Track and field photos courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
According to the NCAA, nearly half a million student-athletes compete in 24 intercollegiate sports each year. These individuals must manage athletic commitments and maintain their academic responsibilities. While this may seem overwhelming to some, civil and environmental engineering student-athlete seniors Kiera Hughes and Pressley Perry have successfully balanced their busy schedules.
As track and field student-athletes, Hughes participates in the hurdles while Perry is a pole vaulter. They both put in hours of practice to perform their best on the track, and that same commitment translates to academics. Earlier this month, Hughes was named the South Carolina Professional Engineers Outstanding Senior, while Perry was selected as the college’s UofSC Outstanding Senior.
“I always knew that I could make this happen. There’s been some stressful days or thoughts of not knowing if I could make this work, but it was just more of knowing it was going to be a lot for me. I have no regrets and wouldn’t change the last four years,” Hughes says.
Both Hughes and Perry’s enjoyment of math and track and field led them to similar paths that initially did not involve engineering. Hughes was an environmental science major before switching to civil and environmental engineering after her first semester. Perry originally believed she wanted to study architecture, but it was not offered by the University of South Carolina.
“I initially thought I wanted to do environmental science because I enjoy being outdoors, but I realized I wanted to go back to the math part. I picked civil and environmental engineering because it combined math and the outdoors,” Hughes says.
“My mom steered me towards civil engineering because doing structures would be related to architecture,” Perry says.
Hughes and Perry had a civil engineering class as freshmen after Hughes changed majors. But they did not recognize each other in the classroom until Hughes join the track squad in her sophomore year.
“I was so happy because I thought, ‘This is great. I have a study buddy now that has the same schedule and understands how difficult it can be.’ Our schedules have been nearly identical since sophomore year, so it's been nice because we have the same study habits and mindset about school and athletics,” Perry says.
Hughes and Perry agree that time management is the most difficult yet satisfying part of balancing academics and athletics. Hughes says that time management is a little easier knowing that Perry has the same schedule and workload.
“It's doable but hard sometimes to figure out how to go from class to practice and back to class. One of the harder things is to make sure you can get in a practice if you have class at the same time. But it’s rewarding because it’s taught me critical skills and allows me to say that I'm an engineering major and a Division I track athlete,” Hughes says.
“The upper level of civil engineering classes are only offered at one time, so if you have practice at the same time, you have to talk to your coach and figure out the best time to meet. Your schedule is all over the place, so you have to be more on top of things and one step ahead when thinking about your whole week, rather than just your class schedule,” Perry says.
Hughes has an internship this academic year at HDR, a local engineering company, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and afterwards goes straight to practice. She must also balance classes and practice on Tuesday and Thursday. Last semester, Perry was in the weight room in the early morning and had afternoon practice followed by classes. She also made time to work as an undergraduate research assistant before going to practice. They both agree that their busy schedules have made them more focused, and like Hughes, Perry does not regret adding more to her calendar by participating in athletics.
“Initially, I realized I couldn’t practice at the time set by my coach due to my class schedule. I had some concerns, but after he said I could practice at an earlier time, I went from class to practice and back to class. It seemed like a lot, but it was great for me because I liked having that break. I prefer the extended workload over just having academics, and it’s something I don’t regret,” Perry says.
Sports often teaches life lessons, such as persistence and goal setting. For Hughes and Perry, hard work and communication are two lessons they better understand due to their schedules.
“Hard work can be applied to anything. To accomplish the things you want, you need to have the heart and passion because it goes both ways. If you're not fully invested or committed, you're not going to be successful. That's a big lesson, especially being immersed in both worlds of academics and athletics. You have to apply yourself and love what you're doing, which makes it a little easier and worthwhile,” Hughes says.
“My communication skills have grown, especially with my professors. I had to go my professors’ offices during their hours and let them know I was on the track team and discuss my schedule,” Perry says. “I also had to be more communicative with my coach about any problems with classes and practice. Track gave me the nudge to talk more to professors and form those relationships.”
According to Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Inthuorn Sasanakul, Hughes and Perry have mastered skills such as self-efficacy, motivation, and self-discipline to achieve academic and athletic success.
“Their achievement tells me that whatever path they choose in the future, they will likely become successful. For example, I have no doubt that they will not only be able to solve a difficult engineering problem, but they will also become well-rounded engineers who can find solutions to any problem,” says Sasanakul.
As Hughes and Perry prepare to graduate this May, both plan to stay at the college to earn their master’s degree in geotechnical engineering. While track and field will soon be part of their past, it does not mean that they cannot continue to apply the lessons and experiences from being student-athletes to their future studies and careers.
“I’ve been offered a full-time position at HDR, so I'm going to be working full-time while pursuing my masters,” Hughes says. “I'm going to miss track when I’m done, but I'm not going to have a blank space because I'll be picking up more hours working full time and trying to balance that with grad school and my research. It won’t be easy, but we’re both well-positioned to make it happen based on our experiences.”