A chance conversation with professors during her senior year in college proved to be a career changer for Shea’na Grigsby. It could also prove helpful to some U of M student-athletes who need more guidance toward earning their degrees.
Grigsby, a St. Paul native, says she remembers as early as sixth grade wanting to teach English in college. After graduating from Breck School, she earned a degree in English from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2006.
However, “I went to a NCAA leadership conference [in 2005],” recalls Grigsby. “While I was there, I started talking to some professors. I asked them were they involved in athletics, and they said not really. They were doing research to get published.”
After that, Grigsby’s goal of one day becoming an English professor took a back seat as she began researching for a master’s degree in sports-related programs. While studying for her master’s in sports management at Cleveland State, Grigsby was a graduate assistant at nearby Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, working with at-risk athletes from 2006-08.
“My first real job” came when Northwestern hired her in 2008 as an academic counselor in their athletic department, says Grigsby.
The school is more known for its academics than its athletics: Northwestern graduates over 90 percent of its athletes, according to the recently released 2011 NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR) report.
“Northwestern was a great stepping stone for me,” says Grigsby, who worked there for almost three years. “I learned a lot in my years there.”
However, convinced as she was that she was on the right career track, Grigsby always has been a person driven to set goals, and she needed more. Her mother taught her early in life “to be the strong Black woman and that I can overcome anything thrown in front of me,” she says proudly.
Though she worked with a variety of athletes from various sports, “It was not fulfilling me. I did my job, but at the same time I wanted to do something new and different,” she admits.
After Jerry Kill was hired as Minnesota’s new football coach, he hired Grigsby as his program’s academic counselor. She is the first Black in this role since Glen Mason had two Black women counselors back in the 1990s.
But Grigsby was leaving a school that ranked among the best in the country and in the Big Ten conference for graduating players, and coming to the conference’s worst in this regard, especially for its Black athletes.
“It was an opportunity for me to make a footprint on a program that really needs some new faces and new energy,” Grigsby adds.
Also, with Blacks constituting 40 percent of the nearly 70 athletes she regularly works with, “It’s cool [for them] to see an African American in an environment where [it’s] all White,” says Grigsby, who aspires to continue in the college sports administrative area. Even more so, it gives players someone to see who has already reached places they should aspire to someday reach themselves: “I got my degree, and got my master’s,” says Grigsby proudly.
Since joining the Gophers this past March, Grigsby says she has overcome several of those obstacles her mother taught her to face and overcome. First, she is “working with an all-male team” instead of athletes of both genders.
Second, she’s had to be Aretha Franklin and demand respect: “Sometimes the African American guys will say, ‘Oh, she’s cool.’ They need to respect what I do and who I am, and ultimately know that I will be on their side. I look young, but I’m not young.”
Third, she’s had to convince players that her primary job description doesn’t include handholding them through college. “They come to my office and ask, ‘What classes am I taking?’” says Grigsby. “We are going to sit down and work together on the classes [they] want to take, but I want to put the onus back on [them].”
And four, she’s had to deal with some upperclassmen “stuck in their ways, and we are trying to change the culture,” continues Grigsby. “You are responsible for your actions. It is not going to be someone else’s fault but your fault if you don’t show up for class on time.”
Most importantly, Grigsby wants to see them walk down the aisle to receive that sheepskin and wants that to be their goal as well. “If they know that, it makes that goal of getting that degree that much more important to them,” she believes.
This past August, Grigsby was inducted into Carthage’s athletics hall of fame for track and volleyball. “Sometimes the guys look at me and ask if I ever was in athletics,” she says. “I want them to know — I was good.”
“Athletics doesn’t define you,” she advises. “Sometimes we get so stuck that we are athletes — that is all we are. In actuality, we’re so much more than that, especially African American women.
“If I could offer one piece of advice, especially to Black women or African Americans in general: Never sell yourself short. When you sell yourself short, everyone else around you will sell yourself short, too.”