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Maureen Palchak Helps 'Cats Give Back

Assistant athletic director for community relations coordinates student-athlete service

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Typical college student-athletes balance class and school work with long hours of training, practice, travel and games. At Northwestern, they also are encouraged to find time to lend a hand in the community.

And that’s where Maureen Palchak steps in.

For three years she has served as Northwestern’s assistant athletic director for community relations. Palchak works with 492 student-athletes on 19 varsity teams to coordinate Evanston school visits and outreach activities ranging from the fun of a multi-sport “field day” on campus to a more earnest anti-bullying effort. She also arranges the distribution of sports items for auctions and donations.

A former student-athlete herself (she swam for four years at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind.), she always knew she’d work in sports one day. And like a coach in her own right, Palchak puts Wildcats in position to succeed by creating opportunities to give back to a place they call home during their college careers.

“Our mission is to provide a world class experience for Northwestern student-athletes,” she said. “That means academics and athletics, as well as social engagement. I’m passionate about college athletics, and I love my job because it’s an opportunity to leverage sports to help people. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Palchak spoke to Northwestern News about her work and the role of community relations in athletics.

What is a key to doing your job well?

This job is all about making connections. The more we do, the more our neighbors know how eager Northwestern student-athletes are to help. That’s why we want to share these stories. I lead a working lunch meeting every six weeks with Evanston government officials, business leaders and schools. That face-to-face contact is important because it increases communication that so often leads to more collaboration.

How would you define community relations in athletics?

Fans don’t come out just to watch a game. They come because they have a vested interest. Of course there are so many ways to follow Wildcat athletics now. But when student-athletes go out and meet people, they can change the game day experience. When a young fan sees their “buddy” Jeff Budzien kick the game-winning field goal, it becomes personal.

What are some of the highlights on your calendar?

Field Day is a great example of how we work with groups like the Youth Organizations Umbrella, Family Focus and the YMCA. It’s a fun day when the big kids host the little kids. And sometimes they even learn a new sport.

This year we launched an anti-bullying effort, Wildcats Stand Up and R.O.A.R.R (Reach Out and Reinforce Respect), at Haven Middle School. It’s become a quick success. We’re trying to create impactful and sustainable programs like this in schools all over Evanston.

And the women’s cross-country team has taken the national “Girls On the Run” program to the next level. The runners teach young girls about eating right and staying active. Plus they host a 5K at the end of the year.

What challenges keep you on your toes?

Senior softball player Marisa Bast launched R.O.A.R.R., for example. But she’ll be graduating in June. And just as coaches value the contributions of their seniors in competition, we’re always looking for the sophomores and juniors who can step into those lead service roles.

Why do school visits work?

Our student-athletes echo teachers and parents. They deliver the same key messages in a different voice. Sure, children look up to them. But the student-athletes are always quick to say, “I know what you’re going through. I was just like you in fourth grade. But if you work hard, you can have success in college, too.”

That’s how Northwestern is special. I don’t have to prep our student-athletes to say the right things. I know they’re going to tell it the way they’ve always lived it: “Manage your time, finish your homework before you play, find your passion and respect others.”
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