When she was an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago, a career in campus recreation wasn't even on Veronica Ballinger's radar.
"I originally wanted to work in physics and engineering," says Ballinger, who has been the aquatics program and risk management coordinator for RecSports at the University of Notre Dame for going on three years. "Then I transitioned to biology/pre-medicine and decided that wasn't what I wanted to do, either. So, I transferred to the business school and picked up sport management and marketing degrees."
Ballinger worked as a lifeguard at the Halas Pool on Loyola's campus and, based on the leadership skills she'd demonstrated, her supervisor at the time, Kathryn Dunn, invited the junior to join her at the 2016 NIRSA Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Expo in Orlando, Fla.
"Every person she introduced me to remembered me every time they saw me throughout the conference," Ballinger remembers. "They asked me meaningful questions and wanted to get to know me better. I just fell in love with it. At the end of the conference, I sat down with my supervisor and said, 'All right, how can I do this as a full-time profession?'"
Dunn told her how, and Ballinger worked as a campus recreation graduate assistant in aquatics and risk management at Texas A&M University-Commerce for 18 months before taking her current position at Notre Dame. Today, Ballinger considers Dunn her first mentor — someone she says would "ask me the right questions and identify the qualities I considered important in a career, and then push me in that direction, but not push too hard."
Kevin Martin Sr. needed a hard push. When the director of Recreational Sports at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi was an intramural basketball referee at Sam Houston State University, he officiated a game in which both teams were not pleased with his calls — and players let him know.
"We almost got into a brawl, and that was a poor reflection on the rec sports department," Martin says. "My supervisor, the late Sarah Fain, told me I was in line to be promoted to a student supervisor the next week and that now I had to wait for possibly another year. She said I wasn't ready to be in that role, but she didn't fire me. And that taught me an important lesson."
Why do Ballinger's and Martin's stories still matter all these years later? Because they learned how to channel their own experiences into helping others with whom they work. That's why both are among the recipients of the 2021 Horace Moody Award, presented to one NIRSA professional member from each of NIRSA's seven regions for their contributions to student development. As NIRSA puts it, the award is "conferred on individuals who have made a lasting difference in mentoring students."
Other 2021 winners include Aaron Combs (James Madison University), Tyler Burroughs (Kansas State University), Michelle Harder (University of Iowa), Joni Richardson (University of Victoria) and Dexter Shorter (Pennsylvania State University).
"Mentoring can be a million different things," says Ballinger, who never forgot Dunn's influence on her. "But it's not one-sided."
'Let Them Know You're a Real Person'
NIRSA regularly matches emerging campus rec professionals with willing mentors through a formal mentoring program. Association leaders also know from experience that many lasting mentor-mentee relationships can form and evolve organically.
"I have an open-door policy," says Martin, who arrived at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi earlier this year after almost 16 years in campus recreation at the University of California, Riverside. "We all need one another, and that's always been my approach. It doesn't matter what time it is. If you have something going on that you want some help with, or if you just want somebody to talk to or vent to, you have my number and you know where to find me. Let's have a conversation."
On campus, Martin is known as "K-Mart" — a nickname that amplifies his approachability. "Even though the stores are going out of business, I'm always open," he says, laughing while referencing the big-box retail chain.
That kind of personable authority presence in the workplace is critical to building trust and fostering a culture in which mentorship can thrive. "I think an important part of mentoring is being able to connect with others on a personal level and explore what vulnerability looks like as a supervisor," Ballinger says. "Let others know you're a real person. That develops a very real connection with students that leads to trust and lets them know that sometimes nobody has everything figured out — especially not in those first couple of years of college. I think students are under so much pressure right now that it's a relief for them to hear that."
Ballinger's own varied path through college serves her well in her mentorship role, and along the way she's earned the respect of her student staff members. When she told them she was getting married this year and would be taking some time off, they upped their game by taking on additional responsibilities to ensure that deadlines would still be met and that operations would continue smoothly in Ballinger's temporary absence.
"I think that's because of the relationship we built, the mutual respect we have for each other," she says. "But I also think it's because I work hard with them to maximize the experience they want from their jobs."
Both Martin and Ballinger can quickly name mentors that continue to influence them. For Ballinger, they include Stephanie Nielsen, assistant director for the North Campus Recreation Building and Aquatics at the University of Michigan; Drew Loso, assistant director of Facilities Management and Operations at the University of Notre Dame; CieCie Leonard, assistant director of fitness and wellness at the University of Texas at Austin; and Kristyn Watts, Rockne Memorial Building and special events manager for Notre Dame RecSports. Martin's list includes Lindy Fenex, director of recreation at UC, Riverside; Juliette Moore, NIRSA's first Black female president; Stan Shingles, assistant vice president of Central Michigan University; and Mirum Washington-White, athletic director at St. Cyril of Alexandria Catholic School. Both Martin and Ballinger share Mark Williams, director of RecSports at Notre Dame, as an important mentor for them.
Collectively, Martin, Ballinger and all their mentors prove that mentorship is a lifelong process of give and take.
"Those are people who honestly care about me — forward thinkers who have kept me being a forward thinker," Martin says of the names on his list. "That's why I'm always trying to help people, man. I just enjoy mentoring and giving back. And every time you mentor somebody, you also grow. I think people forget about that."
Special Olympics and Campus Recreation
When Special Olympics created a new fellowship position this summer that involved working with colleges and universities to promote social inclusion, the longtime NIRSA partner focused its search for candidates on campus recreation student employees.
"The values of campus rec and Special Olympics align," says Scott George, manager of university engagement for Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®, a pre-K through college program that is active on more than 300 college and university campuses and nearly 8,000 K-12 schools in the United States. "A lot of students in campus rec want to use sports to accomplish a greater good. They want to get more people involved in sports. They also have a strong work ethic and have developed skills that are the perfect match for what we're doing at Special Olympics."
Most finalists for the fellowship position — which involves engaging and maintaining relationships with new and current Unified Champion Schools, with an emphasis on esports programming — had campus recreation backgrounds, according to George, who is no stranger to that world. He worked in the field for seven years at Central Michigan University.
The Unified Champion Schools fellowship position runs through Dec. 31, with the potential to become permanent, and it is a perfect example of providing real-world work for young sports and recreation professionals.
"Our new employees bring a fresh perspective, and in turn we can give them new experiences that challenge them," George says. "I also think Unified Champion Schools is very fortunate in that we're able to work with what we call the 'Unified Generation.' Young people today really understand the concepts of inclusion and acceptance."
Visit generationunified.org to learn more about opportunities available through Unified Champion Schools.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "The Give and Take of Effective Mentorship ." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.