While most college student athletes dream of winning gold medals and national championships, only two percent will go on to play their sport professionally. The lessons learned on the track and pitch can translate to success in the cubicle and boardroom, but student athletes rarely enjoy the flexibility to pursue the same professional development opportunities as their peers.
That’s where the Husky Fellowship comes in. Launched by The Sports Institute at UW Medicine in 2019, the fellowship gives students the freedom to explore potential career paths at the intersection of sports and medicine through a flexible, funded internship program.
Meet Taylor Sekyra and Wenyan Ma, two student athletes and former Husky Fellows who are now on their way to meaningful careers in medicine.
Getting her feet wet
Taylor Sekyra spent five seasons in the purple and gold. Like many other student athletes, the two-time captain of the women’s soccer team spent nearly every waking minute on the field, in class or studying for her biology major. She knew she was interested in testing the waters in a healthcare or research setting, but because of her demanding schedule, she never expected to gain relevant work experience before graduation.
As a Husky Fellow, Sekyra spearheaded research and program optimization for initiatives like Aerial, an online program that helps coaches and athletes maximize safety and avoid concussions in soccer.
“Getting my feet wet in an environment that didn’t involve competition gave me so much confidence,” she says. “As I worked in collaboration with members of my team, I realized that so much of what I learned as an athlete — communications skills, commitment, responsibility — could transfer to a different environment.”
Sekyra defied the odds and played professional soccer for an Icelandic team after graduating from UW in spring 2020. While she doesn’t regret the experience, she was ready to transition into a more long-term career by the end of the year. Today, she works as a nursing assistant at Banner University Hospital in Tucson, Ariz., as she makes progress toward her goal of becoming a physician assistant.
Like Sekyra, Husky golfer Wenyan Ma discovered a passion for healthcare early in her academic career. She was considering becoming a sports nutritionist or a psychologist, but her experience as a Husky Fellow set her on a different course.
At The Sports Institute, Ma came to see that in the U.S., resources are often directed toward treating illness and injury rather than preventing them in the first place. “That inspired me to learn more and eventually shifted my interest to improving public health on a population level,” she says.
During Ma’s time as a fellow, The Sports Institute conducted a national survey of educators to learn about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted students’ physical activity levels. Ma supported the effort through data cleaning, outreach, recruitment and communications — skills that would serve her well when she graduated and enrolled in a Master of Public Health (MPH) program in epidemiology at Columbia University in the City of New York.
“My experience as a Husky Fellow trained me to think more critically and synthesize information effectively,” she says.
Funding the future
For both Sekyra and Ma, the Husky Fellowship provided opportunities they never dreamed were available to them as student athletes.
Along with their three peers who have received the Husky Fellowship, they express gratitude for the generous donors who made the experience possible. “Because of people like Dixie and Steve Wilson, we are getting experience, connections and financial support that makes a difference,” says Ma.
Dixie Wilson joined the Tyee Board for UW Athletics several years ago. When the chair asked board members to choose a team and support its players and coaches however possible, Wilson took the challenge to heart. She and her husband, Steve, chose the women’s softball team and became avid cheerleaders at every game.
“When you start getting to know student athletes, it’s life-changing,” Wilson says. “We are in awe of their talent, their humility and their enthusiasm for their sport. That experience opened our eyes to the importance of supporting individual athletes.”
When presented with the opportunity to fund the newly created Husky Fellowship, the Wilsons didn’t have to think twice. “Our hope is that through this fellowship, student athletes are learning about what opportunities lie ahead of them — and, just as importantly, they’re learning about themselves as people,” says Wilson. “As a sports fan and a passionate UW alumna, what could be more satisfying than supporting a student athlete at a critical point in their journey?”
From Sekyra’s perspective, the next generation of Huskies needs more supporters like the Wilsons. “By creating the Husky Fellowship, they afford student athletes like me an opportunity that goes far beyond an internship experience,” she says. “We gain confidence and skills that we carry forward into the future.”
Written by Ashley Rabinovitch