Nicole Olmeda is currently the Associate Director for Research and Assessment for the Recreational Sports department at The University of Texas at Austin. Nicole’s career in the field of collegiate recreation began unexpectedly when a coed intramural flag football practice during her sophomore year was suddenly interrupted by a mid-air collision with a teammate. After a young campus recreation professional came to her aid, she was left with an ice pack and an appointment the next day to interview for a job with the new campus recreation facility. Little did she know that a bump on the head and a chance encounter would launch a career. Nicole went on to complete her undergraduate work at Texas State University in San Marcos where she received a Bachelor of Science in Exercise and Sports Science. She then attended Oregon State University for graduate school where she received her Master of Education in College Student Services Administration.
Over the course of 21 years as a professional at The University of Texas at Austin she has advanced through many positions and responsibilities, working in a variety of areas including outdoor recreation, student development, instructional programs, special events, assessment, marketing, and development. Nicole has served on numerous department special event committees ranging in scope from small to large scale. She has also served the Division of Student Affairs through her work on the Student Affairs Diversity Task Force, Assessment Advisory Committee, Development Committee, Strategic Plan Committee, and as a True Colors facilitator.
Since her undergraduate years Nicole has been actively involved with the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association. She has served on the Outdoor Recreation Committee, Annual Conference Program Committee, Annual Conference Host Committee, Finance Committee, Government Relations Committee, Research and Assessment Committee, Educational Content Review Work Team, Value of Collegiate Recreation Advisory Group, Volunteer Leadership Development Task Force, and the Strategic Partner Task Force. She regards a highlight of her NIRSA experiences to be as a member of the School of Collegiate Recreation faculty, which she chaired in her final year of service. Nicole has regularly presented at the regional and national levels on a wide variety of topics and often serves as a CAS external reviewer for other collegiate recreation programs. She is the recipient of two NIRSA Service Awards as well as the Horace Moody Award.
What role do you envision for collegiate recreation in higher education?
In recent years I’ve had the privilege of watching my young nieces and nephews be introduced to and experience new activities and sports for the first time. To be honest, after working in this industry for almost 25 years, attending their games has provided a timely and positive reminder of why I love recreation and sport and why I’ve committed my career to this industry. Everything is new to them—their teammates, their coaches, the spaces they are playing in, the rules of play, how to play. I’ve realized that all of these things are providing them an experiential learning opportunity to begin to build the framework for who they will become. They are learning to take risks and try new things; they are learning the basic fundamentals of how to execute a skill; they are learning what it means to compete and what it feels like to win and lose; they are learning what it means to demonstrate good sportsmanship—whether they are cruising to a blowout or are in the midst of a crushing defeat; they are learning what it takes to be a good teammate and how to encourage those who haven’t quite mastered a skill; they are learning how to find their inner resilience when they themselves fall short; and they are learning what it means to have integrity by shaking off the calls that didn’t go their way followed by the official’s hand at the end of every game.
Our role in providing programs, services, facilities, and events to the diverse campus communities we serve is evolving faster than ever. But our core purpose hasn’t changed. The fundamentals are still the same. I believe there is no better learning laboratory then those that we provide each day to develop students through opportunities and experiences that will shape them as future job applicants, employees, leaders, parents, and citizens.
As we look ahead to the future of our industry we will most certainly need to continue to evolve and innovate. We will need to continue efforts to demonstrate our value to the mission of our institutions and to the recruitment and retention of our student populations. We must focus on articulating what makes us unique to the student learning experience through organized and informal participation and employment experiences. On many of our campuses, students are directly responsible for multi-million-dollar facilities, they teach and supervise their peers, they assist with planning and executing events, and they are actively acquiring and developing the skills that will provide them a strong foundation of essential life and career competencies. We need to ensure we are articulating the impact of those experiences. In addition, I believe our role will be to continue to execute the fundamentals—all while developing new ways to bring recreation, fitness, and sport opportunities to an ever-changing, diverse student population.
In alignment with the NIRSA strategic plan, what are three priorities that you would identify and believe NIRSA should accomplish during your time on the board and why are these most important?
As identified in the strategic plan, NIRSA aims to be a driving force in an integrated approach to health and wellbeing. There is no question that this is a major theme percolating throughout higher education and on many of our campuses. Counseling and mental health services are experiencing significant increases in student visits and resources are being stretched—and for many the demand has never been higher. I believe we need to further identify what a successful integrated wellness model should look like—specifically how collegiate recreation can not only contribute to solutions—and how it can be a leader in those campus conversations. The time is now for us to further articulate a vision for what the application of an effective, collaborative approach to wellbeing looks like.
A second priority that has roots in the current strategic plan is one that involves rethinking how we are providing education and resources to our membership at a time when technology and innovation are evolving at a rapid pace. I attended the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2016 and found myself captivated by sessions and panel discussions centered around industry disruption. One particular session left an impression on me and has impacted how I think about organizations and companies, especially in today’s world of information overload and industry competition. I specifically recall the CEOs of DocuSign, Ten-X, and SoFi describing their approach to intentionally disrupting their respective industries—all in the pursuit of innovation. As an association we need to identify our potential industry disruptors and begin to strategize our future. Our professional membership is younger than ever before and it will take a thoughtful, yet aggressive, strategy as we redevelop and reinvent the resources and learning experiences we offer. It is more important now than it has ever been that members are able to clearly articulate the value of the association and why it is not just important to them, but why it is essential to their growth and development. Consideration should be given to how we can be less reactive to the changes taking place around us and instead focus on becoming more responsive—all with the goal of remaining relevant to all members. I believe we must begin to address this issue in the coming year in order to be prepared to develop the next iteration of our strategic plan after our current one concludes in 2021. Looking forward also means rethinking and broadening our views on potential industry collaborators including identifying non-traditional partners who might positively contribute to our evolution and our future.
Finally, I believe we have laid the foundation needed to advocate for the impact of our profession. We now need to leverage that impact, the data we have collected, and our collective story to move our association and our industry forward as it relates to our management and governance structures as well as our financial priorities. It is essential that we develop and strategically communicate compelling messaging involving much of the data we have collected as an association, but it is critical that we realize results through targeted risks and action.
What attributes, experiences and knowledge could you contribute to the NIRSA Board of Directors that speak to the competency based requirements?
I believe I bring a unique set of experiences and skills to the NIRSA Board of Directors that directly demonstrates the established competency-based requirements. Over the years, I have established a solid track record as a creative problem-solver with a commitment to strategy, organization, quality, and innovation. I believe that executing the fundamentals is an essential function of any successful team and I have tried to exemplify this in all aspects of my work.
In addition to acquiring a broad set of leadership skills and experiences with UT-Austin Recreational Sports, I have established a strong reputation both on campus and across the collegiate recreational sports industry. Within student affairs I have been called on to lead assessment and research initiatives, examples of which include negotiating and securing the division’s first assessment software contract and facilitating efforts to prepare, organize, and analyze data for campus research projects.
On a national level I have successfully led, strategized, and executed major projects including the NIRSA Institutional Data Set. This initiative required developing short and long-term goals, establishing a communication plan among changing committee members and the larger NIRSA membership, and seeing the project through to completion. Additionally, my service on the faculty for the NIRSA School of Collegiate Recreation required that I work effectively with a team of recreation professionals to deliver a relevant, effective, high-quality curriculum. This experience was especially rewarding and allowed me an opportunity to connect with a number of young professionals in the field. It also provided me with an opportunity to see what the next generation of recreation professionals is both excited about and challenged by as we look to the future of our industry.
As a member of the Board of Directors I believe I can lean on my recent experiences in evolving our department’s corporate development initiatives. Leading in this area involved establishing a decision-making philosophy based on our values and the best interests of the students and the campus community—and not simply for financial gain. Growing our presence and our value in this area also required that we look at how our decisions and direction might influence the collegiate recreation industry as a whole—both now and in the future.
I am confident that my work ethic, strong communication skills, and ability to think critically and strategically will help me to exceed expectations as a member of the Board of Directors. I was described by a campus colleague once as “fiercely curious.” I am also self-aware enough to admit that I often intentionally seek out problems for the simple fact that I like thinking about, discussing, and strategizing creative solutions. Tackling the hard and complicated aspects of any situation tends to be a comfortable place for me. I like knowing the why behind systems and processes and find immense satisfaction when evolution and progress occurs—and not just when change happens. For all of these reasons I believe I will excel at many of the items listed within the knowledge competencies and as a representative of the NIRSA membership.