A first grader was having trouble focusing and needed a mentor. His Chicago-area elementary school contacted Northwestern University in January 2008, and within a few days Kenneth Avila agreed to be his mentor.
Despite his time-consuming athletic commitments in a high travel sport like baseball and heavy academic course load, majoring in economics, one of his university’s most grueling majors, Avila could not say no to this boy. His disposition as a studentathlete would not allow him to.
“I think that we as athletes have the obligation to use our elevated status to really make a difference, to really do things outside of sports,” says Avila, Northwestern’s junior centerfielder. “So that has been kind of my goal ever since I came to college. After I leave after four years, I want to be known for more than what I did on the baseball field.”
This season, Avila has one of the team’s highest batting averages at .280, notching 40 hits and 11 RBIs in the first 47 games. But he will certainly be known for his many hits off the field, particularly his continuous involvement volunteering in the community.
He has volunteered at a Christian youth camp, in a Buddy Ball game with disabled and special education children, and at a sports day at a local elementary school. He has read to children in classrooms at local schools and helped out at a Halloween festival. And he will be recognized for his exceptional work in his own Northwestern classrooms. The Texas native has earned a 3.43 grade point average and was honored as Academic All-Big Ten selection in 2008.
Avila, the Diverse 2009 Arthur Ashe Jr. Male Sports Scholar of the Year, will also be known as one of the 325 varsity student-athletes to participate in the NCAA National Leadership Conference. He will be known for his work as an Associated Student Government senator who ushered in several campus initiatives like wireless Internet and a downtown Chicago bus route, and for his involvement in the Student Athletes Advisory Committee and the Minority Student- Athlete Advisory Committee.
“He has been very fortunate so he wants to give back and that’s pretty special,” says Betsi Burns, director of student development in Northwestern’s athletics department. “And he doesn’t do it for accolades or recognition; he does it just because that’s the type of person he is.” One of Avila’s many programmatic initiatives is the Northwestern Athletics Minority Recruiting Program. The program, which Avila played a central role in organizing, is designed to service prospective student-athletes of color. Coaches have the option of calling on a group of student-athletes of color to show the recruit around campus and talk to the recruit about their experiences.
“I think that program, especially as it grows and it becomes more popular, has a chance to make a big difference not only on our campus but in our athletic program,” says Avila. But even if the program does not become popular, and the campus community quickly forgets about his efforts off the baseball field, that first grader Avila tutored will probably remember him. Avila’s mentorship really enriches the child’s academic life, he says.
“The big thing was trying to keep him focused — he was very distracted,” Avila says. “His change in attitude and his focus really became more noticeable when I was around him, and he became familiar with me and saw that I was there to help him.” From that experience, Avila says he learned the importance of patience and persistence.
“There were days in which I was frustrated, but I had to keep up my smile,” he says. “And at the end of the day I feel like I got more out of it than the student I was helping.”
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