Jason Vlastaras has served as Associate Director of Student Success at Iowa State University since 2017. Jason oversees the program areas at ISU including intramurals, fitness, outdoors, and sport clubs. He is also responsible for the comprehensive assessment efforts of the department, as well as student development programs for employees. During that time he has led a division wide initiative to incorporate career readiness competencies for student employees across all of student affairs. He also led the creation of an esports and gaming program and arena. He began his journey in collegiate recreation working as a personal trainer at the University of Florida. He received his master’s in business administration at Oklahoma State University where he also served as Assistant Director of Fitness.
Jason has been a member of NIRSA for over nine years and has served in various capacities during that time. He has presented at a number of state, regional, and annual conferences, mainly on topics related to assessment, career readiness, and programming. He has served as Oklahoma’s State Leader, planned conferences, and served as both member and chair of the NIRSA Research and Assessment Committee.
Jason lives in Ankeny, Iowa with his partner Jaclyn, newborn Olivia, and their two cats, Elsa and Sammie. Aside from his favorite activity, spending time with his family, Jason enjoys karaoke and working on completing his run of Action and Superman comics.
What do you see as opportunities in collegiate recreation and our Association? How would you collaborate with the Member Network team to address these issues?
What a crazy, uncertain, yet exciting time to be in collegiate recreation. Change is happening at breakneck speed and all of us are needing to adapt to survive. In my career I have leaned into change from something I have come to term as a healthy sense of “paranoid optimism.” The hope that everything will be okay, but hedging your bets, and developing contingency plans in case it isn’t. I’ve started assessment programs knowing eventually we would need to justify our operations. I’ve partnered with academics and raised money for an esports arena. Knowing the popularity of gaming, importance of wrapping ourselves around the academic mission, and well…budgets. I’ve been fortunate to find myself on the early end of adopting initiatives that eventually became the norm. Among the sea of opportunities open to collegiate recreation and our Association, I want to focus on two things.
First, there has never been a more crucial time for collegiate recreation to show their value on a college campus. Looking ahead, we know budgets will be strained and the focus on finances and funding will be intense. Collegiate recreation programs need to further demonstrate our connection to the holistic wellness of our students. Assessment can help us make that connection known. At Iowa State University, I created an assessment to measure students’ reported connection between participating in our programs and the dimensions of wellness. Students report that programs positively impact their physical wellness, but overwhelmingly highlight the emotional and social wellness benefits of recreation. Also, during my time as chair of the NIRSA Assessment and Research Committee, we created a series of promotional materials titled the Value of Campus Recreation. These visuals used assessment data to communicate the impact of our programs and services. I would work with the Member Network to provide additional resources and guidance for schools that don’t know where to start with assessment, but want to learn. I wrote about this very topic recently here.
Second, we are often one of the largest employers on our respective campuses and play a large role in the professional development of student employees. I believe we as a profession can lead the way, not just for collegiate recreation but for the larger campus community, in the focus on career readiness and developing student employees. Employers are becoming more concerned with new graduates transferable and soft skill development. Development that we know our students receive from working in various positions within our recreation programs. I would work with the Member Network to create resources and a toolkit for schools of all sizes to infuse career readiness competencies or soft skills development into their existing operational structure. We also have a new NIRSA Student Development Task Force I’d partner with to expand their great work. These efforts around assessment and student development have the potential to further establish campus recreation programs and the Association as vital to student success.
In describing your contributions to NIRSA, identify how your involvement and experiences meet the position criteria and qualify you to serve NIRSA in this role.
My connection to NIRSA and this field is deeply personal. As a wayward undergrad I lacked a sense of connection to my campus. I found community, but it wasn’t always in the most healthy or beneficial environments. It wasn’t until after I had already graduated from my undergraduate program that I learned about the wonderful field of collegiate recreation. Like most people, it was through relationship building and mentorship that I became involved with NIRSA. And without NIRSA I do believe I would have gone down a very different path. It’s that indebtedness that has made me want to give back as much as possible to this Association. During my career I have served as state leader for Oklahoma, planned conferences, and served as both member and chair of the NIRSA Research and Assessment Committee.
But it’s been the work I have done at a local level, and at my institution, that I believe has had the most meaningful impact on the field. The creation of programs like NIRSA Fridays, and helping students gain GA, professional, and internship positions has helped me connect more people to the profession than anything else. It’s these experiences and success stories that I think make me well suited for this role. As things go virtual, budgets tighten, and programs potentially lose GA positions, I believe more than ever it’s crucial for us to focus on student recruitment, and the development of our professionals. The recruitment comes from empowering our association members. Maybe a school wants to add a webpage around campus recreation professions or start a program like NIRSA Fridays. Great, I have done and can help with all of these initiatives. As for new professionals, let’s get them plugged in early. Connect them to our mentorship program, seek out individuals to serve on committees and in volunteer positions. And go that extra step by sending them an email or giving them a call and saying “Hey, I think you would be really good at this.” Because the truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t be in this field, or even writing this prompt, if someone had not done that for me.
The secret sauce of our Association is in the people, in the community, and in the relationships created. As representative I would work with our Member Network to not only share the great things happening in Region V but identify and bring back ideas from across the entire network.
Please share your ideas for engaging volunteers and identifying leaders in your region.
I’m a huge proponent of the grassroots, peer-to-peer approach of engaging volunteers and identifying leaders. Most of us are in this field because someone tapped us on the shoulder and told us about campus rec. Region V is a spread-out region, dotted with both large, medium, and small-sized campuses. I think we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with and promote our Association to campuses that may have never heard about NIRSA.
When planning Iowa’s State Workshop in 2019, I had our staff reach out, email, and cold call as many small to midsize schools in the state as possible. The result was a wonderful turn out from several new schools. Many had no idea we offered a free conference every year or knew much about NIRSA. When I was at Oklahoma State University, inspired by stories from our director about promoting NIRSA in the 1970’s, I drove around the state visiting smaller schools to promote the Association. Each of these efforts resulted in the development of rich and genuine new connections with other schools in the region. For engaging new members, I would help the planning committees of the various state workshops and regional conference. We would create a grassroots campaign that first identifies the recreation or wellness professional(s) at various campuses and then takes a personalized approach to reaching out and inviting those individuals to our various workshops and events.
When it comes to identifying leaders and new volunteers, I would love to expand on a program I started years ago called NIRSA Fridays. NIRSA Fridays was a weekly development course I ran for students interested in the field. The program covered a number of professional development topics from the lens of collegiate recreation. Weekly meetings included mock interviews, resume reviews, interview prep, guest speakers, and more. My first year running NIRSA Fridays, I as the lone professional packed 15 students into two vans and drove them to the NIRSA Region IV Conference in Shreveport, LA. I knew the main way to get these students engaged would not be through my mock interviews or resume reviews, but by getting them to that conference to experience the magic of NIRSA. And what is that magic? In no uncertain terms it comes down to one thing: community. I would love to scale NIRSA Fridays and offer a similar virtual model to Region V. I think this would be a great way to connect students to other students and professionals, promote NIRSA, and build that community that makes NIRSA so special.