When Coach Stephanie Gaitley is out recruiting for her Fordham women’s basketball team and sitting in the living rooms of potential players and their parents, she gives an unconventional spiel.

Gaitley tries to sell the teenagers on taking extra classes when they arrive on campus, to go beyond the workload of even above-average college students. Classes, classes and more classes. In basketball season and out. In summer, when their peers had gone home. Even at times that might interfere with working out.

So many classes that the players can earn their undergraduate degrees in just three years — then come back for their fourth year and gorge on more classes, this time in graduate school, taking a drop step toward a master’s degree.

“We use it as a recruiting tool,” Gaitley said.

You can see why some players might find that tool to be more like a pitchfork. But Gaitley said she recruited athletes who find the prospect of being overworked appealing.

“I kind of align myself with that type of kid because I overloaded my classes in college, too,” said Gaitley, who played at Villanova, graduated in 1982 and earned a master’s degree in education the next year. “I find myself magnetized to the high achievers.”
Danielle BurnsPhoto by: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

This year she has three especially high achievers who, for one reason or another, graduated from college early — and then kept going.

Those players — Danielle Burns of Gainesville, Va., Hannah Missry of Manasquan, N.J., and Danielle Padovano of Dayton, N.J. — are in their fourth year at Fordham and bound to get their master’s degrees in media management by the fall.

Burns, a starter on the team, now has a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and urban studies. She averaged 8.8 points over Fordham’s first 11 games. Missry, another starter (7.1 points per game), and Padovano, a backup player, have degrees in communications and media studies.

Right now, college sports often seem dysfunctional: University of Minnesota football players who threatened to boycott a bowl game over the suspension of 10 teammates linked to a sexual assault case. Academic scandals at places like the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A stream of athletes at elite universities expending their verbal skills on repugnant commentary about female peers.

Then there is this Fordham team — making Division I sports work for its players, in all the best ways.

Each of the three players will get two free degrees on one athletic scholarship while playing for a team that is now 8-4 after beating Manhattan College on Saturday and that won the Atlantic-10 championship in 2014. For a non-scholarship student, an undergraduate degree at Fordham costs about $191,000, and a master’s degree is worth $50,000-plus.

Coach Stephanie Gaitley Credit Karsten Moran for The New York TimesPhoto by: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Of the three, only Burns came to Fordham with the academic fast track as a goal.

As a sophomore, after hearing that Burns was on schedule to graduate early, Padovano figured out that she, too, could have enough credits to finish early.

“‘Hey, I took the same number of classes as you did,’” Padovano said, recalling the first conversation she had with Burns about the accelerated program. She had stayed on campus over the summer to train with the team and simultaneously piled up credits.

She soon began aiming for a three-year diploma. “I decided to do it on a little bit of a whim,” Padovano said. “It’s crazy, right?”

Missry soon followed her teammates, loading up on summer classes at the end of her junior year to finish her bachelor’s degree.

For all of them, it was a breathless run: squeezing schoolwork into schedules packed with practices and scrimmages and weight lifting and cardio and travel to away games. Missry didn’t believe she could handle the pace until she actually did. Her parents were thrilled to hear the good news that it was plausible, after all.

“I will never forget the phone call I had with my dad when I told him I was graduating early and would go to graduate school, too,” Missry said. “He was so, so happy.”

Danielle PadovanoPhoto by: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

What an understatement. This would be like finding a $50,000 gift card under your Christmas tree. It’s a dream for parents, making their hearts, not their wallets, lighter.

For the three to graduate early, Gaitley said, she had to be flexible about their being late to practice, or having to leave early because of class or exams, or missing a team workout and having to make it up on their own. She said she couldn’t be a stickler for doing things her way every time, or else the whole program wouldn’t work. And she wanted it to work as much as her players did.

“I’m a mom first, and my No. 1 thing is to prepare my kids for life first,” said Gaitley, who has three sons. One, Dutch, played basketball at Monmouth — and graduated early.

Gaitley, who is in her sixth season at Fordham, said she had had one other player there finish a bachelor’s degree early. But, Gaitley said, that player didn’t face the same obstacles as the current three. She was injured and had more time to study. That player is still slacking off, but at Goldman Sachs.

Graduate students on a Division I team roster aren’t that unusual, but they tend to be redshirted athletes using a fifth year of eligibility after sitting out a season of competition because of an injury, a transfer or an effort to gain more physical maturity.

But to have three teammates who entered school together and didn’t hit pause before reaching this academic level? “This just doesn’t happen,” Gaitley said.

“It’s like saying you can run that six-minute mile and trying to do it while eating bonbons,” Gaitley said. “It gets a lot harder when you’re actually eating the bonbons.”

With practices in the morning and classes, held at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, in the evening, they have so much more free time.

Missry finds herself exploring the city, recently shopping at the Columbus Circle mall before or after her graduate classes, something she would have never done as an undergrad.

“Ah, yes, H&M,” she said, with a laugh.

Padovano, who graduated magna cum laude, has even more time to lead the Student-Athletes Advisory Council, a group on campus that does service projects, like mentoring, organizing food drives and volunteering in soup kitchens. This is her second year as president.

“Sometimes I wonder how we did it for three years, running from class to practice, from practice to class,” Missry said. “But now our reward is graduate school. And without Coach, I don’t think any of this could have happened.”

© 2016 The New York Times Company.
[IMAGE: Karsten Moran for The New York Times]

Get our weekly digest of posts by email!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here