Before the American Athletic Conference’s Academic Consortium, SMU athletes Franklin Agunanne and Jasmine Jolly only ever looked at rival schools as opponents.
At the time, that’s all they knew as student-athletes. You represent your school, show up to a venue with fans, and compete in athletic competitions.
That was the extent of the interaction, as it often is in most schools.
For Agunanne, it was on the hardwood as a member of SMU’s men’s basketball team, while Jolly came face-to-face with other athletes on the track team.
Little did they know, a chance weekend getaway would turn opponents into teammates, adversaries into colleagues, and rivals into lifelong friends.
“The idea behind the consortium is to understand from a student-athlete perspective what life is like for us,” said Jolly. “We had three panels—one for diversity and inclusion, another for the day and life of a student-athlete, and a third for mental health.”
SMU senior swimmer and SAAC president, Elise Johnson, even contributed through a Zoom panel on mental health.
Essentially, the Consortium is a weekend event jam-packed with different speakers, deep discussions on serious issues, and interactive activities.
The purpose for the event reads as follows:
“The core focus of the Consortium will be research and programming related to student well-being, with a particular focus on issues related to student-athlete well-being. The development of a Consortium will create a structure, processes and programming that fosters partnerships among member institutions and develops initiatives that advances the academic mission of each school.”
One way of looking at it is a big brainstorming session on what schools, the conference, and the NCAA in general can do to improve on their handling of sensitive issues pertaining to diversity, inclusion, and mental health.
And it all takes place in a relaxed setting where feedback is encouraged and taken into consideration.
Agunanne and Jolly’s involvement in the program was unique, considering they didn’t actively apply. Both were sought after for their own separate reasons.
“I received an email from Teiana Jones, suggesting that I join the program,” Agunanne said. “She knew I had a lot of things on my mind that I was interested in having deeper discussions about, such as issues on diversity. She told me she believed I’d be good for it, even though I hadn’t done anything like that before. But she really pushed for it because she thought I’d like it. So I was like, ‘Okay! Sign me up!’ But I’ll be honest, I didn’t really think it would be as well-organized as it ended up being. I was pretty blown away.”
However, no one was as blown away as Jolly, who was completely caught off guard when asked to be a part of the program. It took a while for her to wrap her brain around why she was one of the people chosen.
Imagine her surprise when she learned both her and Agunanne were at the top of the list.
“I was so confused when they picked me,” said Jolly. “I was like, ‘Why am I being picked for this?’ I didn’t even understand it at the time. They had a few other people in mind, but they thought of us first because they knew we had the confidence to speak on the student panel. They also knew, as international students, we’d bring an interesting perspective to the conversation.”
But the mass gathering of student-athletes from all over the AAC was about more than just those serious conversations.
It was also a rare opportunity for both Agunanne and Jolly to meet with other young adults walking the same path as them as student-athletes.
Agunanne was especially moved by the opportunity to just mingle as normal people without competition being at the forefront of things.
It didn’t matter what school anyone was from during the trip. They were all there for the same reason, which was the betterment of the student-athlete experience across the board.
“I was of the mindset there was going to be some sort of competition when we got there, but it was completely different,” said Agunanne. “The way we bonded went beyond sports. We were all just together in the moment, you know, having fun and doing things together. It was just so different.
“When I go to play basketball against the same individuals, it’s a completely different atmosphere—a different intensity, you know? But then, after actually seeing them in person, they’re like the nicest people ever. I guess you just see beyond the athlete. You see the real person. After that conference, I feel like we are all connected to the point where I think I’m going to have friends for life. That little moment will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Jolly felt the same way when the conference came to a close. She looked around and realized she was seeing all of the other student-athletes from other schools in a new light.
It’s different when you aren’t competing against one another. Instead, they were in a position where they were competing for one another.
“It was nice to actually be with other athletes and realize that we’re actually all the same. Even the ones that come from rival schools, we’re all going through the same struggles. We’re all just human beings doing the best we can. That was my favorite takeaway from the event.” Jolly said.
There are several things Agunanne can take from the event — the life lessons, new friendships, and an overall sense of belonging to something bigger than himself.
But when whittling it down to his favorite takeaway, he recalled a presentation from a speaker from Temple University pertaining to how black student-athletes are often viewed on campus. The topic delved into people feeling like black athletes exist more so for sports than academics.
They are rarely given the benefit of the doubt that the two go hand-in-hand.
“I think that discussion was a big one for me because I’ve never thought about it that way,” said Agunanne. “Being from Nigeria, I come from a background where I don’t really know much about diversity and equity. But since learning about it and being in the United States, I feel like it’s something I should know more about.”
You can rest assured Agunanne, Jolly, and others will only build on that knowledge now that the seed has been planted. Who would have thought one weekend trip could provide so much perspective on things?
And then there are the memories—joyous and fleeting as they were.
“A friend I met from Tulane University posted a picture from the event on our Instagram. When I saw that photo, I was instantly reminded of how much fun I had. It was kind of giving me feelings of déjà vu. I miss that moment. It just reminds me of something that was said on the trip that will always resonate with me. A speaker said, ‘Regardless of what’s going on in the world, always embrace the moment.'”
Agunanne and Jolly embraced the moment by attending and participating in the Consortium.
The only thing left to do now is to embrace the change that comes along with it.