On behalf of the 2019-2020 NIRSA Honor Award Committee, I am excited to announce that Eric Nickel, Director of University Recreation at James Madison University, has been selected as the recipient of the 2020 NIRSA Honor Award! Since 1963, when it was first conferred on Dr. George Haniford, the NIRSA Honor Award is presented annually as our association’s most prestigious honor. Eric is the outstanding NIRSA member who has proven exemplary service to the association and has made impressive achievements in the field of collegiate recreation. Eric is the standout among an impressive field of deserving nominees for the 2020 award.

“There are countless numbers of people who call Eric for advice both professionally and personally,” says Steve Bobbitt, Associate Director of Programs at JMU’s University Recreation.  “When it comes to influencing, motivating, and supporting the development of students, young professionals, or emerging leaders in the profession, no one in the country can match the efforts of Eric Nickel,” says Julia Wallace Carr, Ed.D. and Senior Associate Director and Associate Professor at James Madison University. And JMU grad Rachael Finley, Director of Campus Recreation at York College of Pennsylvania, adds: “We may never be able to quantify the impact of Eric’s influence on our profession, but anyone who has served with him, been under his leadership, or participated in a JMU program can certainly qualify the scope of his influence.”

His significant contributions to NIRSA and to the campus recreation profession will be celebrated this year on the association’s biggest stage: Join your NIRSA family in celebrating Eric during the Opening General Session of the 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference & Campus Rec and Wellness Expo.

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Making it (as an) official: Eric’s journey into campus recreation

Eric matriculated at State University of New York Plattsburgh, where he played Division III basketball. It was at SUNY Plattsburgh where Eric also got his first taste of campus recreation, working as an intramural sports official and gym supervisor.

He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from SUNY Plattsburgh in 1981. Upon graduation, he moved to The Ohio State University to take the Graduate Administrative Associate position under Assistant Director Ken Kaiser, where Eric supervised the student staff at the Jesse Owens Recreation Centers (JON and JOS). While at OSU, he continued his sports officiating journey by training to be a two-sport official working recreation and middle school football and basketball. In 1985, Eric completed his Master of Arts degree in Sport Management from The Ohio State University, where Dave DeAngelo, Senior Associate Director for the Department of Recreational Sports at The Ohio State University says “Eric’s impact and legacy are still felt here today. We are proud to claim him as a Buckeye.”

His first full-time professional position after completing his graduate studies was as the Assistant Director for Facilities and Sport Clubs in the Office of Campus Recreation at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in Greensboro, NC. This was also when he started his 23-year-long tenure of officiating high school and college basketball games. Before hanging up his whistle, Eric boasted an accomplished and well-respected reputation as an official, working high-profile contests like high school state basketball championship games in two states (MI & VA) and a couple of second-round NCAA tournament games.

Forging a leadership style rooted in student learning and development

There was no slowing down his career trajectory either. After nearly three years as an Assistant Director, the 28-year-old Eric moved into his first Director role, becoming the Director for the Office of University Recreation at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. He added to that role contributions as an adjunct faculty member in Ferris State’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Students where he taught an introductory-level course in sports officiating.

As the Director at Ferris State he solidified a pattern of university service that would become a hallmark of his contributions to the campus communities Eric served; he actively contributed to a variety of committees, including University Retention, Recreation/Athletic Facility Development, Race Relations, Campus Master Planning, and the Curriculum Advisory Committee for Recreation Leadership and Management.

The Ferris Student Leadership Crew.

“Throughout his career, Eric has had a direct impact on countless campus recreation professionals and students, both as a mentor and leader for change,” says Mila Padgett, Director of Campus Recreation & Wellness at the University of South Carolina Aiken. Mila was an undergraduate student at Ferris State University during Eric’s tenure there, and she testified to his impact: “I distinctly remember Eric giving me an opportunity to ‘sit at the table’ as a student. He always supported me to voice my thoughts about how our department could improve and created a culture that ensured others would listen to my perspective and hear what I had to say without automatically dismissing my comments.”

And Mila isn’t alone in benefitting from his support: “I’ve grown a lot over the past eight years because I work in a place where we learn from our mistakes, where it is okay to be vulnerable, and where we can be ourselves,” attests Kristin Gibson, Associate Director for JMU’s UREC Services.

Creating a premier recreation program

Eric’s next step in what would become a storied career brought him to the place which he is most closely identified with by his NIRSA colleagues today; in 1995, following the birth of his first son Ryan, he moved his young family to Virginia to become the first Director of what at the time was a still unnamed, new recreation program at James Madison University.

“When Eric arrived on campus, no one in NIRSA—or even on our own campus, really—knew of Recreational Activities at James Madison University. Times certainly have changed because of Eric’s outstanding leadership!” says Julia, one of Eric’s first hires at JMU. He wasted no time in building a culture capable of executing his vision for JMU: “The first thing that Eric did when he interviewed for the position of Director was to paint a vision of what campus recreation could be at James Madison University. When he arrived on campus, he had our staff add to that vision and created a level of buy-in that I have not seen anywhere else on campus or during my entire 31-year career,” she adds.

Early on, “Eric was instrumental in changing our name from ‘Recreational Activities’ to ‘University Recreation,’” explains Julia. “He was intentional about this because he felt it was more inclusive of the university community and it gave the impression that it was a center for all.”

And it wasn’t just the UREC culture where he left his mark; Eric also helped transform the physical landscape of recreation on JMU’s campus. Since 1996, James Madison University Recreation has constructed three nationally-recognized recreational facilities and been part of renovations to upgrade 16 shared facilities. Learn more about some of the most significant, award winning projects:

Eric went to the 1985 NIRSA Annual Conference representing both Ferris State (to advertise the position he was vacating) and James Madison University to get the word out about the new opportunities coming to JMU the next year! His emphasis on inclusion and level of professionalism for the staff were values he worked hard to instill. “We all began to buy-in to the philosophy that we are educators who help students grow and develop through recreational activities. That philosophy has not wavered in twenty-five years,” Julia says.

Modeling a commitment to continuous professional growth

Eric has taken his staff of five full-time staff and four graduate assistants overseeing 75-80 students when he started, to today’s staff of 28 professionals, ten graduate assistants, and over 600 student staff!

One of the ways he transformed his staff was through his commitment to their professionalism. He didn’t just allow his staff to attend conferences and other professional development activities, he encouraged it and modeled the behavior. He introduced countless students to NIRSA opportunities that helped them to grow their skills and their careers, first as attendees, then as presenters, and eventually committee members and beyond. “In the past ten years alone,” says Julia, “86 undergraduate students have accompanied professional staff members from JMU to the NIRSA Annual Conference.” Because of Eric’s encouragement and support JMU staff have become NIRSA leaders at the state, regional, and association-wide levels, and because of the experiences “many students have chosen to pursue a career in campus recreation,” she adds.

Kristin echoes the impact Eric has made, “He has given me projects and responsibilities that have stretched my comfort zone, but he knew that I was capable of excelling with some guidance.” And she recognizes that she is not alone: “He does this with all of our staff members: matching passions and skills with meaningful roles and assignments. And it has paid off: we have extremely low professional staff turnover and a well-functioning, healthy unit.”

“The service and learning aspects of the culture are like none I have ever seen. These are woven into the fabric of the UREC experience. What makes this even more amazing is that this is accomplished within a significantly large and complex department,” says Mark J. Warner, former Senior Vice President for JMU’s Division of Student Affairs.

“When I hear students talk about what a great leader Eric is, I am instantly reminded of the one-of-a-kind culture that he has been instrumental in creating. So many alums comment that the best JMU experience AND job experience they have had was working at UREC. Students are so in tune with the culture that they not only talk about it, they actually live it,” he adds. It’s impressive to see your boss reflect on your career contributions in such glowing terms: “Under his leadership, we have built an incredible center, but more importantly, a program based upon a philosophy of student learning, employee growth, and service excellence.” Recounting a time when Eric had been courted to lead a rec program at another high-profile institution, Mark adds: “One of the best days of my career was when Eric decided to stay.”

Spreading a little UREC

Rachael remembers, “One of Eric’s consistent phrases he shares with JMU students is ‘Go forth and spread a little UREC.’ His message invites those who hear it to move forward by finding the good in our recreational experiences and to have a positive impact on our surroundings, no matter what you do. Eric lives this motto which is why he continues to be successful in his work and in his service and undoubtedly why he has a powerful influence on students and professionals.”

“Spread a little UREC” contributes to communities far beyond Harrisonburg, Virginia because the accomplishments and successes of the majority of JMU’s student employees do not go into recreation, but still bring a mission and values built upon positive attitude to make a difference in their culture at the companies who employ them.

And Eric lives this motto, spreading a little UREC across North America by helping numerous schools improve their programs and facilities. Dozens of schools from across the country have invited Eric to contribute to their program review processes, consult with them about their forthcoming facility design or existing facility use, or improve their operations: “Under Eric’s leadership, JMU has been a leader amongst peer institutions. Eric has consulted for departments and facilities around the country, providing insight and advice to help other professionals build their programs and develop their students,” says Rachael.

“Eric has served as an external reviewer for over 30 university’s recreation programs. The time and energy he takes to do the reviews bear significant returns for those universities; more specifically, their students,” adds David Bowles, Senior Director of Recreational and Health Promotion Services at the University of Florida. “The effects of these efforts have far reaching impacts,” he says.

Shaping the landscape of campus recreation across North America

In addition to leading the JMU UREC team and consulting for programs across the country, Eric has been an Instructor of Leadership in the JMU Department of Human Resources; he’s taught courses as an adjunct faculty in the Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Studies; and he currently holds a graduate faculty position in the Hart School of Hospitality, Sport, and Recreation Management. The impact from the last of these contributions cannot be overstated.

Neil Marrin, Interim Director for The Hart School suggests, “through the graduate program at JMU (the only graduate program in the country with a concentration in Campus Recreation Leadership), we have been proud to send many well-prepared young professionals into the field throughout the nation.  I can’t imagine any other single accomplishment that could possibly have a bigger impact on the field of the profession of campus recreation than this.”

It’s not only the GAs at JMU whose careers are propelled through Eric’s expertise, generosity, and his belief that each professional who worked with him could outdo his own achievements by clearing their own personal bars through constant goal-setting and hard work. All the Associate Directors at JMU who have left the campus have gone on to become directors in their own right.

“Sharing his wisdom and experiences over the years is helping to create a bright future for recreation. These professionals are committed, caring graduates who bring both an academic and wellness component to their facilities,” says Donna Harper, Vice President for Access and Enrollment Management at James Madison University.

The UREC Employee Alumni community from JMU (which boasts more than 850 followers on Facebook) have racked up quite an impressive haul of honors and distinctions over the last 20 years, including four former NIRSA Student Leaders; 24 Wasson Award recipients; three Regional Award of Merit winners; and three chairs of the NIRSA School!

He may be dressed in purple and white, but Eric is NIRSA blue through and through

“Eric has cultivated and shaped many of our students and young professionals to be leaders at their institutions and within NIRSA. He has modeled a collegiate recreation program that others admire and aspire to. His perspective, insight, knowledge, professional competencies, and attributes have helped shape the landscape of recreation at campuses of higher learning across North America,” says NIRSA Past President Bill Crockett, Executive Director, Campus Life Services at the University of Maryland Baltimore. Eric’s service to NIRSA is extensive and spans many committees, task forces, and leadership positions.

A member of NIRSA since 1984 (and a life member since 2009), Eric is counted among the rarest of NIRSA volunteers. He’s achieved the almost mythical “NIRSA Slam:” achieving leadership roles on all three boards of directors and faculty status with the NIRSA School.

He has served twice on the NIRSA Board of Directors (one term as VP for Region II from 2002-2004 and one term as Annual Director in 2016), President of the NIRSA Foundation Board of Directors, President of the NIRSA Services Corporation Board of Directors, and served three years on the faculty of the NIRSA School and even served a term as chair, where he contributed significantly in evolving the event: “Eric was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the NIRSA School’s Level 1 and Level 2 format. This innovation continues to assist NIRSA professionals today in seeking meaning and effective symposia experiences, customized to the needs of members in various stages of their career development,” says Stan Shingles, Assistant Vice President at Central Michigan University, Past President of NIRSA, and recipient of the 2019 NIRSA Honor Award. His leadership involvement is extensive, including serving as a member of the Senior Work Team for the Athletic Business Merger Task Force, Vice President of the NIRSA Board of Directors, NIRSA Facilities Institute Committees, both as chair and event host, and he coordinated a NIRSA Service trip to clean up the shores of Tampa Bay prior to the Annual Conference there. This is just the short list of Eric’s leadership service.

A comprehensive list of his contributions to the association may not be possible to compile, but his colleagues certainly recognize and value his impact: “Eric is the epitome of a servant leader,” says Mark. “He inspires people to do their best, to be the highest quality team member, and to value learning. He provides opportunities for people to move beyond the secure boundaries of mediocrity, which in turn helps them exceed their own self-imposed expectations. Eric serves others to make a difference in their lives. He is an exceptional leader with many gifts,” Mark adds.

Over the years, Eric has been recognized through a myriad of awards and achievements for his work at JMU and service across NIRSA. He’s been celebrated with the “Altogether One’ award at JMU and recognized with the ‘Outstanding Professional’ award from the Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Studies. A  brick with Eric’s name on it is displayed on the University’s Warner Commons. He is a NIRSA Certified Recreational Sports Specialist (CRSS); he’s a two-time recipient of both the NIRSA Annual Service Award and the NIRSA Regional Award of Merit; in 2013, as part of the Centennial of Collegiate Recreation celebrations, Eric was named a NIRSA Legacy Member. He has attended 35 consecutive NIRSA Annual Conferences, since his very first one in Columbus, OH in 1985. Every year, JMU brings an incredible number of students and staff to the Annual Conference—no doubt due to his leadership and his deep commitment to student (and staff) development!

Of all his achievements, Eric is most proud of his family. He has had a wonderfully supportive partner in life for the past 28 years (Jacki)—who is starting her doctorate degree—and his three sons (Ryan 25, Kyle 22 and Tyler 16) are all living their best life. He is also always quick to brag about his “professional family;” the “tree” of professionals who have started out in or come through the two programs that he has directed and are now working at other campuses making their own impact on their programs.

Another standout recipient in a storied lineage

Julia sums up her longtime colleague’s contributions nicely:

“Without a doubt, there are many talented campus recreation professionals across the country. There are numerous facilities worthy of recognition, as well as, quality programming going on NIRSA member campuses day-to-day. However, I am very confident in this bold statement: that there are very few institutions, if any, that have seen the level of holistic change that James Madison University has experienced within its campus recreation program under a single director. In twenty-three years, numerous award-winning programs and facilities have been developed, nationally-recognized and highly involved students, staff, and alumni have emerged on the NIRSA scene and the only campus-recreation-specific academic program in the country which is run by campus recreation staff is thriving. This breadth and depth of change does not just happen by chance. It takes years of hard work and very strong and creative leadership to make such an impact: this has been the hallmark of Eric Nickel’s remarkable career.”

Other colleagues were equally effusive in their support for the Committee’s 2020 selection:

“Eric exemplifies the qualities enumerated in the selection criteria for the NIRSA Honor Award—our association couldn’t ask for a more worthy recipient.” — Dave DeAngelo, The Ohio State University

“Eric Nickel has served as a model for our profession as a mentor, colleague, and friend to many. He has been and continues to be a leader in the field of collegiate recreation. He’s a shining example of what a leader in our field should be. Eric exudes excellence every day.” — David Bowles, the University of Florida

“I am so thankful for Eric’s belief in my abilities and can honestly say I would not be working in campus recreation if it were not for his desire to have his student staff include a diverse set of voices sitting at his supervisory table. He emulates what the NIRSA Honor Award represents and is most deserving of the NIRSA Honor Award.” — Mila Padgett, the University of South Carolina Aiken

“I can continue to communicate superlatives to define Eric’s professional accomplishment and what he brings to our network and this profession, but this would simply not do justice to all that Eric has contributed to NIRSA and to collegiate recreation.” — Stan Shingles, Central Michigan University

“Our association would be lucky to have Eric as one of our most honored members and in the same category with others who have had a similar impact. The late J. Michael Dunn, one of Eric’s mentors [Past President of NIRSA and 1999 recipient of the NIRSA Honor Award], would be proud to know one of the young professionals he influenced is receiving such a distinguished honor.” — Rachael Finley, York College of Pennsylvania

In her nomination letter to the NIRSA Honor Award Committee, Past President of NIRSA and Director of Campus Recreation at Arizona State University Tamra Garstka says, “I had the honor of working with Eric on the NIRSA Board of Directors 2004-2005. Eric earned a lot of respect from me with his vision and passion for developing students and professionals. I admired his upbeat personality and his professional character that contributed greatly to the Board. Eric will be an Honor Award winner; if not this year, sometime soon.”

Well, 2020 is indeed Eric’s year to be conferred NIRSA’s highest accolade!

Please join us in celebrating our Honor Award recipient at NIRSA 2020

Please join your colleagues in Phoenix, AZ to congratulate Eric at the 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference & Campus Rec and Wellness Expo, when the official award presentation will take place during the Opening General Session, Saturday, April 18, beginning at 5:00pm local time.

A significant evolution of the program for the 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference will see the presentation of the NIRSA Honor Award moved to the Opening General Session program, which is consistently the highest-attended session of each year’s conference. A reception for the Honor Award recipient will be held immediately following the Opening General Session.

Associate Director for Recreation Programming and Staff Development at University of Nebraska | NIRSA Profile

Vicki Highstreet is currently the Associate Director for Recreation Programming and Staff Development at the University of Nebraska. She is a NIRSA Past President, recipient of the NIRSA Honor Award (2018), and is the current chair of the NIRSA Honor Award Committee. Vicki can be reached at vhighstreet1@unl.edu.