Photo by Scot Obler

The man in charge of academic support for USC’s student-athletes once excelled playing football’s most punishing position.

But this former college nose tackle also holds a PhD.

Magdi El Shahawy credits his father with pushing him to excel in school long before a back injury cut short his football career. “It was one of those wake-up call moments, but I was prepared for it,” he remembers. “My dad would always say, ‘You’re always one play away from never playing football again.’”

That lesson became a source for his work at USC. Today, USC’s Student- Athlete Academic Services includes nearly 100 tutors and academic counselors who help Trojans reach their full potential in the classroom even as they log long hours at practice. The services are part of USC Athletics’ increasing emphasis on preparing student-athletes for all aspects of life after graduation, from pursuing their careers to being mentors in their communities.

Last year, the Otis Booth Foundation gifted $5 million to endow USC Athletics’ Community Outreach Program, and Trojan athletes embraced the chance to get involved. At the end of the first semester, athletes had logged 2,756 hours of service, 106 more hours than in all of the 2012–13 season. More than 170 Trojan athletes volunteered during finals week in December at USC’s annual Community Bowl, mentoring children at 32nd Street School and working alongside them to replace aging basketball nets and plant vegetable gardens.

“We want our athletes to experience the community they hear cheering in the stands,” said Matt Ackels, USC Athletics’ director of community outreach. “Once they become involved in our rich community, they want to stay involved.”

The students also have a new headquarters that symbolizes the student-athlete ideal. The Stevens Academic Center, built with a $10 million gift from the family of USC Trustee

Mark A. Stevens, offers computer workstations, tutoring spaces and study areas. Athletes can attend seminars on money management and substance abuse prevention alongside career counseling.

“Our family gave the gift for the Stevens Academic Center to help ensure that Trojan athletes for many generations to come will be successful in the classroom as well as on the field or court,” Stevens says. “Since the vast majority of student-athletes will not go on to a professional sports career, they must be equipped to establish and build a career once they depart USC.” He’s hoping to hear success stories in the years ahead about student-athletes who used the center.

There’s already proof that the strategy is working: Graduation rates for student-athletes are rising. While USC counts many elite athletes who choose to go pro before getting their diploma, the latest figures show that 81 percent of USC student-athletes graduate within six years. Just a decade ago, less than 70 percent graduated within the same time.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to help young people not just graduate with their degrees, but also grow as young men and women here,” El Shahawy says, “and to take the four years to prepare for the next 44 years and beyond.”

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