Gift honoring alumna supports women in Ole Leadership Academy
St. Olaf College alumna Sheila Brown ’68 was a force for the inclusion of women in collegiate athletics. As an athletics director at Simmons College and at St. Catherine’s University, she was passionate and thoughtful about supporting women as athletes and leaders, and coaches as mentors. Launching her career just as Title IX was implemented, she added varsity programs and facilities, made head coaching positions full-time, and cheered on student-athletes and all her staff alike — everyone was equally part of the team.
When she died after battling cancer, the void she left was undeniable.
“She was a phenomenal friend — and a great friend to everybody. Of course we were all devastated,” says longtime colleague Sheila Abbott, who worked with Brown at St. Kate’s.
“Her commitment for women’s sports came from such an authentic place,” says Shelley Emerick ’68, another close friend and fellow Ole. “She wanted the athletes she worked with to embrace the joy of sports and competition as much as perseverance, team building, failure, and success.”
Now an anonymous gift in Brown’s honor supports women’s participation in the Ole Leadership Academy, a yearlong program for St. Olaf sophomore student-athletes. Presented in partnership with the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, it pairs an exploration of leadership models with self-reflection, group work, sessions with alumni athletic leaders, and skills building. After a successful first year, the women’s cohort has grown to 17 this year.
“Her commitment for women’s sports came from such an authentic place. She wanted the athletes she worked with to embrace the joy of sports and competition as much as perseverance, team building, failure, and success.”
—Shelley Emerick ’68
“The academy comes at pivotal time in these women’s lives,” says St. Olaf Head Women’s Soccer Coach and Senior Woman Administrator Rachael Sushner, who leads the academy. “The issues that our men and women grapple differ when it comes to leadership. For women, it’s primarily a lack of confidence.”
Since Title IX’s implementation in 1972, participation by women in varsity athletics has increased steadily. At the same time, fewer women are athletics directors and head coaches due to an array of factors, according to the NCAA, though gaps are smaller at Division III schools like St. Olaf. It is an issue Sushner hopes the academy can help rectify.
“If you are told repeatedly you can’t do something, even if you obviously can, it takes a toll,” says Sushner. “Many women have never had a female coach in their sports until they come to college. Seeing themselves as leaders with unique strengths who bring effective, diverse styles means a lot on- and off-field. They don’t have to wait to be a leader — they can impact people around them all the time.”
“If you are told repeatedly you can’t do something, even if you obviously can, it takes a toll. Many women have never had a female coach in their sports until they come to college. Seeing themselves as leaders with unique strengths who bring effective, diverse styles means a lot on- and off-field. They don’t have to wait to be a leader — they can impact people around them all the time.”
One thing the Sheila Brown Fund for Leadership in Women’s Athletics helps provide is professional development for women coaches and leadership academy members. Last year several student athletes had the chance to attend the Women Coaches Symposium at the University of Minnesota — St. Olaf had one of the largest groups of coaches and athletes — where renowned former Princeton University head swimming coach Susan Teeter talked about a group she formed to empower women in college sports. Three of the Oles who attended — Claire Bash ’20, Maddie Etienne ’20, and Emily Jarnigan ’20 — are now pursuing the chance to create a similar group connecting academy alumni with middle school athletes in Northfield.
“Girls drop out of athletics at twice the rate of boys by the time they are 14, due to social stigmas and a lack of positive role models and opportunities,” says Etienne. “We wanted to create a program to pass on what we learned about resilience and believing in the value we all bring as leaders. We really didn’t want the academy to end.”
“Encouraging that growth and that confidence in the younger players is super important,” says Bash. “It’s so evident that no matter what age you are, what grade you’re in, whatever group you’re in, that you can make such an impact on your team as a leader.”
As the program continues, each varsity team will have at least three Oles who have gone through the academy. Ultimately this will help all student athletes be more cohesive and supportive of one another.
“All of our teams are better off because of it,” says Jarnigan. “I’m glad that we’re going to continue it.”