athletes like Kastanek, those questions carry an added uncertainty. Devoting much of her time to her sport (basketball) means that Kastanek doesn’t have a history of jobs or internships to list on her resume now that that time has come.

Iowa basketball player Alexa Kastanek listens as Latasha DeLoach gives her the rundown of the life of a social worker recently at the Johnson County Social Services' office. Kastanek is entering her senior year and wants to be a counselor when she graduates, but was exploring her career options through a new program at the university.

“I’ve been really stressed about the whole, ‘OK, I’m going into my senior year and still have zero clue about what I’m going to do after college,’ ” said Kastanek, a starting guard who has been on the Big Ten Conference’s all-academic team the past two seasons.

“I haven’t been able to do anything that has been future career-based. I would like to do that but it’s kind of hard to figure out how all that would work out, especially with my schedule.”

Kastanek got a little help on that front this summer, thanks to a new program offered by the university’s Student-Athlete Academic Services department. Hawkeye Professional and Career Exposure (P.A.C.E.) provided eight weeks of training and job-shadowing for athletes. A dozen participated, learning things like how to write a resume, set up a LinkedIn account, conduct a job interview and more.

The last four weeks were devoted to exploring careers through face-to-face meetings with local business professionals. For Kastanek, who is majoring in psychology and sociology, that led her to job-shadow a couple of counselors and to get a up-close look at life as a social worker, thanks to LaTasha DeLoach, a community projects specialist for Johnson County Social Services. The two spent 90 minutes recently discussing topics to include in a daylong workshop for teenage girls that DeLoach will be overseeing this fall. Kastanek is hoping to return and help out at the event, if her basketball practice schedule allows.

Iowa basketball senior Alexa Kastanek meets with LaTasha DeLoach, center, and Lindsay Murphy, left, at the Johnson County Health and Human Services building on July 21.

“I’m kind of trying to find a path that I really want to commit to,” said Kastanek, who is leaning toward some type of counseling as a career.

“This (P.A.C.E.) program got us thinking of ways to use athletics as an advantage rather than looking at not having job experience as a disadvantage. Trying to twist it and make sure that we’re looking at our skills and what we’re good at. It’s not that I’ve made a solid decision, but it’s made me more confident about, ‘OK, I can try some things out. Nothing has to be set in stone yet.’”

Hawkeye gymnast Andrew Botto is facing a similar predicament. The senior signed up for the P.A.C.E. program to learn more about the fields of sales and marketing, which interest him the most. He spent time picking the brains of workers in the insurance and real estate fields before becoming intrigued about the possibility of sports marketing while following around Rob Miller. Miller is manager of business development for Learfield, which oversees Hawkeye Sports Properties. He even took Botto on a sales call in which he extended an agreement with a local jewelry company to sponsor Iowa sporting events.

Gymnast Andrew Botto

“It kind of opens up my eyes and sees what the real world is like without stepping my foot fully in yet,” Botto said.

“It doesn’t really matter what I sell but that’s what I want to do. I guess that’s the next step is to figure out exactly what I want to sell and who I want to sell it to.”

Gymnastics has been a year-round pursuit for Botto since the Californian was 2 years old. The only job he’s had at Iowa is working for a few weeks each summer at his coach’s gymnastics camp.

Botto was so interested in the P.A.C.E. program that he immediately put his sales skills to the test by convincing a few of his teammates to also join. His pitch:

“I said, ‘Look, guys, I think this is a good opportunity. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. But, I mean, 99 percent of you haven’t had a job or experience at all, so if you want to do something about that, this is the time to do it.’”

Botto’s goal is to land a job by December. He graduates in May, but may qualify for nationals in gymnastics, which would be in August. That will be his swan song in his sport, but not knowing when he’ll be available to start a job makes things tricky.

Miller, an Iowa graduate who is planning to continue his unofficial mentoring of Botto throughout August, assured him that athletes can have things to sell to potential employers despite a lack of work experience.

“From a business person’s point of view, hiring a student-athlete, you get all those things — dedication, teamwork, time management, ability to listen and understand direction. Especially at an entry-level position, that can be a real difference-maker,” Miller told Botto this week.

“Your resume isn’t going to have 15 bullet points on experiences and things, but you’ve committed to your craft for 20 years.”

The P.A.C.E. program was modeled after a three-year-old effort on campus to provide internships and job-shadowing for athletes interested in careers in the health-care field, said Liz Tovar, associate athletics director for student services. It is not a course for credit, and the athletes who volunteer to go through it aren’t graded. It is held in the summer to tap into athletes who are already on campus training but don’t have the demands of actual competition.

Liz Tovar

“We want them to learn something about themselves that they didn’t know,” Tovar said. “There is a tendency to focus on, ‘Well, I’m a really great athlete,’ and you can’t capitalize on, what are your other skills and talents?”

The business people who helped out had to meet with the university’s compliance office to make sure they understood NCAA rules. The athletes also were cautioned about not accepting gifts. Even a free cup of coffee could be deemed an impermissible benefit, if it was purchased by someone who also is a Hawkeye booster.

Not all of the 12 athletes who participated were uncertain about their post-college future. Jordyn Sindt, a mid-distance runner on the track team, has known since enrolling at Iowa that she wanted to pursue a law degree. She has even held a part-time job at a local law firm while competing for three years.

Jordyn Sindt

Sindt used her P.A.C.E. experience to learn more about what it will take to get accepted into a law school, setting up a half-hour meeting with Collins Byrd, assistant dean of enrollment management at Iowa’s College of Law.

One of the pressing questions for Sindt: How much of her athletic background should she tout in her “personal statement?” Or should she even mention track at all? She said she’d received mixed messages from others she asked.

Byrd, who played football at Dartmouth, told her to absolutely mention it, but only in the context of what she’s learned from being a Division I athlete.

“I was really nervous on how to incorporate track in there without being, ‘Oh, I ran track,’” said Sindt, who will be taking her LSAT on Sept. 24. “Because everyone has their own story, so something impressive to one might not be to another. Him explaining the best way to weave it in to get the best of both worlds was really good.”

Like most athletes at Iowa, Sindt knows there is not a pro sports career awaiting her. But that realization doesn’t always come early, and so the P.A.C.E. program can help jump-start the transition to life after athletics for those who have delayed thinking about that.

Tovar would like to double the number of participants in next summer’s program. She is having Botto and Kastanek give a presentation to the entire athletic department staff this summer about what they learned, hoping to spur more coaches to encourage their athletes to sign up.

“I talk to a lot of the other athletes and all they care about is just getting really good at their sport and then hopefully getting drafted or whatever,” Botto said.

“They’re not thinking about their career after. They’re just getting a degree just to pass. But with our sport, you’ve got to figure it out. There is no pro future. That’s why this program is so helpful.”