I have been a student-athlete at Rutgers for just over three years now, and although it has been a truly positive and rewarding experience, I have become very aware of the negative stigma surrounding college athletes. Many people think student-athletes have it easy. The belief that student-athletes are privileged, receive extra leniency from professors, and that they are less intelligent than average students are not new ideas. This is a stigma that surrounds college athletes all over the country, particularly those who receive scholarships for their abilities.
The student-athlete experience is undoubtedly enriching. But the dual demands of academics and athletics at such a high level can take a toll both mentally and physically. I had the opportunity to meet with former Rutgers gymnast, Makenzey Shank, and talk to her about her own experiences as a student athlete and her transition into the ‘real world’. As a journalism and media studies graduate, Shank was a standout student-athlete on the Rutgers women’s gymnastics team from 2015 to 2019.
Shank grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and competed as a member of the Arizona Level 10 State Championship team for seven consecutive years, the highest level in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Program. In her senior year of high school, she was recruited by Rutgers and made the trip across the country for an official visit. Without knowing anything about Rutgers prior to being contacted by the head coach, she was taken back by the size and stature of the school. “I remember when I met with the girls on the gymnastics team,” she said. “ I clicked with them and immediately knew Rutgers was the place I wanted to be.”
The Journalism and Media Studies department was not part of Shank’s initial plan. When enrolling at the school, her mind was set on majoring in marine biology, but she also had a keen interest in meteorology, dreaming of being a weather reporter in the future. After her first year she switched her major from marine biology to meteorology. However, balancing the difficult prerequisite classes for the major while also dedicating so much time and energy to gymnastics proved to be more difficult than she anticipated.
She laughed as she told the story of a Calculus 2 exam she took saying, “I went into it with no confidence. I gave some answers, left some blank too. I knew I got my name right at least. Oh, and I cried in the middle of the exam. I turned it in and got an 8.5 percent.”
She ultimately made the decision to drop the class, but that didn’t help as chemistry was just as challenging. “Sophomore year in the fall was probably the worst semester of my life. I was stressed out in the gym and couldn’t focus because I was so overwhelmed with Chemistry, trying to memorize formulas.” She passed the class but explained that she didn’t like how unhappy and stressed she was trying to get to a dream she wanted.
After meeting with her academic advisor, she realized that majoring in journalism and media studies to focus on the broadcasting field was an alternative path to achieving her dream of being a reporter. She took their advice willingly and switched her major in the second semester of her sophomore year. “Honestly, I have not looked back at all…,” she said. “I have no regrets and love it completely. I wish I picked it sooner. The classes were still a challenge, but school became enjoyable and the homework wasn’t a chore anymore, it was fun.” She felt motivated and could see her future more clearly.
As she began to excel in the classroom, she also began to reach new heights in gymnastics. During her junior year she led the team on the balance beam and uneven bars and was recognized in the Big Ten for both her academic and athletic achievements.
However, she still had doubts of her future success in broadcast due to the time constraints that came with being a varsity athlete. “I worried about finding jobs in the future because I had no real-life experience like many of my classmates. I didn’t have time for internships, and I went through a slump.” She was eventually reassured after hearing that being a student-athlete is very highly revered by employers.
Rutgers athletics has a phenomenal leadership and career development program which aids student-athletes in preparing for the future. Despite the lack of work experience many athletes get due to their dedication to sports, the programs encourage that being a committed team player and a self-motivated individual are all very attractive qualities for future employers. Shank pointed out that despite the challenges she faced, she learned so much from her experience as a student-athlete. And these are lessons that she will carry with her as she works her way to her dream job as a reporter. “I had to learn to compartmentalize and manage my time effectively. Time management was so important because I had to balance practice, lifts, classes and group projects, meetings with advisors as well as travelling to different states on the weekends to compete, which most other students don’t have to do.”
Every student-athlete at Rutgers has an academic advisor who helps to construct an education plan that is compatible with their life goals. I met with the gymnastics team advisor, Gilah Rosenberg, who worked with Shank during her junior and senior year. She spoke very highly of Shank and her attitude toward her academics. “She is a very personable and responsible individual. Very motivated and hardworking too. With all those things combined, I think whatever career field you’re going into you are going to be successful.” She added, “sometimes I have athletes come in who don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do in the future or what classes they want to take. By the time Shank really got into the journalism and media studies major, she was very organized and driven. She came in and told me exactly what classes she wanted to take and what internships she was looking at that we would need to fit into her schedule.”
Shank worked as an intern for Rutgers R Vision during the fall semester of her senior year in 2019. It was a very big learning experience that gave her a real taste of what it would be like working in the media. “I did the job of a whole crew! It made me realize that today there isn’t just one single job. You have to be able to do multiple things.” While perfectionism is sometimes viewed in a negative light, Shank views it as one of her most beneficial qualities. Throughout her gymnastics career, striving to achieve perfection and bettering herself was instilled within her being. During her internship she would always ask for more projects and take any learning experience she could.
Now working as a high school sports clerk and reporter for NJ Advance Media, Shank is relieved that her time as a student-athlete is over. She finally has the time to apply herself fully to her career and make sure she prioritizes her wellbeing. “I don’t miss gymnastics at all, breaking my body and sacrificing my mental and physical wellbeing for the sport. But I do miss performing.” While she is content in her current position, she still aspires to be a sports broadcaster and is taking every opportunity to build her knowledge and skills for the future.