Breaking the Stigma, One Championship at a Time
Howard Community College has much to be proud of when it comes to its athletics program.
Recent history alone has seen track and field team members compete and win at their national championships this spring; the launch of an esports team in fall of 2020 and subsequent championship win by that team; and in spring 2022, the planned addition of women’s softball to the HCC athletics line-up.
Yet in spite of a history of success, the coaches, athletes and others at HCC still hear the same misconceptions circulating about athletics at community colleges. Some think a community college can’t support a strong athletics program or doesn’t attract standout student-athletes. Others are even surprised to hear community colleges have athletics programs.
The reality, according to Erin Foley, athletics director at HCC, is much different. She spoke recently about the success of athletics at HCC and dispelled some of the falsehoods that still seem to exist.
“There is a stigma that community colleges don’t have athletics; that they’re academic or professional preparation schools versus the traditional ‘college experience,’” Foley said. “In Maryland, there are a large number of community colleges that do sponsor athletics.”
“We’re serving the community and its needs, and part of that is an opportunity to have a college that offers broad-based programing – not just academic programs, but programs that will help students succeed outside of the classroom as well.”
Athletics have been a part of the HCC experience for decades, Foley said. The college is a long-time member of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), akin to the NCAA.
“There has always been a presence and appreciation for athletics on campus,” Foley said.
Former HCC President Dr. Mary Ellen Duncan spearheaded many significant advancements in the athletics department during her term. HCC invested in its facilities, renovating its fields and the Dragon Athletic Complex and adding additional fields.
“Dr. Duncan helped spearhead all of this and brought athletics to the forefront of what we were doing and the ways in which we were supporting student athletes,” Foley said.
Current HCC President Dr. Kate Hetherington built on those initiatives and HCC’s Board of Trustees continues to support athletics as well, she said.
“That lends itself to support from professors and staff members who want to help student athletes succeed,” Foley said. “Because the college has made such an investment in athletics, that has helped our athletic teams thrive.”
What’s more, athletics at HCC help drive enrollment. HCC’s men’s lacrosse team is nationally ranked in the NJCAA, for example, and thus able to recruit students from all over the country who want to play lacrosse. Sports provide another opportunity to bring in students from out-of-state, or even international students, and boost the college’s profile and enrollment, Foley said.
Student-athletes at HCC keep a rigorous schedule, balancing academics while often practicing six days per week and traveling for games in-season.
HCC offers scholarships for the majority of its athletic programs, often providing financial assistance for tuition and books to student-athletes who have financial concerns, she said. Student athletes who need additional resources can find academic and mental health support on campus as well.
Dragons track & field standout, Darryl Jeffries, who will finish his time at HCC this spring, argues that those who think community college athletics are sub-par don’t understand the drive he and other athletes have to succeed. Jeffries recently competed alongside his teammates at the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III National Championship, where he won the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes for the men. He was also named a National Athlete of the Week this season by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
“I hear that myth all the time and I think it’s crazy because most athletes at junior colleges have something to prove,” Jeffries said. “They are trying to get to that next level, so they work twice as hard as any four-year college in any division.”
“HCC has given me the opportunity to go up against NCAA schools and win, so I think HCC athletes can take on anything and anybody that gets thrown in their way.”
A number of these athletes do translate their athletic success at HCC to opportunities at four-year colleges and universities. For example, players who may not have initially gotten a scholarship opportunity right out of high school from a four-year program, or who need a more affordable option or to remain close to home, can play two years at HCC and then transfer that athletic and academic success to a four-year program where they can both play and complete a bachelor’s degree, Foley said.
That’s true in many sports, as sophomore Cassidy Bunyard can attest. Bunyard competed as well at the NJCAA national track and field championships. She’ll graduate this spring and continue on to enroll at Azusa Pacific University in California where she’s been accepted into their honors program. She was recently offered a spot on Azusa Pacific’s women’s track and field team as well – a team she said is currently ranked first in the nation for NCAA Division II schools.
“That stigma is absolutely real and has been affecting us,” Bunyard said about the belief by some that community colleges don’t have a strong athletics program. “We are beyond lucky to have such a qualified coaching staff as well as incredibly talented and hardworking athletes on this team.”
“I would love for people to start working to break the stigma against community colleges and (to see) how strong their programs are.”
It’s a sentiment her coach, Ivan Alvarado echoes. He’s a former junior college graduate himself, having attended in California.
“Especially along the East Coast, the stigma surrounding junior colleges is strong,” Alvarado said. “It’s looked down upon as inferior in academics and athletics. At HCC, that’s just not the case.”
Alvarado talked about the difficulty in recruiting due to that stigma. He sometimes must convince students who may not quite be ready for a four-year college program, or who had hoped for a scholarship from a four-year program and didn’t receive it, to come to HCC and then transfer to one of those programs with a year or two of athletic success at HCC under their belts.
“That’s the difficult part,” Alvarado said. “But at the same time, why wouldn’t you? You’re paying a fraction of the cost for academics that are just as strong; our school has state-of-the-art buildings and strong programs; and the athletics program as a whole is solid.”
Wherever you want to go, you can get there from here.