America East Conference

Kat Smith dominates on the court and in the classroom

Kat Smith dominates on the court and in the classroom

Katherine Smith has had a busy three years. As a forward for UMass Lowell’s women’s basketball team, she has become a staple on the court making 17 starts in 72 appearances. In those three years, she has managed to climb to the eighth spot all-time in rebounds in the university’s Division I era.

While doing all of that, she also graduated with a double major in economics and political science, making appearances on the America East Honor Roll along the way. If that were not enough work to busy herself, Smith has also started off her summer vacation by embarking on her master’s in business, concentrating in finance.

“Going for it and having an MBA looks really good, and I really liked the math aspect of the econ with all those classes,” said Smith.

Those following along at home may have noticed that Smith did not major in business as an undergraduate, so she is effectively starting fresh in a completely different field while balancing her final year of NCAA eligibility and adjusting to changes in the coaching staff.

On account of not taking any business courses while in undergrad, Smith is taking six business requirement courses over the summer and will be taking ten during the 2018-19 academic year so that she can catch up.

Smith takes the pressure with a bright and friendly smile. All in a year’s work for her, really.

“We’ll see if I can do it,” she says.

It would be a safe bet to say that she can and will.

That determination is what got her through her degree so quickly. Smith says that she always takes six classes during the school year. It can be tough to balance all of that work, especially during the basketball season, but the chance to graduate early was just too good to pass up.

“I knew long-term [graduating early] was what I wanted to do once our academic advisor in athletics was like, ‘Kat, you could graduate this year,'” Smith said. “I was like, ‘let’s get it done.'”

Alison Quandt Westgate, the Associate Athletic Director for Academics and Student-Athlete Services at UMass Lowell since fall 2017, said that Smith is an excellent and unique student. As someone who is excelling while on a team which is more high-profile on campus and requires a lot of travel, it is gratifying for Quandt Westgate and the rest of the UMass Lowell community to see Smith do so well in her studies.

“She is extremely bright and extremely focused on her academics and that has continued to set her apart,” said Quandt Westgate.

In Quandt Westgate’s experience, Smith exemplifies the attitude that UMass Lowell’s student-athletes hold towards their academics. She describes the athletes she works with at UMass Lowell as “hardworking, gritty students.”

She explains that they do not carry the entitlement that unfortunately can come with elite athletic talent. Student-athletes at UMass Lowell take the talent and opportunity they have been gifted and channel that into making the most of their college experience. They have a certain edge that comes with coming to a university which historically prides itself on its hardworking students.

“They are willing to grind to get that grade or that next thing that they have… and one other thing that I have noticed is that they’re extremely grateful for the services that they get as student-athletes,” said Quandt Westgate.

As a student-athlete pursuing a master’s degree, Smith is aware that balancing both disciplines will not be easy. “Basketball is a huge part of our life and then school is a huge part as well. But I think [as] a benefit you learn a lot of time management.”

Smith notes that one of the benefits to pursuing a master’s degree as a basketball player is that since classes for masters are at night, it will be easier for her to balance athletics and schoolwork. She says that she will have a large gap between practice and class where she can get work done, which is never a bad thing.

But it will be a little different to what she is used to.

“I’m not a night person, but I’ll try to adjust,” said Smith.

After all, Smith says, graduate-level work is similar to undergraduate work, just a little more studying, reading and writing. While balancing school and athletics can be stressful, Smith says that it helps to have a wealth of resources at her own disposal. She takes things as they come and reaches out for a hand when she needs it.

“You stick to your schedule and then ask others for help. You go to your professors if you need things or talk to your coaches,” said Smith.

Though sometimes not even talking to a coach or a teammate can help in a bind. Smith remembers one particularly nerve-wracking moment, one straight out of any student’s worst nightmares. One night, Smith stayed behind in the women’s basketball locker room in the Tsongas Center, trying to write a paper or study. All of these assignments blend together; that is not the important part of the story.

She stayed there until 1 a.m. working on whatever that assignment was only to realize the hard way that the doors locked at night. Sure, that may be a safe and efficient way to run an arena, but couldn’t they have made an exception just once? Apparently, any student-athlete planning to crush a paper in the Tsongas Center at night should commit to doing so in one sitting.

Naturally, all of Smith’s stuff was locked inside of the locker room.

“I had a mini meltdown and I just said, ‘Well… that’s it.,'” Smith said. The horror of the experience flashed across her face for just a moment until she grinned again. “So I just went back to my room and was like, ‘I guess I’ll just get up at six a.m. and try to get back in.'”

The sun rose the next morning and Smith finished the assignment. Not without a few panicked moments, but life rarely goes the way anyone prefers.

In case of catastrophes that are a little more within the control of UMass Lowell’s student-athletes, they have a stellar support system in the athletic department’s academics subdivision.

A dedicated team of four people offers their services to student-athletes to ensure that they maximize the potential of their academic situation. Quandt Westgate says that they do not replace the athlete’s academic advisor; she and the other members of her team act as a sort of liaison between the Athletics Department and the university.

“We’re understanding the schedule demands, we work with the coaches… making sure that our student-athletes are doing everything they can to be successful from an academic standpoint,” said Quandt Westgate.

Their responsibilities include writing letters to professors about athletes’ travel schedules, hosting study halls, providing a tutoring program and arranging events geared towards post-graduation life for athletes.

With so much of student-athletes’ time carved out for games, practice and classes, Smith and Quandt Westgate are both cognizant of the immense volume of stress that they are under to not only succeed on the field but in the classroom.

“Especially here at UMass Lowell, if you want something to be done it’s definitely attainable. You’re going have to work hard for it and it’s going be stressful, you might want to pull out your hair sometimes but the support we have here is really great,” said Smith.

Smith has simple advice for any student-athletes who may want to follow in her path: be determined and take advantage of the opportunities that are at UMass Lowell. Even for those student-athletes who aren’t sure about what they want to study Smith says that, “We have so many people around to help you. I’m so fortunate with the staff that we have that helped me get to where I am.”

Graduating early was not just a stroke of luck for Smith. Handling two majors and a D-I sport was a tricky business that was helped by transferring in AP credits and taking summer courses.

“If you do the right things then you can get it done,” Smith said.

She also points to support from teammates as a significant factor in academic success. “All of us on the team, we know what it’s like to be a DI athlete and take all of these classes and have lift and study hall. We’re all there for each other. If I’m having a tough day or a tough week, [I can] go to my teammates and they can definitely help,” Smith said.

“Having them right there with you is something that’s huge.”

Beyond having academics to worry about, she also has her final NCAA basketball season and her future to think about. With a new head coach in Tom Garrick and a roster that steadily improves with each passing year, UMass Lowell women’s basketball looks forward to establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the America East conference.

Just as that is going on, Smith is thinking about what she wants to do after that final buzzer goes off and she earns her graduate degree. She says that she wants to move to Washington, D.C. and possibly work in campaign finance. Content to let life play out before she has to make hardline decisions, Smith doesn’t focus on a specific job title – she just wants to get out into a big city and carve out her own path.

That desire led her to UMass Lowell, a world away from her hometown in Fort Wayne, Ind. Any avid fan of UMass Lowell athletics will be equally excited to see where that takes her post-graduation.

The initial anonymity of a large city is comforting in its own way. Smith can go forward without looking back, though she will never forget the good times that she has had at UMass Lowell as a student-athlete. Effectively starting fresh.

“No basketball. Just Kat,” she said.

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