It’s no secret that sports play a major role in the lives of Virginia student-athletes leading up to and during their time on Grounds. However, given that fewer than two percent of all NCAA athletes go on to compete professionally, the vast majority of Virginia’s more than 750 student-athletes must shift their focus to careers outside of sports once they’ve graduated — or shortly thereafter. While student-athletes share a background in athletics, their future lives may go in a number of different directions.
Virginia holds a special place in the hearts of many student-athletes for several reasons. For instance, Sydney Dusel, Class of 2020 alumna and former Virginia diver, emphasized the culture and the people at Virginia as highlights of her experience on Grounds. Other Class of 2020 alumni — like former field hockey striker Catesby Willis and former baseball pitcher Chesdin Harrington — described playing for the program as a childhood dream.
Graduating from the University is a big step for all students and especially student-athletes, who not only were educated at Virginia but also represented the University in 27 varsity sports.
“For most of my time at U.Va., [being a student-athlete] was my identity,” said Randy Neish, Class of 2020 alumnus and Virginia track athlete. “I took my membership as an athlete at the University of Virginia as the most important thing in my life essentially.”
Despite the challenges they’ll face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these student-athletes feel well-prepared for the real world. Through their experience as Division I student-athletes, they’ve learned skills that can benefit them in their own careers.
Dusel explained how “commitment, time management, motivation and communication skills” are not only strengths of student-athletes, but also key attributes of individuals successful in the professional world. She added that, by managing both academics and sports for years, student-athletes become well-rounded — another highly sought after trait.
Willis further discussed how her interpersonal skills have improved during her time as a student-athlete and how they can be applied in various situations beyond Virginia.
“Being a student-athlete taught me invaluable lessons about teamwork and navigating team dynamics in a high-stakes environment,” Willis said. “I feel very comfortable communicating with others to ask for help, mediate compromise and work through adversity.”
In addition to skills student-athletes learn naturally, Virginia Athletics provides athletes a comprehensive support system, particularly in regards to career development. Since arriving in 2017, Athletics Director Carla Williams and her administration have pursued a number of initiatives to aid student-athletes. Harrington, who served as president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee during the 2018-2019 academic year, worked directly with Deputy Athletics Director Ted White and has firsthand knowledge of the various resources available to Virginia athletes.
The athletics department’s academic affairs team has 17 full-time employees dedicated to helping Virginia student-athletes accomplish their goals outside sports from excelling in academics to developing life skills. Harrington noted that the recent hires of Director of Community Engagement Ellen Cook and Director of Career Readiness Kelly Kennedy as just one example of the department’s commitment to the student-athlete experience, as both positions are new to the academic affairs team. Cook connects varsity teams with service projects in the Charlottesville community while Kennedy shares career resources and professional opportunities with student-athletes.
Along with Cook and Kennedy, Harrington discussed the important role of academic coordinators who advise and guide individual student-athletes throughout their time at the University. These staff members, alongside learning specialists, tutors and mentors, make up a vast support structure designed to assist Virginia athletes.
“I've never encountered somebody in our department that hasn't been willing to provide mentorship or to connect you with somebody that they know,” Harrington said. “I think everybody within the department is very eager and willing to help.”
Beyond the academic support team, Virginia Athletics has also launched several programs centered around personal and professional development. Harrington spotlighted two of these initiatives — a speaker series that touches on many real-world issues and career treks that explore different industries in cities across the country. Specifically, he remembers listening to former NBA player Chris Herren talk about substance abuse as well as traveling to New York City to learn about various nonprofit organizations.
“I think a lot of people would say that the department has done a really good job of putting them in good internship position and finding them opportunities,” Harrington said. “[Virginia Athletics] wants to put you in the situation where you can hone those skills or learn about them, so you can be successful.”
Given all of these resources and programs, Virginia Athletics has clearly invested time and money into supporting student-athletes in multiple ways. One of the goals of these investments is to help student-athletes succeed in the long-term. Like any other University student, Virginia athletes can pursue a wide variety of career paths beyond graduation.
As an economics major, Willis certainly had options in terms of her job prospects. She ultimately chose CGI — an IT and business consulting firm — after discovering the company at a University-sponsored career fair. Willis plans to join CGI as a business analyst at the company’s U.S. headquarters in Fairfax, Va. in September.
“After meeting with CGI recruiters and going through the interview process, I felt comfortable with the company's values and vision,” Willis said. “I'm probably most excited to get to work in teams on my job's project.”
Dusel was attracted to her future employer due to the relationships she built with people from the company during the recruiting process. She will be joining Ernst & Young as a consultant in its Chicago office — near her hometown of Naperville, Ill.
“[Ernst & Young was] really interested in what I did and what I was interested in,” Dusel said. “I could tell how passionate they were about their jobs … I just wanted to make sure that I was in a company where the people and the culture are most important.”
Interestingly, Dusel — who concentrated in marketing and information technology at the McIntire School of Commerce — didn’t truly consider consulting as a possible career until she attended an information session early in her fourth year. She was immediately interested in the dynamic and collaborative life of a consultant. Dusel put in many hours of work during the fall recruiting cycle and described balancing interview preparation, case interviews, a full academic courseload and diving practice as “the most stressful time period in college that [she] went through.”
While all her work eventually paid off when she secured an offer from EY, Dusel will have to wait before officially starting at the firm. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dusel’s start date was pushed back to 2021. However, this extended break between graduation and work has given Dusel the perfect opportunity to continue competing after her Virginia diving career was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to begin training again whenever pools reopen.
“The plan is that I'll start [working at EY in January], and I'll just kind of end my [diving] career in December at a USA Diving meet and at least I'll have my own closure on when I end my career,” Dusel said.
Similarly, Neish’s season also ended abruptly this past spring. Neish is in the unique position of graduating from the University, despite having a few years of NCAA eligibility remaining after losing multiple seasons due to injuries and the pandemic. Although he’s still weighing his options, Neish — persuaded by his desire to finish his college career on his own terms and an uncertain job market — is “most likely” returning to the University and the Virginia track and field program for a fifth year.
“[Not finishing the season] was the driving force for coming back,” Neish said. “I've dedicated so much of my life to this and I want to do it for the University of Virginia.”
Neish was accepted into the Social Foundations program of the Curry School of Education and Human Development where he’ll pursue a master’s degree. Neish hopes that this multidisciplinary graduate education, coupled with his bachelor’s degree in psychology, will give him the opportunity to work in the field of counseling in the future.
Additionally, Neish is interested in exploring a running career at a professional club out west after he graduates from the University for a second time.
While Neish is considering enrolling in the Curry School next fall, Harrington graduated from the school this year with a master’s degree in higher education after majoring in media studies and American studies. Harrington initially intended to enter the MLB Draft but, after the pandemic reduced the number of rounds in the draft and casted doubts over the minor league season, he turned his attention to a career outside of baseball.
Despite having no academic background in business, Harrington was offered and accepted a position in Capital One’s Management Rotation Program. In this program, Harrington will be a manager-in-training and learn how to oversee a team, achieve efficiencies and create value for the technology-driven bank.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to get into an entry-level role at a good company where I could learn,” Harrington said. “I'm going to be on one team per year and hopefully perform well. I'll learn a lot of different things.”
Harrington added that student-athletes can “learn a lot of things in sports that [they] might not get in other places.” While he doesn’t have an abundance of business experience, Harrington believes that he can leverage the leadership skills and work ethic he developed at Virginia to excel in this new role.
After years of experience navigating life as a student-athlete, some of the graduates offered words of wisdom for younger Cavaliers. Neish said that student-athletes shouldn’t be stressed if they don’t have a plan as soon as they graduate. He emphasized that “success will come.” Additionally, Dusel pointed out that student-athletes need to balance their time between academics, their social life and athletics and “find what is most important to [them].” She also urged Virginia athletes to branch out, meet new people and not take any moment for granted.
While each of these former student-athletes are on a different path, they share an appreciation for Virginia and excitement for the future.
“Putting on the orange and blue for five years was everything I expected it to be and even more,” Harrington said. “I'm a better person leaving here as a 23-year-old guy rather than coming in as an immature 18-year-old.”
Countless student-athletes have gone on to accomplish tremendous things after they graduate. With the outgoing Class of 2020, many more could be soon added to that list.
“I do value my membership at the University of Virginia and I think that's something I'll cherish for the rest of my life,” Neish said. “All that being said, I am excited for a new chapter.”