I’m certain that at some point in my career there will be time to reflect on these past three years serving on the NIRSA Championship Series Executive Board. Like the close-knit family we are, NIRSA Championship Series volunteers will sit together at future NIRSA conferences and reminisce over some of the great stories that have now been woven into our fabric.
Three years ago, I was driving up to Atlanta mere days after the birth of my son to embark on a journey with an outstanding group of NIRSA colleagues. We called that journey Series 2.0. None of us really knew what to expect or what the results of Series 2.0 would look like. All these years later, there may even still be some seeds of uncertainty regarding what the future holds for the NIRSA Championship Series—especially following a year none of us dreamt of planning for during our time in Atlanta.
The mantra that “Nothing is constant except change” has been reinforced time and again during my tenure with the Champ Series. But with all due respect to the Greek philosopher who coined that phrase, I have found one thing to be consistent amidst our changing world: The people of the NIRSA Championship Series are incredible and care deeply about making an impact. While I’m certainly proud of the task-oriented accomplishments our village of leaders has achieved (check out the End of the Year Series Talk to learn more!), my last blog as chair is dedicated to one leader who has made a resounding, lasting impact on me and many others. As we enter a year of resurgence, we’re fortunate to have a fearless, dynamic, and forward-thinking captain in Ashley Lax, Assistant Director of Sport Programs at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. I am proud to call her a colleague, NIRSA confidant, and friend.
Ashley describes her journey into collegiate recreation as “dumb luck.” She is a first-generation college student who always dreamt of going to the University of Tennessee. She turned down the sea of orange and white singing “Rocky Top” at Neyland Stadium to accept a full academic scholarship to Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tennessee—a town that at the time had a population just a little bigger than what Neyland would pack in on a Saturday during football season. Ashley needed a job on campus as part of a scholarship fulfillment and found her way to the University Recreation department.
“I only saw the job as that campus job that was required of my scholarship and not necessarily something that would lead me into my whole career and a passion,” she says. “A lot of what ended up happening has to do with being surrounded by really great people.”
People like Dexter Shorter, Associate Director for Competitive Sports & Tennis Programs at Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus, and David Davenport, Director at Austin Peay State University, invested in Ashley early on and opened her eyes to the fact that collegiate recreation was a potential career path that she could thrive in. They saw her passion and authenticity. Ashley really fulfilled her potential through each step of her professional journey to become an impactful leader.
“I love having the impact that we have on students, on each other, on the campus community, and on the greater community,” says Ashley. “That’s the impact that I got addicted to.”
Ashley has been having an impact on people from very early in life. Coming from a big family—she is the oldest of six—Ashley recognized her role as a leader and mentor for her younger siblings. Her parents reinforced the concept of setting an example. That mindset established a foundation for two of Ashley’s leadership philosophies: “Always do your best” and “Learn from your mistakes.” Simple, yet extremely effective, Ashley’s relatable and genuine style have had a strong impact on hundreds of students over the years. One of her former students commented that “Ashley’s leadership style is organized, communicative, professional, and controlled. Ashley commits to everything that she does with her whole being, and her natural and learned skills position her to handle any adversity with a calm, problem-solving attitude. In addition to her incredible ability to lead, Ashley truly enjoys what she does and makes it fun and educational for everyone around her.”
Ashley says learning from past mistakes in her own career is why she knows to provide students with grace as they overcome their own difficulties and challenges. “Students today are dealing with a lot more difficulty than even when I was in college,” she says. “Being able to keep that perspective is important. I know that I was once in their shoes.” People may not always remember what you did for them, but they will remember how you made them feel. Ashley’s authenticity provides a platform for learning and growth because she genuinely cares about the people she works with.
Learning and growth is critical in the officiating world—a world that found Ashley early on as she served as a referee for her younger siblings. Her dad was an athlete who umpired softball, and Ashley was always invested in team sports growing up. Her officiating career really started to take off during her time at the University of Central Florida. “UCF has a very high caliber of expectations for what they produce,” explains Ashley. “More times than not, those who were doing their best received feedback that allowed them to do even better.” That experience, along with her natural tenacity to be just as good as anybody else, have led to successes that Ashley considers to be among some of her favorites to date.
“The role of Director of Officials at the National Basketball Tournament is still one that I’m really proud of,” she says. “I was really young and maybe a little less experienced than others who had held that position.” She credits the leaders in front of her for believing in her ability to do the work. She was able to take conversations about how officials could support each other to new levels, raising important points about how identity can impact perception. “I wanted to provide the structure to be able to support others in the same way that I was supported, no matter an individual’s identity,” she explains. “I was able to use that platform to have some really hard but necessary conversations.”
One of my favorite things about Ashley is her ability to challenge processes and cause people to think critically. “Over the course of her career, Ashley has helped me and others look at complex issues differently and has continuously helped me widen my leadership lens,” says Aaron Hobson, Director of Recreation & Wellbeing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Throughout our two years serving on the Champ Series together, we pushed each other. We did not always agree, but in my mind, that made us better. I love getting her perspective on all matters and can see why that perspective has been such a pivotal part of how she leads and mentors others.”
Tori Landron, Assistant Director of Sport Programs at Northern Kentucky University, worked with Ashley at two different locations. “Ashley has always challenged me to think bigger and push boundaries,” says Tori. “Even though I may have not always felt like it at the time, I am most thankful for her teaching me how to lead up, down, and across; how to push for excellence; and for promoting the idea that we don’t always have to do things the way they have been done before. If there’s any one person in NIRSA who has had the most impact on my career as a student and professional, it’s Ashley Lax.”
Ashley has continued to push the boundaries in the NIRSA Championship Series—both on-campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in her community when it comes to the topic of social justice. She self identifies as a “triple minority” and understands how different environments can impact specific identities, both visible and invisible. She has championed lasting impacts that do more than check the boxes of diversity. “Evening out the numbers does not make us successful from a social justice lens,” she says. Ashley will be the first black woman to serve as the NIRSA Championship Series Chair, and she says, “The magnitude is not lost on me, but I didn’t set out to be the first black woman to apply for the position.” Ashley is focused on ensuring that others have the tools and experiences to be successful on their own paths. “I always want the resume to speak for itself. I may be the first, but now I have to do everything in my power to make sure I am not the last.”
One of her former students spoke directly about how Ashley’s impact and leadership created meaningful opportunities: “Ashley’s teachings through my four years of college helped shape me to become who I am today. Working within the community that she created in her organization manifested friendships that will last forever, memories that I will never forget, and lessons that I will take with me throughout my life. The skills I learned from her in college are present in my everyday career and personal life. Ashley’s confidence and accomplishments as a leader, person of color, and LGBTQ+ member are more than admirable.”
Ashley will be a pioneer for a whole new group of leaders within collegiate recreation. She looks back fondly on the people who have had a memorable influence on her career to date. “We are the people that we look up to. I have been the direct benefactor of that philosophy,” she says. Individuals like Jim Wilkening, Director at the University of Central Florida, and Gary Cahen, Associate Director of Programs at the University of Central Florida, have impacted her. “Jim is a fantastic person and a really good boss,” says Ashley. She admires his presence and how he creates connections with other pro staff members while Gary showed her how to challenge the status quo and think outside the box. But it was her direct supervisor at UCF that had maybe the largest impact. “Mike Husted is my biggest mentor,” she says. “He was really influential in how I approach conversations. His style really resonated with me.” More recently, strong leaders like Andrea Snead, Assistant Director at the University of Central Florida, and Natosha Harris, Intramural Director at the University of Kentucky, have helped shape her mindset. And, within the NIRSA Championship Series, “Stephanie McAlpine is the GOAT of inspiration,” says Ashley. “She is a really awesome professional and person. Her reputation proceeds her in all of the right ways.”
The NIRSA Championship Series has provided so many opportunities for professional development for many NIRSA members. “There were a lot of things the Series gave me that contributed to my development and growth, but I also believe there are a lot of things that could still be changed about the Series. I wanted to be in a position where I could help affect that change in a big way,” she explains.
Ashley set out to join the executive team for the first time right around when the late, great Sarah Fain was selected for the team. “As a female leader, that is the pinnacle,” explains Ashley. “That is who you want to be. Wanting to be as good of a professional, I started asking myself, ‘What are the current leaders doing and how can I get there to do the same things?’” I know our friend Sarah would be so proud of the accomplishments that Ashley has had a direct hand in, particularly over the past year. Being able to produce results in a year when no in-person events were able to be hosted was a huge point of pride for Ashley and the rest of the team. Lots of time and energy were poured into a commitment to change and creating new foundations. Ashley is now looking forward to adapting to a new environment, returning to sport in a way that makes sense for everyone, and resetting and remolding expectations.
We all cannot wait to get back to sport. “It’s like a family reunion no matter how long we have been apart,” explains Ashley. “It could be three weeks or three years since you’ve seen someone, but when you’re able to come together again, there’s instantly that family atmosphere and people looking out for other people and wanting the best for them. That’s something I have learned and valued on the personal end of things. It’s something I’ve learned to translate into my professional role.” As we make a triumphant return to in-person events, we will do so with a leader who is passionate, transformational, supportive, inclusive, and fearless. Those that know her best are not surprised by her past successes and look forward to her time as the NIRSA Championship Series Chair.
“It is something that she has dedicated her professional life to,” says Chad Schultz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There is no way that she won’t be successful at leading the Series. I also couldn’t think of many more professionals who will help effectively lead the Champ Series through these challenging times using the social justice lens. The Champ Series is nationwide, and we have so many different responses to social justice and inclusivity. Ashley is going to lead us through these times and the Champ Series will be better for it.”
Tyra Mills, a former club basketball player from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adds, “When I think about what a leader should embody, Ashley is one of the first people who come to mind. She’s so well-versed in so many skills that there isn’t a single aspect of the job she won’t be able to handle successfully.”
And Abby Van Note, Coordinator of Instructional & Inclusive Programs at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, says, “She will bring a focus on social justice and continue to create as inclusive of an environment as we can. Additionally, Ashley is great at setting people in her sphere up for success. The other professionals that she works with for the NIRSA Championship Series will be better because of her leadership.”
When I started this journey with the NIRSA Championship Series, we were looking to the future. As the sun sets on my time and rises with Ashley, I am proud to say that we continue to look towards the future to make impactful change. Ashley looks forward to changing the perception about what a traditional Series volunteer looks like. We have made strides in opening up opportunities for people that work in all areas of collegiate recreation. “I hope people understand why we made changes to the application process,” says Ashley. “And I hope there is even more acceptance and a push to allow for opportunities for all.”
To live out our brand promise of “creating premier championship experiences delivered by qualified experts within a safe and inclusive environment” we need a diverse set of perspectives to challenge each other to keep moving that needle forward. Come be part of something special. As Ashley notes, “We need quiet leaders, we need vocal leaders, we need people that can lead from the back of the room, as well as those that can lead from the front.” I will add one more to the list: We need you, Ashley. Go be great.