Originally published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education May 2, 2011
By Lois Elfman
The once-familiar perfect score of 10 all but disappeared from the gymnastics landscape several years ago, but the academic ideal of 4.0 still exists, and this year’s Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year, gymnast Shanice Howard of San Jose State University, has come very close to achieving it.
Earlier this year, Howard, 22, was honored at her school’s scholar-athlete breakfast for having the highest GPA of all Spartan student-athletes. The kinesiology major also has been named a President’s Scholar, an honor given to students who earn a 4.0 average over two consecutive semesters. She was an Ashe first-teamer in 2010. Howard’s lone A- in college was due to missing class participation days for a course that fell during a semester when the gymnastics team had several away meets.
“Exceptional is a very good word to use in describing Shanice,” says Dr. Shirley Reekie, chairman of SJSU’s kinesiology department. “To do all that she has done and still be totally grounded, always with a smile on her face, is incredible.”
Although collegiate gymnastics has existed for decades, its athletes often labor in relative anonymity compared to U.S., world and Olympic competitors. For Howard, having a team dynamic in what usually is an individual sport has put the perfect finale on a gymnastics career that began at the age of 5 at a gym in Orange County, Calif.
“Collegiate is so much better than club gymnastics for me,” says Howard. “In club, I didn’t like to compete very much because it was entirely focused on me. I didn’t really like being the center of attention. On my team, it’s so nice to have other people that you can depend on. It’s so much more fun to win something you’ve worked for as a group than something you’ve just done yourself.”
At 5-foot-6, Howard is on the tall side for a gymnast, but collegiate gymnastics feature much greater diversity in shapes and sizes than elite gymnastics. It’s also an incredible opportunity for young women of color to earn college athletic scholarships, and Howard has enjoyed serving as a role model for those girls.
“We have a lot of young gymnasts in the area from club gyms and they really look up to us as mentors,” she says. “It’s great to see that there are kids that aspire to be in our position, not just go to the Olympics. College gymnastics is becoming the cool thing to aspire to as a young gymnast.”
Community outreach is huge for Spartans coach Wayne Wright, the only African-American head coach in Division I women’s gymnastics. He says he is often the go-to person for minorities curious about collegiate gymnastics. Student-athletes such as Howard, a team captain, are crucial in spreading awareness.
“She’s been a great leader,” says Wright, adding that Howard is a vocal leader with her teammates and comfortable interacting with people in the community. The team often participates in activities put on by a group called BAWSI (Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative) Girls. They’ve also helped out at local community centers.
“Shanice has been a great person, a great role model for our program,” Wright says. “She’s gone way above and beyond what we needed her to do. She’s very determined. Always, from day one, she knew academics were important.”
Drew Agbay, the team’s academic adviser, refers to Howard as “pure class.” “She’s the epitome of a student-athlete. She’s obviously good out there in the gym. She’s a great student. She gets along with everyone.”
Howard says she’s practiced gymnastics 20 or more hours a week since the age of 8, so she came to college with time management skills. Still, achieving a near-perfect GPA, especially in a demanding major such as kinesiology, has involved careful planning. She describes herself as super-organized and analytical, planning out her study time before every team road trip. Those skills also come into play in keeping the team on track to achieve its goals.
“I will never accept mediocrity from myself,” says Howard. “I always set high expectations. If you put in your best effort, you’re going to get the best results — simple as that.”
Howard will graduate from SJSU in December and is planning to attend graduate school in physical therapy. Her long-term goal is to run her own physical therapy clinic and work with athletes.
“Shanice’s future will hold anything she wants it to hold,” says Wright. “She’s done a great job at fulfilling her dreams — and my dreams too — about having her be the best academically and athletically.”