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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Helping Students Transition From Backpack to Briefcase

Today’s blog is a guest post from a stellar athlete, Ashley Priess. Ashley was a National Champion Gymnast at the University of Alabama, who recently finished her Masters degree and now works in our office. She writes about her transition from “backpack to briefcase.” It’s a story I think most graduates will appreciate:

 students transition

It was almost 5:00 PM…and nearing the end of my first week of a real job. My head hurt, my legs ached, and my brain was about to explode. How could this be? I was sitting down all day. I stared at a computer. 8 hours and mental fatigue was hitting me like a ton of bricks. Transition.

During the last 5 years of college gymnastics, I had mastered the art of being a student-athlete. Each day brought a new and exciting challenge: a thought-provoking class, a near perfect competition, a private plane trip to a competition, new Nike apparel, or an interaction with an administrator that fueled my career dreams.  My life was busy, I learned the value of time management as I worked my tail off to earn my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree, lead the student-athlete body as SAAC President, devote grueling hours to be the best gymnast I could be, and maintain a close group of friends and mentors who helped me think clearly and succeed during my 5 years at the University of Alabama.

Well…that phase is over. And no matter how many times someone advised me that I would no longer be of celebrity status in the “real world”, it was hard to believe that until facing the reality of transition. That’s me now…I’m no longer the prize of the town, my face isn’t on a billboard anymore, and people don’t recognize me for my contributions to the gymnastics team or on an everyday basis. I’m searching…searching to re-invent myself and my skills to apply to the real world.

I think about what society values in present day, and immediately Athletics comes to mind. Colleges are in a constant competition to out-do each other in facility upgrades, student life improvements, coaching salary expectations, and an overall “bling bling” results-focused lifestyle. Why is this? My belief is that athletics are one of the few categories of life that can be measured. We like tangible results…and athletics provides that from the entertainer to the fan and everyone in between. The by-product: competitive athletic departments that breed celebrity-status athletes who experience great opportunities, success and exposure.

The issue however, is what happens in the transition following those 4-5 years of college eligibility. Only about 1% of college athletes go pro. That’s 99% of NCAA student-athletes who must navigate the transition from celebrity world to real world. You see this all the time in magazines, and Google alerts: young talented athletes, movie stars, musicians, and TV hit phenomenons who experience success without perspective.

So how can student-athletes, coaches, educators, and parents help pave the way for a smooth transition? My parents breathed perspective into me by continually reminding me,

“I do gymnastics” versus “I am gymnastics”.

Gymnastics was the outlet through which I expressed my goals, my ambitions, and my personality and drive for success. It did not define me. My identity stretched far beyond my sport. My mentors and influencers throughout my life helped me gain perspective in the transition by:

  1. Encouraging me to step into campus leadership roles aside from gymnastics (my schedule was crazy, but worth it now).
  2. Encouraging me to seek out 5 friends I wanted to be like, because they would determine my future.
  3. Encouraging me to re-evaluate 6-month plans, 3-year plans, and 10-year plans every year.
  4. Encouraging me to develop business professional skills (etiquette, dress, public speaking, presentations, responsibility, time management) from my arrival on campus as a freshman and throughout my education.
  5. Encouraging me to never stop learning. This has been the source for my desire to read, seek out internships and job opportunities, and stretching me beyond my athletic talent.

I’m only 23 years old. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know what and where I will be in a year. The transition is hard yet humbling. I no longer live in a world where I’m given constant feedback via scoreboard and grades. But I’m thankful to have learned through my athletic experiences, the value of hard work. The value of using my platform to make a difference and influence lives around me. The value of patience to peak at just the right time. But the real secret? Clinging to my true north: the mentors in my life who remind me it took 23 years to reach the top tier of college athletics, and trusting it will take more than 6 months to reach that point in the workforce. A wise friend once told me,

“It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint”.

I hope to bring clarity in the midst of confusion for those of you in transition.  Now, sparks a time to transfer timeless skills; hard work, mental toughness, commitment, discipline, heart, fearlessness, and emotional maturity gained through athletics and confidently run with it in the workforce. The groundwork has been paved, it’s a new game now.

Will you thrive in the midst of discomfort? Or stick with comfortable? The choice is yours.



  1. Jerome on October 2, 2013 at 6:48 am

    There is a lot of great information here, and it should probably be required reading for all college seniors. The one thing that stand out to me is that in our instant gratification society was the quote “It is Marathon, Not a Sprint” and that you have to keep work hard and delay gratification and it will pay off.

  2. Brian Musser on October 2, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Great article, Ashley. As someone who actively prepares students of types for life after the campus, you are right on target. The only I would add to your list (and this may be assumed in your planning evaluations) is to sit down and think through how what you are planning to do with your life connects to what you believe about life. I love to hear how young adults work through reconciling employment aspirations with questions of overall purpose and meaning. That conversation will continue after college but it is vital to start it in college.

    • Tim Elmore on October 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      Hi Brian, this is Ashley. I felt like it may be best if I answered your comment. I have continually wrestled with the connection between what career I pursue and my purpose in life. During college, I had a very broad view of interests and passions. I always felt like there were many routes I could take and adapt to. Through internships and job experiences, I have been able to narrow my passions to focus on a couple of areas that fuel me, make me want to work harder, and ultimately help me get to the end of the day, knowing I did something that matters.

      Thanks for your positive feedback!

      • Brian Musser on October 3, 2013 at 12:18 pm

        Ashley, the wrestling is perfectly normal. That is exactly where most students find themselves. Asking the Big Questions is an important part of young adult development. And a large portion of the journey needs to taken alone. But there are ways the overall system be it the University or other entities especially religious ones can facilitate a student’s search for meaning and purpose and how that meaning and purpose connects with career. Often we do not always do well with that facilitation. As I look at preparing students for a career, that would be one of my top priorities: to give them permission to evaluate what they are going to do by what they believe to be true.

        • Tim Elmore on October 4, 2013 at 8:38 am

          Brian, this is Ashley again…Thanks so much for your thoughts. I very much agree with all that you’re saying, some of the most enlightening moments happen in solitude and I embrace those opportunities as often as I can. I also rely heavily on my faith, trusting that clarity and direction are reaffirmed as I make next-step decisions. Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. Melody Leow on October 5, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you Ashley, for your wise advice.
    As a student in college and a fellow athlete, I readily take your advice. Also, I agree with you that the tendency for athletes to find their identity in the sport we do. It was great to be reminded once again that sports is what I do, not who I am. I especially liked your advice on point 2 – to seek out 5 friends that I want to be like because they will determine my future. Thank you and God bless!

    • Tim Elmore on October 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

      Hi Melody, this is Ashley…Tim passed along your comment to me. I’m so glad you can resonate with my experiences. During my freshman year, I was at a campus ministry event when I heard Point #2 advice: I believe it was phrased as, “Show me your 5 closest friends, and I’ll show you your future”. It was powerful, moving, and continually sticks with me everyday. Thanks so much for your comment, best of luck to you!

  4. Chaajo on October 15, 2013 at 1:08 am

    An article worth sharing not only with Americans but with people, including students, all around the world.
    I used to be a rhythmic gymnast, and I want to say how amazing it is to come across someone giving a voice to those who went through the same transition.

    • Tim Elmore on October 15, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Thank you for sharing your international experience Chaajo! I’ll let Ashley know about your appreciation.

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Helping Students Transition From Backpack to Briefcase