Ed. Note: Torchbearers is a College AD series profiling female leaders in college athletics. Torchbearers is presented by SM2. SM2 is committed to positively impacting the culture of social networking users in athletics, SM2 provides the only foundational education programs customized for global sports brands.
Jessica Leger, Ph.D., has been at Louisiana-Lafayette for nearly a decade and in that short time, she has risen from a graduate assistant in the compliance department to her current role as the Ragin’ Cajuns Deputy Director of Athletics/SWA. In conversation, Leger hit on the importance of being able to stand your ground, which at times can be easier said than done.
On Her Journey
“Athletics was ingrained in me at an early age and I started playing competitive softball under the direction of [former Louisiana-Lafayette Co-head Coach] Stefni Loteif… that was my first introduction to collegiate athletics, what Coach Loteif brought into my life, and the experiences she had had as an All-American definitely inspired me to pursue a similar path.
“I also worked with [Louisiana-Lafayette Head Coach] Michael Loteif at one point when he came onto the coaching staff and enjoyed immensely being a Ragin’ Cajun, and I think that it’s an incredible opportunity when you get to be a hometown person who has watched a team be successful your entire life and then you get to be a part of that program; it’s a dream come true.
“I also aspired to do other things while I was in college. I never had a career path specifically identified as working in intercollegiate athletics while I was an undergraduate student. I was a marketing major, and I had decided initially that I was pursuing a law degree. I finished in marketing and took the LSAT and decided that I didn’t want to send off the applications that I had prepared and it was because I felt that I had a deeper calling to educate and I didn’t know at what capacity but I felt that I needed to give back to others more than to take which is what I perceived I would be doing as a lawyer.”
After a brief stint as a 3rd grade teacher, Leger felt she could do more. “I pursued my master’s in supervision, and uniquely that’s really where the doors opened into my future career in collegiate athletics because I was offered a graduate assistantship in the compliance office while I went back to be a full time graduate student. At that point I had only known compliance as being spoken to as a student athlete, and I really didn’t know what it was all about.”
“After I finished my graduate assistantship and finished my master’s I received a phone call from David Walker who was the AD at the time and he said ‘Jess, I have an offer for you. I’d like for you to come and be our compliance director here at UL.’ My thoughts were that I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. and get into administration. I didn’t know that I wanted to get into athletics, but I saw it as an opportunity to get my foot in the door in administration at a higher education level. So, I met with him. Again, with only two limited years as a graduate assistant, I didn’t know if I was capable of taking over, but he felt that I could complete the duties and under his guidance, assist him. So in 2007, I accepted the position. I learned a lot; it was pretty much baptism by fire.”
On Career Challenges
“As a young compliance director, I remember coaches yelling and cursing at me and slamming office doors, and we would get pulled into the AD office to have our confrontations. I will never forget one coach brought his Bible into the meeting and sat with his hand on his Bible as if I was the pagan who was out to get him. I learned that documentation is key; I have to take the time to document in order to protect myself in this field.
“Again, with the proper leader we can get through anything. I was successful in doing so with the AD’s that we’ve had in place, but I think as a young female you have to learn to stand your ground and not be intimidated by the tactics that the men may use. There are great men in this field who don’t shout, curse, and slam doors, but there are those who do and you have to be prepared for that. Stand your ground, stay true to what you believe, and be able to back up why you do what you do in order to be proactive in changing the environment and culture. Once you establish your respect, it becomes easier. You can’t come across as overbearing or an outright feminist, but you have to find a balance to gain the respect of your co-workers, and once you’ve done that, then you’ll be successful.”
On The Mentors Who’ve Guided Her
“Obviously I had the experience as a college athlete, and now I had the education in terms of the leadership and the higher education and what needed to happen in order to reform, but I didn’t have a strong background in compliance so I relied heavily on the Sun Belt Conference office, specifically Kathy Keene who was a mentor to me and still is to this day. She is a great example of a woman who is a mother and has balanced her life in terms of being a leader in intercollegiate athletics. She helped me a lot by guiding me to the resources that I needed in order to be successful. It was not a 9-5 job; I would go home every night and just plow through manuals and documents and work all night and come back to the office the next day and start from scratch. I guess you could say that I was a self-taught compliance director with the help of others in the field and in the conference who helped mentor me.
“I remember sitting down with Sandy Atkins from Troy University who’s the second in command there, and when Troy came to play us in football during my first year here, we had a talk about APR; I knew that this would be a big academic report that I was going to be responsible for, and she really laid it out to me and helped me not only think about the report but also think about what my position would be and the role that I would play at the university so she really helped me get focused on what my goals were and where I was headed.”
On Advice For Aspiring Professionals
“I encourage all students to intern in the field. I think that you never truly know what you want to do until you’re in it, which is why any student that comes to me looking for an internship, I may not be able to pay them, but I can offer them the experience. Once you work in the field you’ll have a better idea if it’s something you want to do. My advice is: Education is key; always further your education. Pursuing my Ph.D. opened doors because it separates you from the mainstream sports management degree that most people have in this field.”
“Never see a glass ceiling as an obstacle that will prevent you from doing more. When you have that vision and passion, it makes coming to work a joy. We’re not only preparing our athletes to be successful here, we’re also preparing them to be successful in the game of life beyond their athletic career. That’s an honor to be able to that everyday. I live by the quote ‘Shoot for the moon and hope you land among the stars.’ Go out and don’t be afraid to ask for additional responsibilities or pay, but you have to be able to back up that request. Write down everything you’re able to do and don’t minimize what you’re selling to employers. Don’t sell yourself short.”
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