A group of former Wake Forest soccer players, led by David Kawesi-Mukooza (’00), now provides current Demon Deacons with the tools they need to adjust to life after soccer, which doesn’t have as many lucrative professional opportunities as many other team sports in the United States. The peer network is run with the help of the University’s Office of Personal and Career Development.
Kawesi-Mukooza (’00) didn’t intend to change the world, and maybe he won’t. At least not in this part-time, entirely voluntary gig of his. But as is the case in soccer, his chief extracurricular pursuit at Wake Forest, you never know what might happen when you get the ball rolling.
Kawesi-Mukooza represents much of the engine that is the Wake Forest Men’s Soccer Mentorship Network, a group of former Demon Deacons dedicated to helping current players enter an often scary world: the real one. The organization isn’t pushy; it doesn’t even identify potential mentees. But for those who confront the end of the playing line and reach out, the Network is happy to help, backed by the full faith and credit of the University’s rapidly growing career-planning division.
“Our mission statement is to establish a mentorship culture,” said Kawesi-Mukooza, a real-life Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) officer. “Well, what does that really mean? We want guys to take the skill sets that make them good athletes and leverage them into making them successful in other endeavors.”
Kawesi-Mukooza first approached the University in 2010 about establishing some sort of program, but for him and many of his fellow organizers, the seeds had been planted years earlier.
As is the case in every other institution that values intercollegiate athletics, most Wake Forest student-athletes dream of extending their playing days beyond graduation day. Every coach wants players with the talent and drive to think in those terms. The truth, as the NCAA reminds television viewers in public-service advertisements, is that most go pro in something other than sports.
In 2012, more than 1,000 NCAA Division I seniors and an uncertain number of candidates from around the globe were in the market for the roughly 60 entry-level jobs in Major League Soccer. And while the average salary in the American first division league has risen to $100,000, rookies make as little as $33,750. In other words, nearly everybody is going to need a career beyond the playing field.
It’s not a matter of if; it’s an issue of when the athlete must confront the end of the line.
“It’s a difficult transition once you realize you might not become a professional,” said Sean Conner (’00), now the media director for a law firm in Austin, Texas. “At that point, you’re — at least in my experience — scrambling and figuring out the value of the classes you’ve taken, and the value of your major and how to apply that in the real world when you don’t have a training staff or a coach telling you what to eat, what time to wake up and where to be.”
In such times, an impressive Office of Personal and Career Development (OPCD) at Wake Forest supplies a lot of that help these days. But some students find themselves seeking specific advice, and that’s especially true of student-athletes, who spend four years juggling the classroom with a time-intensive extracurricular activity.
Kawesi-Mukooza began thinking, and during regular chats with fellow Deacs, he convened a leadership group with Conner, Sam Cronin (’09), Chad Evans (’00), Will Hesmer (’03) and Patrick O’Keefe (’00). Together, they asked what a mentorship network might encompass. How would it go beyond the basics and into something meaningful?
“It’s not about us getting sideline access or making pregame speeches or the opportunity to recruit people,” said Evans, an executive for a medical device company in San Jose, Calif. “It’s this: ‘Here we are. Here are our paths. We’re going to be here for you. Here’s your opportunity. This is a resource we wish we had.’ “
All members of the leadership team say they’d follow Kawesi-Mukooza, who served in six combat missions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in just about anything he suggested. Conner was further captivated by the thoughts that the founder inspired in him.
“My interest was also sparked by the idea that we could actually contribute in ways other than just being cheerleaders or morale-boosters for younger guys,” he said.
Before organizing every detail, Kawesi-Mukooza made sure to go through the proper channels. In this case, that meant OPCD, which has made a considerable impact in helping graduates move successfully to the first days of the rest of their lives. (Nearly 95 percent of the Class of 2012 had secured a job or a place in graduate school within six months of receiving Wake Forest diplomas. Only one of the University’s most frequent cross-admissions competitors has reported a higher placement rate.)
Allison McWilliams, director of career education, said her office provides guidance and basic structure but leaves the specifics to those who know them best.
“We have developed a decentralized model of mentoring, which means that I do not run a formal mentoring program or provide matches,” McWilliams said. “Instead, we feel it is important for these programs and relationships to develop within the context of student need and interest. So, for instance, the soccer program has been developed to address the needs of student-athletes and of soccer players in particular. The Magnolia Scholars program, on the other hand, has been developed to assist the transition process for first-generation college students. Not only does this decentralized model allow for the programs to develop within the specific experience of student need, it also allows for a greater number of programs to develop and flourish.”
There are 15 such programs at the University, and numbers suggest they’re supplementing OPCD’s work with individual students.
Equally important was open communication with coach Jay Vidovich, whose program has produced perfect graduation rates in the past two NCAA reports. Together, they plan a schedule of events — both in and out of season — to ensure maximum impact.
“Jay has been great to give us free lines of communication with players,” Kawesi-Mukooza said. “We have been cautious because we don’t want to violate that trust and grow too fast.”
During the 2012 season, the group came to campus in August, September and October, and sought to encourage players in three steps:
— Begin molding their “preferred future” with the help of publications from the Wake Forest Mentoring Resource Center, a branch of OPCD. It also introduced the team to newly formed groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google Plus.
— Identify and seek out alumni of their choice to begin the discussion of the preferred future.
— Develop a goal with the alumnus that will maximize each student’s skills and experience to make the preferred future a reality.
The sessions included presentations on the roles that several qualities play in “the formation of winning people and winning teams.” They included responsibility, family, honesty and discipline, and the players took notice.
“There is a neighborhood feel around Wake Forest in general, which is nice, but I think it’s definitely magnified and exemplified in the soccer program,” said Ross Tomaselli (’14), a midfielder from Wilmington, N.C.
Discussions on the traits of successful people aren’t necessarily specific to any particular career path, but they embody the experience the alumni enjoyed in their time as Wake Forest soccer players.
“Yes, they want to have a successful program, but I felt they actually cared about me and that was borne out to be true,” Kawesi-Mukooza said. “I visited a lot of other schools, and there was nothing like that except at Wake Forest.”
Conner is particularly passionate about this topic because he believes the lessons he learned at the nation’s premier collegiate university helped him make two post-soccer transitions.
After graduation, he overcame the “What Now” fear, moved to Austin and began writing music and screenplays, and learned a thing or two from Richard Linklater, the independent filmmaker whose credits include “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused.” He earned a master’s degree and started a band, The Lemurs, who put out full-length albums and toured for the better part of four years.
But the music business, like sports, often has an expiration date. It was somewhere near Tucson that Conner realized another transition was imminent.
“There’s five guys in the band,” he said. “You play a show at, say, midnight. You have to be the last person at the bar because the bar has to close in order for you to get paid. By the time you pack up your gear, it’s 3:30 a.m.”
His creative juices still flowing, Conner made the move into film again. He became the creative director at a boutique entertainment company, produced a film shown at Cannes and realized there would be an outlet for his work.
“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Wake Forest and the faculty for developing my confidence as a person,” he said. “The ability to walk away from the game and know I could still be fulfilled in other ways was one of the greatest lessons I took out of the University. That allowed me to transfer into music and film and writing, and to take the same work ethic I had learned athletically and put it into something I didn’t realize would be my lifelong passion.”
For Vidovich’s program, the network is a relatively new recruiting tool but undeniably one of the most important ones at his disposal. It’s especially helpful in winning over parents, most of whom are paying at least part of the cost of their son's education.
“The guys have been a tremendous resource,” Vidovich said. “Here, they’re offering advice on what do to while you’re in college. There, they have advice for afterward. I have alumni who have run with this thing. They follow our players on the field and off.”
It fits well in the long-term mission of the University, which has made career development a vital initiative with the installation of a dedicated employer recruitment center at Farrell Hall, the new home of the School of Business.
“What’s success look like?” Evans said. “Success is if one kid reaches out to us. We’re there for them because the character of our program supersedes even the results.”
Early indications suggest the Network will have a prosperous future in the Wake Forest community.
“You’re never going to have this kind of family otherwise,” said Sean Okoli (‘15), a forward from Federal Way, Wash. “If I can come back, I will, and I will give the guys the best advice I can.”