As she sat in her tiny campus office, surrounded by a capricious collection of teddy bears, Associate Professor Effel Harper pointed to one bear that stood out with purpose among the tiny trinkets positioned strategically around the room, filling the shelves.
It reads, “Ms. Harper’s students are number one.”
This is how the multi-faceted NCAA liaison, professor, grandmother and mentor makes it a point to treat the 460 student-athletes she works with.
“I like that I can make an instant difference in the students’ lives,” she said as she explained the passion she feels for all who wander in and out of her office, fingering random knickknacks and enjoying the popsicles she keeps stowed away in her freezer year-round.
Whether it’s academics or just someone to listen to them, Harper acts as a support system in the lives of athletes who can become tangled with responsibility, stress and fatigue.
Few know this better than junior marketing and management major and football wide receiver Lance Larsen. For him, Harper has been a God-send when he wasn’t sure he could perform in both academics and football.
Larsen met Harper in a freshman seminar and says he feels blessed to know he has a faculty friend he can look up to.
“I know I can count on her to help me figure out what needs to be done even though it’s not her responsibility, and with that if anyone asks me for help I know just who to recommend them to,” he said.
Harper’s life as an Army brat traveling all over the world shaped her well-rounded, charismatic nature, and the years spent changing the television channel for her father from basketball to boxing drove her passion for sports, teaching her to go the extra mile even when tasks seemed impossible.
“I guess being a fan of sports, I’ve always wanted to give a little extra or be there for that student-athlete,” she said.
Channel surfing aside, Harper knows exactly why she is here for her students and keeps constant reminders to herself in the midst of teddy bears and popsicles.
“I truly believe God and faith led me here just by how everything fell into place the way it did,” she said, pausing to answer another phone call from an athlete who is anxiety-ridden over being considered for the Indianapolis Colts.
Off the field, student-athletes have to factor time management, practices, injuries and game day into their daily routine, all along with fulfilling academic responsibilities, which, for Harper, holds the most significance.
“I want everyone to keep in mind that these are students who happen to be athletes. They’re students first and foremost. … We want to insure that they go pro in something other than sports,” she said.
For most athletes, college is their last hurrah. They will not go on to play professional sports, so it is important that the education they receive be at the forefront of their enumeration of responsibilities. Harper has made it a point to be there with them throughout the entire process.
In the midst of the birth of her third grandson and in between endless phone calls and emails, Harper never fails to stop what she is doing to give those precious few minutes that can make a difference in someone’s day, something she’s learned from personal experiences with students throughout the years.
“I work every day to try to make a difference, whether it be as a role model or helping them make good choices and doing things positively that will not reflect negatively in the long term.”
Harper is also an adviser for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, for which an athlete from each team is chosen to represent their teammates in projects. This year, juvenile diabetes was chosen because of a staff member’s personal experience with a relative who is afflicted with the disease.
“She’s committed to know each of us as an individual,” senior psychology major and women’s tennis representative Megan Aarhus said as she told of how close she and Harper have grown from working together on SAAC’s newest
Aarhus described Harper as personal, wise and fun loving. She was unsure what the relationship would yield, but it didn’t take long for the two to warm up to each other.
“She would always crack jokes during meetings and get everybody loosened up,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed getting to know her and doing something with her working for a cause. It takes our relationship to a different level,”
That is the high standard Harper hopes to live up to in the lives of each one of her students and athletes, who remain number one in her daily grind.