Full time student. Full time athletic trainer. Sink or swim. That is the hands-on experience associated with being a Nebraska athletic training graduate assistant.
Grant Smith, Hailey Perese and Ellie Furneisen are pursuing master’s degrees in higher education. As part of this graduate program, they are in graduate assistantships with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as athletic trainers. Even though these trainers are all in the same program, they’ve had significantly different journeys and experiences to get to this point in their athletic training careers.
The grad program is also completely online, which helps with the time commitment to athletic training they have.
“I think we’re pretty lucky here that our master’s program that’s offered to us as graduate assistants is a 100% online program,” Perese said, “That’s definitely a bonus that we don’t have to log on to any specific classes at a certain time each day.”
But, according to Smith who is also in his final semester in the program, having only online courses is not the only benefit.
Pointing to the time commitment and amount of experience needed to succeed in the athletic training profession, Smith said that, along with attaining a master’s degree in only two years, the experience working with the football team is important as well. Getting hands-on experience and a master’s degree is a win-win according to Smith.
Having their tuition paid for as well as having a stipend for living expenses takes some of the stress of of the grad assistants shoulders.
“Obviously it’s hard to turn down free tuition,” Smith said. “And being young in the profession, I’m trying to get as much experience as I can. So those were big reasons I chose Nebraska and that kind of route.”
For Perese, she knew what she wanted her next step to be after completing her undergraduate, a graduate assistantship position. And always having been around athletics growing up, either as a participant or spectator, she knew this was for her.
“The goal for me has always been to work in a football setting,” Perese said. “And having an impact as a woman in a football setting and it being exposure that some of these student athletes haven’t had made me enjoy this job that much more. So, in my initial round of applications, I only applied to schools with football GA positions. I had known a former Nebraska graduate assistant athletic trainer through my summer internship the previous year. He had highly recommended the Nebraska football position.”
Perese sent her qualifications and resume to Mark Meyer, the Nebraska head athletic trainer, interviewed for the position and then was hired around Thanksgiving of her senior year of undergrad at the Purdue University. After graduation, she reported to Nebraska.
Growing up around football and always wanting to have been an athletic trainer is not a universal experience, though. This is especially the case for Furneisen, who is nearly finished with her second semester within the program, but did not play any traditional high school sports.
Furneisen had no athletic trainer because her high school was small enough to the point that they didn’t have many sports and had no athletic training experience herself until college. Instead of traditional sports, she danced but didn’t have any type of athletic trainer for her studio. After high school, Furneisen went to Washington State University for her bachelor’s degree and originally majored in engineering. Then, with only a couple of days to decide her new major before having to finalize her class schedule, she chose she chose athletic training.
“I really didn’t like it,” Furneisen said about engineering. “Kind of right off the bat, I wanted something a little more personable, something where I really felt like I was making a direct impact on someone’s life. And kind of just picked it on like a whim. I had a couple of days to decide my new major before I decided on classes, so I did a little bit of research, committed to it, and then ended up loving it.”
Knowing that she needed an internship or a graduate assistant position, Furneisen applied to a handful of schools her senior year but was met with rejection letters. With athletic training jobs, Furneisen said, it’s highly competitive and the goal is to try to get whatever job you can get.
Her preference was a graduate assistant because the degree would pay for it itself. Then, after another rejection letter, she came up with the idea of Nebraska. She has family ties to Nebraska, her dad being from Fremont, and she grew up cheering for Nebraska as a kid. Furneisen applied here because of those reasons and was waiting for them to post their position. So she emailed them, went through the application process with them and they offered her a position and she loved it immediately.
The double edged sword of Nebraska’s program, however, is the time commitment and experience. On the one hand, this type of experience is invaluable. Having all been certified as athletic trainers, the graduate assistants are all immediately treated as professionals within the program, according to Smith. But, as Smith and Perese found out, this position can get overwhelming quickly.
“They just throw you in the fire, sink or swim mentality,” Smith said. “Eventually we figure it out and there are other staff members who are always good about answering questions and helping us out along the way. But, because there are the two of us, there’s a lot of responsibility given to us.”
Smith and Perese have undergraduate athletic training students learning under them that they are helping with basic athletic training skills. Smith said there is a lot of freedom and the athletic staff are also there to back him and Perese if they do need support.
“Athletics is extremely high paced and as a trainer, you’re required to keep up with that pace of things and not slow anything down,” Perese said. “And to make things worse, our first year, we came in during COVID. That was a pretty, pretty tough time for everybody because we were all kind of figuring out what that meant for the season moving forward for workouts, physical therapy and everything like that.”
As for the responsibilities of the trainers, Smith and Perese have aligned roles because they both work football. But Furneisen is in charge of the spirit squad as an athletic trainer, which has given her a lot of authority.
Smith and Perese are in charge of the care, treatment and prevention of injuries for their athletes. In the off-season, on any given day, they work with injured players in rehabilitation. They also have players who come in for daily maintenance who are sore or hurt in some way, this includes ankle taping, bracing, icing and anything to try to help the players be ready for practice.
The grad assistant trainers are also in charge of practice coverage and are there for every team lead activity to make sure all the athletes stay healthy and safe in the drills.
Maybe the least exciting of a GA’s responsibilities, is administrative work. They handle medical records, injury reports and health notes for insurance. There are insurance plans that they have to fax to physicians or help communicate with surgeons or physicians.
In-season football looks a little bit different. The week leading up is mostly the trainers trying to get everyone healthy, but, obviously because football is a violent and physical sport, players get beat up at practice.
“We just try to keep them as healthy as we can get them through practice,” Smith said, “The first three days are a little tougher, Thursday and Friday are more of a walkthrough type of speed, going through the motions and getting ready for Saturday and then Saturday is definitely different. There is an intensity and seriousness among the team and because it’s game day, everyone needs to be at their best, including our staff.”
So, on top of school work, the athletic trainers’ days have little to no free time. But, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The time commitment strengthens Smith’s, Perese’s and Furneisen’s favorite part of what they do, the relationships and impact on their athletes’ lives.
“I think the most rewarding and probably my favorite part is the guys that I’ve spent, you know, weeks or months rehabbing, get back out onto the field on game day,” Perese said, “Whether they’re making a huge play or not, just getting them to that point and giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents is amazing.
Seeing the gratitude as well as the tangible results of their hard work is so meaningful to the trainers.
“Sometimes a player will come up to me and they’ll say something like ‘Haley we did that’,” Perese said. “That’s the best feeling ever. But even if they don’t, just getting to watch them do what they love is totally worth it for me.”
Similarly, Furneisen’s favorite part about athletic training at Nebraska is the impact that she can have on her athletes’ lives. Most of the athletes she has worked with have never had an athletic trainer for what they did in high school, whether that was cheer, dance or whatever.
“Working with athletes who don’t usually get that support staff, they’re very appreciative, and so easy to work with,” Furneisen said. “If they’re post surgical or they had an injury, and I was able to get them back into the games and back into practice and that kind of thing. Just being able to see that I made an actual, direct impact in their healing on their recovery is definitely my favorite feeling.”
Smith and Perese will finish their master’s program this semester and Furneisen will have another year in the program.
Smith has accepted a seasonal internship with the Green Bay Packers for next season. Perese was offered a position in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and will report to the team in May. Furneisen said she hopes to stay in college athletics if she can, but if she wants a more steady and less chaotic career she thinks she might want to be in a more clinical type of setting.
Each one of these graduate assistant athletic trainers have had different journeys and that experience will continue for each of them. The thing that unites them, though, has been their love and appreciation for the opportunity Nebraska has afforded them.