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Seton Hall University

Transition as Growth: Embracing a New Identity After a Career-Ending Athletic Injury

Headshot of Vaughn Calhoun, Ed.D., M.P.A.

Vaughn Calhoun, Ed.D., M.P.A.

Vaughn Calhoun, Ed.D., M.P.A., assistant vice president and dean of the Center for Academic Success, discusses transition as growth, recounting his "transformative journey from a student athlete with a career-ending injury to a beacon for change in higher education." He shared his pathway to transformation in an interview with Jill Creighton, D.P.A., producer and host of the preeminent  Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) podcast, "Student Affairs: Voices From the Field."

NASPA producers report this global podcast series highlights voices and stories from student affairs professionals from around the world to provide "practical advice to help you be the best student affairs practitioner you can be, no matter where you are in your career," driving to more than 100,000 global downloads. The interview can be accessed here.

Calhoun, a California native and former full scholarship football student-athlete at Rutgers University, is also a first-generation college graduate. He holds a Master of Public Policy and Administration from California State University Long Beach, as well as a Doctorate of Education from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. His experiences in graduate school reinforced his belief that humanity and civility should be at the core of all endeavors. As educated and engaged citizens, he believes we all bear a social responsibility to improve the world we inhabit and inspire others to do the same.

Engineering Identity Post-Injury

Calhoun reflects on how the immediate consequences of his injury impacted his self-image and life trajectory, leading him to reevaluate his identity and embrace authentic studenthood.

It took me a while to kind of contextualize, well, what happened to me. And it wasn't until I read the book, 40 Million Dollar Slaves, The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, that really put it into context for me. And in particular, this book talks about the conveyor belt theory. Essentially, you have these institutions who go into black and brown neighborhoods and extract raw black or brown talent. And you're put on this figurative conveyor belt. And when you're on this belt, you never know you're on the belt until you're off the belt. And the thing with the belt is there's always someone in front of you and someone behind you. And you move along this belt, and you get off the belt because you blow your knee out.

You aren't as good as they thought you were. And the consensus is next person up. And when the next person is up, you're essentially out... I was a part of a system which I didn't know until I read that. That's what happened to me. And in that process, I was still trying to figure out, well, who am I now without sport? Because sport was something that I identified with since I was six, seven years old. And now here I am, 21, 22 years old and it's over.

Encounters That Changed His Life

Image of Calhoun playing football.

Calhoun during his time as a football player for Rutgers University.

Calhoun discusses his struggles with self-identity, a series of unfulfilling jobs and how a meeting with a stranger at a Borders bookstore followed by a series of mentorships, led him to embrace authentic studenthood and attain his master’s and doctoral degree. This transformational 15-year journey through a changing educational landscape, coupled with his own bravery, have led him to be a true thought leader, and pay it forward as a voice and mentor for today’s students to equip them for the future of work, and cultivate adaptive learners who can thrive in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. 

Calhoun recounted his first pivotal encounter with this total stranger.

"I share my story with him, and he goes, I can see it now. Vaughn Calhoun, athletic director, USC, Stanford, University of Texas. I've never even thought about myself in that way. Right? And he was the first gentleman, the first person who put in my mind that I can maybe fix college athletics or do something about it because my experience as a student athlete wasn't the greatest one," he said, adding, "We spent at least an hour with each other. And subsequently, we kept talking, kept meeting with each other. He even introduced me to his network, including a college athletic director. So now there's this whole world of college athletics on the administration side. Well, I knew it existed, but I didn't know that this was a path that I could take."

Calhoun concludes with advice on how to face transitions.

I think for anyone in the space of transition, knowing that it's going to be difficult to a certain extent, but also knowing that if you just stayed where you're at, can you really grow? And sometimes you have to go out and put yourself in those vulnerable positions. As simple as asking for a mentor. Asking someone, will you mentor me? And again, for me, they can either say one or two things. They can say yes, or they can say no, or they don't respond. But what I think, going through transition just knowing, focusing on the process and not the outcome and knowing that the journey will be the journey, whatever that journey, whatever that process is, and just focus on doing good work, focus on being as authentic as you can, and focus on surrounding yourself with individuals who will speak life and encourage you. And also make sure you have those individuals who tell you the truth because we don't always just want cheerleaders around. We want those individuals to say, 'hey, can I give you some constructive criticism or some critiques?' And that's where you can learn the most so you don't have as many gaps as you would if you didn't have those individuals there.

The podcast is available here: The Journey of Dr. Vaughn Calhoun: From Athlete to Student Affairs Leader.

Categories: Athletics