Student-athletes enrich their health science knowledge through sports.

In addition to their academic pursuits, student-athletes at Ithaca College are broadening their understanding of the human body through the demanding routines of practice sessions and the thrill of game days.

During the 2022–23 academic year, 118 out of 286 student-athletes chosen for the Liberty League All-Academic team belonged to the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance (HSHP). The HSHP houses 214 student-athletes, comprising approximately 31% of the school’s enrollment.

One such student-athlete is Junior Juliana Valli, a striker on the field hockey team, who is majoring in physical therapy with a minor in art. Valli’s introduction to the college came through its strong athletic programs, both on the field and in the classroom. Her passion for sports medicine ignited while working at Synergy Physical Therapy in Hackettstown, New Jersey, starting in her junior year of high school. The hands-on and connection-based nature of sports medicine resonated with Valli, even though she initially worried about reconciling it with her love for art.

Valli expressed her dilemma, saying, “I’ve always loved fashion, I’ve always loved sewing, I’ve always loved doing stuff with my hands. I felt like I had two aspects of myself, like two different personas: my creative side and my athletic side. I had to really think about what my strengths and weaknesses are and what I wanted as a career.”

After exploring the college’s art minor, Valli found that her love for the field of health sciences complemented her artistic pursuits. She noted, “Even with art, if I decide to work in [health sciences], I know bringing in a creative aspect, like art therapy, would make the experience better for the people I’m connecting with.”

Valli’s journey is not unique; among the field hockey team’s 27 players, 13 are pursuing health-related fields, including occupational therapy, athletic training, and clinical health studies. Pursuing a science-based field like physical therapy can be daunting, but Valli believes that her athletic experience has helped her apply classroom knowledge to real-life situations. She shared an example: “The other day my knee was hurting me, and to realize that I needed to stretch a certain muscle in my quad was crazy to me. To be able to figure that out and say, ‘Wow, we talked about that in class the other day. I know this now and I can help myself out,’ is awesome.”

Kaitlyn Wahila, head coach of the field hockey team, emphasized how the number of health science students on the team influences the team’s approach to training and recovery. She stated, “Our health science student-athletes overall, because they’re studying it all the time, definitely know how important that process of strength training, conditioning, and recovery is.”

Sophomore Cullen Adams, an exercise science and pre-athletic training major and midfielder on the men’s lacrosse team, chose to travel from Portland, Maine, to upstate New York specifically for the college’s health science programs. His desire to make others feel better, combined with a strong affinity for sports, drew him to sports medicine. Despite initially considering nursing, Adams realized that athletic training allowed him to work in a sports setting while still focusing on health and science. He expressed his excitement about the nontraditional setting in which he would be working, surrounded by sports.

The College offers graduate programs in exercise science, physical therapy, and physician assistant studies, among others. Many HSHP students go on to pursue careers in athletic training, performance coaching, and sports medicine. During the Spring 2023 semester, Adams had the opportunity to shadow the athletic trainers for the college’s women’s lacrosse team, providing him with invaluable experience in the field he aspires to join.

Tim Reynolds ’14, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Athletic Training, was once a student-athlete himself. He understands the challenges student-athletes face, both on the field and in their studies. Reynolds mentioned, “I make an announcement at the beginning of the semester and ask how many student-athletes we have, and I tell them that I was a student-athlete too. I understand that it is a very demanding program and that their career paths will be very demanding, but it’s a very selfless career path, you will have the opportunity to give and to help others. You’re in a service industry, and you are trying to help people physically and mentally, so it’s important that I know the physical and mental demands that they are going through.”

Reynolds highlighted the advantage health science students have by witnessing the course material in action daily on the playing field. He said, “They’ve been practicing it on the field and they finally get a chance to really see how the human body works and learn about it. Seeing the lightbulb effect when they finally learn the names of the muscles in the body and figure out the different bones and joints in the body is something I really appreciate because they get to learn about their own craft and learn the academic side of it all.”


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