“We are fluid, flexible, and adapt, we are innovative, remain solution-oriented, and solve problems so we can serve our student-athletes and university at the highest level like we always have. We are no excuses kind of university.” -Jamie Boggs
Jamie Boggs is the Interim Vice President of Athletics for Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. With Arizona emerging as a hotspot for COVID-19 over the summer months, Boggs explains that university decisions regarding students and student-athletes have been made with the pandemic top of mind.
“We were number one in cases for a while. With the new mask requirements and capacity restrictions, we are starting to see it plateau. As far as the university, we just announced last week that we would be doing a delayed start online on September 8th. After that, we can bring everyone on campus, assuming numbers don’t get worse. I think that was a good decision, a smart decision.”
Boggs believes that Grand Canyon University’s leadership and clear guiding principles have helped make decisions about the health and welfare of student-athletes an easier call.
“One thing I’m very thankful for is that as a university, we are very collaborative and we have a culture of continual improvement, so when this pandemic hit and we were all asked to work remotely, we brought our department together to talk about our culture. I define it as the four C’s — collaboration, continuous improvement, community, and Christian leadership. We talked about what that means in today’s uncertain landscape.”
With her staff, Boggs emphasizes the need to overcommunicate during this time.
“We’ve increased our department-wide meetings, we meet with head coaches, with our student-athlete leaders. I’ve actually leaned on text messages, and I think it feels a bit more personal and is faster than email. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback. They appreciate that.” She says that their student-athletes are like everyone else in this situation. They need information and want to know what the next steps are moving forward.
“They are eager to come back. We have increased communication with them. I’ve tried to do more pop-in meetings for them and just stay available for them and make sure they know it’s always an open door. That’s something we started for them before this pandemic hit.”
Their department’s strategy is to keep them continuously engaged through their head coaches. Jamie Boggs says they’ve explained to their coaches that now is no different than anything other time as far as keeping student-athletes engaged with their program. She advocates building relationships with student-athletes, no so more than ever during this time of social distancing.
“Academic services, health, and training, all of those services as business as usual, even though they are being done remotely. We have stressed that everyone has to be more mindful of the mental health component and to know what services are available for our student-athletes.”
GCU athletics staff has been proactive in ensuring their student-athletes know what types of mental health services are available. Jamie Boggs explained her staff has been trained to know what’s available, and coaches have been trained to identify when there may be a need for those services.
“Everyone knows what the processes are and what to do next if the need arises. We’ve had a focus on mental health for a number of years before the pandemic.”
Next, she discussed the recent hires of men’s basketball coach Bryce Drew and women’s basketball coach Molly Miller, which overlapped with the onset of COVID-19 in late February. Boggs explained that while the outbreak did make things a bit more challenging, the department remained systematic in their hiring process.
“Everything about our hiring process is efficient and quick; being new to Division I, we have to be this way to stay ahead of the game. We have a president who is very engaged in athletics, and he identified Bryce early on. Fortunately, when we were hiring Bryce, the pandemic was just starting and hadn’t really hit Arizona yet. We were able to bring him on campus, and we could tell right away he was a great fit. Molly was a bit different; it was a few weeks later and the numbers were growing. We had to do everything with her virtually, but the great thing about having such a strong culture the way GCU does, is that the fit is apparent right away, so she rose to the top.”
After it became apparent that they were both a good fit with the university, Boggs focused on building a relationship with them. They both understood the importance of building relationships early and immediately fostering the university culture, despite the unprecedented times.
“They are problem solvers, that’s part of the reason why we hired them. They are grinders and relentless recruiters; they know how to build their culture.”
The conversation then turned to the cultural and social impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. Boggs said it’s been disheartening to see racial injustice continue to be an issue. With a diverse group of student-athletes, Jamie Boggs explained that there is a diverse set of feelings and opinions on the issue.
“We have provided forums for our student-athletes to express themselves and that seems to really have been what was needed. We learned very quickly that the student-athletes wanted to be heard, and we provided a setting for that, both large and small. Letting the students express was the first step, but ultimately the foundation of our university is our faith. We are moving forward with unity, and we are all created under God.”
Boggs says they have a diversity and inclusion committee that they established last year to come up with programming and other initiatives. In listening to their student-athletes, they learned the student-athletes wanted to hear less from experts and more from each other. They wanted to hear personal stories from other student-athletes about the injustices they’ve experienced.
“We’ve adapted and improved our program to include more of that based on feedback and will adjust our programming in the fall. The other thing we learned from our student-athletes is that they are very proud of what the university has done to help with social injustice and inequalities. People may not know this about GCU, but we are located in a very diverse community. It’s very immigrant-heavy, immigrants from Africa and South America, it’s very diverse. In 2014, we came up with a 5-point plan to revitalize our community, and it was based on really being involved in our community. Our student-athletes were so proud to know about that and wanted to be more involved with it.”
She explained that they made a commitment to the student-athletes that the university would be more involved and intentional about letting them know what initiatives are happening with the university and giving them the opportunity to participate. Jamie Boggs herself sits on the University’s Diversity Council and said it has provided her with enhanced insight into what’s going on and enables her to better share that insight with the student-athletes.
“A lot of departments around the country jumped on social media, which is important with this generation, but you have to have some teeth and commitment behind the words. That’s why I feel so fortunate to be at a place like GCU where that has been the fabric of who we are since day one.”