When LaToya Smith began her current role as senior associate athletics director for student services in 2017, she brought with her a broad understanding of the university’s systems and nuances. The former Title IX coordinator has worked in higher education administration for over 15 years, helping build programs for students all over campus. Although she was not as familiar with working in athletics, Smith says she was eager to serve as a bridge and bring her campus experience to athletics and serve students in this way.
“When I came to this position, I, like a lot of individuals, had a particular perception of athletics,” Smith, who is also an assistant professor of practice, says. “I always knew that Texas Athletics provided resources and support to student athletes. I didn’t realize, though, the depth, breadth and quality of those resources.”
Smith oversees three areas within Texas Athletics Student Services: academic coordination, learning services and student development. Each student athlete is paired with an academic coordinator who assists in scheduling, course advising, and creating academic support and structure. These students also have access to learning specialists, as well as advanced content and strategy tutors, and they have several resources to help them develop their identities, careers and leadership skills.
Smith says she didn’t fully appreciate the demanding schedule of a student athlete with “two full-time jobs” — studying and competing — until she was traveling with a team whose competition ran late. They didn’t get back to Austin until 4 or 5 in the morning. Smith says she remembers wanting to crawl into bed. But for the students, it was a class day, so they were expected to attend their
8 a.m. lectures, take exams and do homework.
I get to celebrate the accomplishments — both the athletic and academic accomplishments — of our students.
Learning the nature of athletics, such as the cycle of seasons and culture and structure of each team, was the biggest transition for Smith, she says. After gaining a better understanding for these things, Smith says she has come to really enjoy her position.
“While there is definitely stress, it feels like more balance,” Smith says. “I get to celebrate the accomplishments — both the athletic and academic accomplishments — of our students.”
Marnie Binfield, who works closely with Smith as the director of learning support, says working in the academic branch of athletics puts her and her colleagues in a unique position.
“We have a really cool opportunity to help all of our students to bridge their identities and see the possibility of truly being student athletes,” Binfield says. “I have yet to encounter a student athlete that didn’t find the student in there somewhere.”
In her time as director, Smith has focused on building on the student and personal development resources. Binfield says she has seen how this has “helped the athletes feel a connection across teams” and to better feel a part of the larger UT community.
Smith has been developing ways for athletics to collaborate closely with other campus departments and increase opportunities for service learning and community engagement. She has also made efforts to continue the alignment of academic and co-curricular support services for all teams.
“Prior to my arrival, there were women’s sports and there were men’s sports,” Smith says. “We’re now one unit. The men and women get the same services and support and follow the same guidelines, policies and practices.”
Smith also works to demystify common misconceptions about athletics. She says she is proud of how hard her students work to be both academically and athletically successful.
“Sometimes there is this perception that athletes are given everything, but that’s not the case,” she says. “They earn it all.”