Whitney Johnson battles an opponent for position on the block as she deftly snatches the ball out of the air. Turning to face the basket, she jab-steps to get defense off balance and slams the ball down for a single power-dribble before finishing strong. Johnson is a post player for the UNM women’s basketball team. She is also a Lobo scholar, an exceptional student achieving lofty goals on and off the court.

The Lobo Scholars Program is an endeavor by the University of New Mexico’s Honors College and Athletics Department to foster academic excellence among UNM’s highest achieving student athletes.

Associate Athletic Director for Student Development Henry Villegas said, “We’ve done a good job of supporting all our student athletes, but we started the Lobo Scholars Program at UNM because we felt it was a niche that was missing.”

Good job is an understatement. The Mountain West 2012-2013 Scholar-Athlete Award honored a conference high 132 UNM student-athletes. The award is one of the highest academic honors bestowed by the Conference. To be eligible, student-athletes must have completed at least two academic terms at the member institution, while maintaining a cumulative grade point average of 3.5 or better, and have participated in varsity competition in an NCAA-sponsored sport.

In addition, a school record five Academic All-Americans were honored last year, including two-time Academic All-American, Women’s Basketball’s, Caroline Durbin. UNM now has 13 Academic All-Americans in the last three years.

Johnson is a junior in the Anderson School of Management, though she confesses to being a bit of an English nerd. She said, “The two honors classes I took were English focused and there was a lot of writing and critical thinking involved which added significantly to my workload. But this was stuff I was excited about, so I found myself looking forward to going to class and being prepared.” 

Between all the homework, basketball practice and being on the road for games, Johnson said that time management is the student athlete’s biggest challenge. “I often wear my athletic gear to class and then have to sprint out the door in order to make it to practice on time,” she said. “Most of my homework gets done either in the early mornings, on the road, or in the few free minutes of my everyday routine. But I am willing to make it all work. I want to learn. I want to be challenged.” 

Ryan Swanson is tenure-track faculty in the Honors College, but was specifically hired to work as the faculty director of the LSP. His background made him particularly suited to the work. “I’m a former student-athlete myself and I remember what it was like having a busy schedule and trying to balance the physical demands of playing a sport at a high level and carrying a full load academically. It’s my job to help our students with that while making sure they fully enjoy the Honors College experience,” he said.

Honors is an interdisciplinary school that offers students the chance to study and investigate questions of interest, all in a unique setting. “We have smaller classes, which allows for more class discussion and teacher-to-student interaction, and gives students a lot of flexibility in terms of what they’re interested in pursuing,” Swanson said.

Swanson added that the Lobo Scholars Program aids students who want to conduct research on anything from athletics to how geothermal energy works. “A lot of high achieving students are planning for grad school, law school or medical school, so we want to help them think about their own research projects now, to see how they can fit them in,” he said.

Encouraging student-athletes to think intellectually about their experience at UNM is important to Swanson. “I want them to have a solid grasp on what they did while they were here, and what it meant, so that later they can communicate to grad schools and future employers why their student-athlete experience gives them an edge. After all, they are part of a multi-billion dollar industry, and doing something right here and right now that’s demanding most of their time.”

Kate Krause, dean of Honors College calls the program unique. “Most universities do not have a similar offering. It serves the needs of many of our students and bridges what some people perceive as a gap between athletics and academics, demonstrating a strong, long-term collaboration between the two.”