Russell Equipped to Lead, Flourish at NCAA

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Sunny Russell excelled at a precision sport and has precise career goals.

Football, Rifle Recognized for Academic Progress

By Randy York

Of the expected 55 Nebraska student-athletes who will graduate from UNL Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, only one Husker will step down from the stage where she will receive her Bachelor of Science degree in Child, Youth and Family Studies. That means she will finally and officially be fully prepared to step up to a challenge that relatively few collegiate student-athletes get – the opportunity to work for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Sunny Russell, the 2013-14 President of the Nebraska Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), has been selected as a Leadership Development Intern for the NCAA in its Indianapolis headquarters. Even before receiving her diploma, Russell had the rare undergraduate experience to speak in Chicago on the importance of inclusion. Her audience? The Directors of Athletics from all 14 schools which will be members of the Big Ten Conference by July 1st of this year.

A senior from Stratford, Texas, Russell is a member of the Husker Rifle Team. Her answer to pressure is preparation, and that special trait probably helped earn the NCAA internship this summer, giving Russell the chance to lead various projects, assist in programming and education and provide overall resources and support to the NCAA national office, member institutions, conference offices, and student-athletes across the country. Her roles tie in nicely with SAAC, which develops leaders with the integrity to promote student-athlete welfare. A multiple Big Ten Distinguished Scholar and a multiple recipient of Academic All-Big Ten honors, Russell is eager to work for and at the NCAA.

Like countless peers, Russell chose Nebraska because of its total person development philosophy. “Through Life Skills support and programs like the NCAA Leadership Forum, the NCAA provides outstanding opportunities for student-athletes to develop athletically and personally,” Russell said, adding that participation in NCAA-sponsored programs “vastly improved” her ability to lead, serve others, and develop as a professional. Now that she’s joining the ranks of fully equipped Huskers to succeed, The N-Sider asked Russell to share her views on a variety of academic, athletic and life-related questions:

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Russell, second from left, was a 2014 Husker Hero Heart & Soul Award winner.

Q-1: You’ve been fortunate enough to have a unique perspective on everything that goes into being a student-athlete. How has Nebraska prepared you for this incredible internship with the NCAA and what has excited you most about the journey to succeed academically, athletically and in life?

A-1: Although Nebraska offers the best facilities in the nation and is a part of one of the most prestigious conferences in intercollegiate athletics, the full value of Nebraska may be found in those who work and serve here. From top to bottom, each individual is fully invested to provide athletes with optimal athletic, academic, personal, and professional development. Husker fans have much to be proud of. They support an athletic department filled with incredible people. We have a tremendous group of individuals who have made my experience at Nebraska unbeatable and helped prepare me well for my next step. 

Q-2: You were asked to speak to 14 Big Ten Conference Athletic Directors in Chicago. What was your primary focus and please share some of the most memorable thoughts that you communicated that day.

A-2: My primary focus during that talk was inclusion. Having recently brought Rutgers and Maryland in the conference, I wanted to ensure their faculty felt welcome and accepted. The talk was intended to inform administration members of the discussion points and opinions shared by Big Ten SAAC leaders at our spring 2013 meeting. These ideas ranged from debating the effectiveness of certain NCAA pieces of legislation to working together to create a more unified conference through a common community outreach project.

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Russell, right, was always finding ways to reach out and touch the community.

Q-3: You had a tremendous leadership role for SAAC. Share some of the highlights of that experience and what conclusions you reached in the nonstop interaction among some of the country’s best and brightest student-athletes.

A-3: SAAC has been one of the most rewarding organizations I’ve been a part of and a launching point for my professional development. Being surrounded by exceptional student-athlete leaders and advisors certainly inspires you to strive to improve personally and professionally. The influence of these individuals, paired with the mentorship I’ve received from SAAC advisors like Keith Zimmer and Jessie Gardner, have been fundamental in my growth here. Our leaders at Nebraska seek to live their lives with an unyielding moral compass. They’re always working to better themselves and those they interact with on a daily basis. I’ve been encouraged watching my fellow student-athletes put in countless hours not only to improve themselves, but also to empower teammates and build unbreakable chemistry with whatever team they’re on. This is at the heart of a team’s success and well-being, and I’m excited to see where these initiatives will eventually lead. 

Q-4: You’re going to work for the NCAA. What’s the draw and how excited are you? 

A-4: I’m incredibly excited and was drawn to the NCAA because of its reputation, the impact it has made in my life, and my love for intercollegiate athletics and student-athletes. That said, the emotion connected to continuing to pursue my career goals of serving and bettering the lives of others far surpasses those tied to the prominence of the organization. Since high school I have been convinced of the power and effectiveness of developing leaders. This position is a tremendous opportunity to continue to serve in that role, where I can help develop student leaders who will create a stronger and more virtuous society.  

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Keith Zimmer presents Russell one of the four top Husker Hero awards.

Q-5: Coming to Nebraska from Texas, how has your perception changed about the state you left and the state you chose?

A-5: Nebraska was a tremendous stepping stone to prepare me for the road ahead.  Like most Texans, I enjoyed my state pride and did not think another state could match Texas. The genuine kindness of Nebraskans and those working at this university quickly changed my mind. My outlook has changed, as I now embrace that there are wonderful people wherever you go, and I have been blessed to live in two different states that seem to be especially full of those kinds of people. 

Q-6: It’s my understanding that you were invited to and once participated in a leadership camp in Dallas. What do you remember most about that camp and how important is it to compare your leadership style with others?

A-6: As my understanding of leadership continues to evolve, I’m convinced more and more that a leader’s effectiveness is closely correlated with the character of the leader. Character is the launching point for all other components of strong leadership like genuine communication and conflict resolution. The leadership forum highlighted this idea of leading with integrity and emphasized personal self-discovery as an avenue to leading others through self-awareness.  

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Russell, right, calls her coach, Stacy Underwood, a “phenomenal leader”.

Q-7: I don’t mean to jump to conclusions. But when a student-athlete receives an internship like this, I have to ask: Are you contemplating getting into college athletics as a career and if so, what’s your vision?

A-7: That’s a very safe assumption. Seeing my own transformation and development throughout my time at Nebraska has inspired me to want to help in providing this same opportunity to other student-athletes. Although the next step after the NCAA is undetermined, my end-goal is to develop a values-based leadership curriculum. 

Q-8: Last question. Who are some of the most interesting people you’ve met at Nebraska and what made them interesting?

A-8: When I first met Keith Zimmer I was intimidated by his organizational skills, public speaking ability, and overall professionalism. After working with him for four years, I’ve seen other sides of Keith. He’s fun-loving, empowering, and caring. His leadership trickles through his staff and has been a main source of my professional development at Nebraska. One of his former staff members, Jessie Gardner, was an inspiring personal mentor of mine as well as the advisor for our SAAC group. Another mentor is my head coach, Stacy Underwood. She’s a phenomenal leader who has inspired my team to believe in ourselves, each other, and this program. She has set a completely new tone for Nebraska Rifle through her example, exceptional intuition, and belief in her shooters. I cannot wait to see this team’s success in the future. Finally, one of my mentors, Ashley Stone, is a graduate student working for the UNL Alumni Association. She’s taken me in as her own, trained me in professionalism, poise, and confidence, and inspired me to become a much stronger version of myself. I cannot pinpoint how she does it, but I’m truly inspired by every interaction with her and so incredibly thankful for her presence in my life.

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