Blues Engineering provides a community-building academic support system for student athletes

Graeme Aylward (IndE, Year 4) participates in the 50-metre Freestyle at the 2023 USports Championships. (Photo: Seyran Mammadov)

Graeme Aylward (IndE, Year 4) participates in the 50-metre Freestyle at the 2023 USports Championships. (Photo: Seyran Mammadov)

When Zoe Petkovic (IndE Year 4) came to U of T Engineering as a first-year, TrackOne student and Varsity Blues track and field pole vaulter, her coaches thought it would be most practical if she moved from the main Engineering residence to one closer to her practice facility.  

“This cut my travel time,” she says. “But being in a different residence meant being away from most of my first-year engineering peers, who were all housed in one place and able to get together for study nights and to work on problem sets together.” 

Athletics and academics are individually extremely demanding pursuits, says Kate Lonergan (MechE 1T7).   

Students who strive for excellence in both fields require focus and commitment to manage the constantly competing demands on their time and energy,” adds the former Varsity Blues volleyball player.  

Lonergan created Blues Engineering in 2013 to enhance the student-athlete experience by providing an engineering-specific support system.   

“What helped me stay on my feet were the other engineering students I knew from Varsity Blues,” says Lonergan, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich.  

“They helped me stay up to date in class and carve out study time within our zero-flexibility schedules. I realized that I was lucky to be part of such a supportive network, but not everyone had the same experience.” 

A women volleyball player prepares to spike a ball.
Kate Lonergan (MechE 1T7), photographed in 2014, was part of the Varsity Blues Women Volleyball team. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

Blues Engineering is an extension of the offerings available from Varsity Blues’ Academic Support for Athletes Program (ASAP), which provides study spaces and tutoring for students but does not cover engineering-specific courses.  

U of T Engineering’s Vice-Dean Undergraduate office supports the student-run organization with guidance and resources to enable student leaders to achieve their goals. The Faculty also funds group activities, such as the annual welcome night in the fall and varsity luncheon in the winter term. 

“We are a grassroots organization,” says Graeme Aylward (IndE Year 4), a Varsity Blues swimmer and a member of the Blues Engineering leadership team, along with Petkovic, Carter Buck (EngSci Year 3) and Emmet Bravakis (CompE Year 3).   

“Our goal is to bring together engineering students who participate in varsity sports. We are a small group in the U of T Engineering community and must balance the challenging workload of being an engineering student with the time commitment of varsity athletics.” 

Being a student athlete does offer a broader sense of community,” adds Petkovic. “I really liked meeting people within my sport from so many different backgrounds, studying a variety of disciplines.  

“But having that support system outside of class and practice was really important to me.”  

In the 2022-2023 academic year, there were 84 Varsity Blues student athletes enrolled in U of T Engineering undergraduate programs. Blues Engineering offers these students community and peer tutoring, running weekly study sessions on Sunday nights that are meant to align with first-year midterm schedules but are open to all years. 

From left to right: Zoe Petkovic, Emmet Bravakis, Graeme Aylward and Carter Buck.
From left to right: Zoe Petkovic (IndE Year 4), Emmet Bravakis (CompE Year 3), Graeme Aylward (IndE Year 4), and Carter Buck (EngSci Year 3) at the annual Blues Engineering Varsity Luncheon. (Photo: Shawn Ahmed)

With their demanding schedules, student athletes not only have to manage their course work with practices and meets, but they must also prioritize their rest, which is essential for recovery and strength building. This can mean going to bed earlier than their classmates who are up late, studying together.   

“Having this group, where you can come together and study with other engineering students, run different ideas by each other and make sure that you’re actually understanding concepts definitely helps,” says Buck, who is a Varsity Blues swimmer.  

“We are all managing busy schedules that make it hard to fall into the regular community of engineering.” 

Time management is key for student athletes, which is why Buck and his peers rely on calendar tools to manage their schedules and competing commitments.   

“I keep note of when my practice times are, so I know when I have time to do coursework and can make sure that I’m sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, as well — which is hard,” Buck says.   

“Before every term begins, I always make sure to meet up with my academic advisor to choose the Engineering Science cohort that will allow me to make the most practices.  

“A lot of people struggle with time management. But I’ve always been a firm believer that if you really care about something, you will find time to do it,” adds Aylward.

“My advice for any prospective student who is passionate about being an athlete and studying engineering is to do it: come to one of the best schools in the country for academics and athletics, and grow into a strong athlete, student and person here.  

“Being a varsity athlete is probably my favourite thing about my entire U of T experience.”  

As the group looks forward, they hope more engineering student athletes will join their organization and help them grow. 

Meeting other engineering athletes is a great opportunity to find a group of like-minded individuals who will help you get through all the ups and downs of Skule™ challenges,” says Buck. 

– This story was originally published on the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering News Site on January 15, 2024 by Safa Jinje.

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