For some alumni, chemical engineering and athletics brings back memories of football player Dick Balzhiser (BSE ChE ’55, MSE Nuclear ’56, PhD ChE ’61), the consummate student athlete, who earned a near 4.0 GPA as a chemical engineer and was named to the first Academic All-American Team, all while being married, having two of his children as an undergraduate student, and working to support them in an era before athletic scholarships. In addition to serving as a faculty member in our department from 1961 to 1973, he served as Assistant Director for Energy, Environment and National Resource in the Office of Science and Technology, followed by a second career at EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. He was named to the National Academy of Engineering in 1994 and in 2002 was inducted into the Verizon Academic All-American Hall of Fame.
We asked more recent student-athlete alumni to reflect on their experiences. With ChE already being considered one of the hardest majors at U–M, how do our student-athletes manage to add athletic pursuits to the challenge? And why would they do that?
Chris Douville (BSE ChE ’11), who was captain of the swim team his senior year and a two-time recipient of the Athletic Academic Achievement award, recalls that to succeed as a student athlete “time management was critical. Balancing all these obligations forced me to have better study habits. I also learned the importance of perseverance. It would have been easy to stop being an athlete or switch to a less demanding major but by sticking with both I saw how rewarding it was once I graduated.”
Women’s cross-country co-captain and three-time USTFCCCA Academic All-American Honoree Brook Handler (BSE ’15) recalls the initial challenges in managing her time, adding that “being able to put things together as I got older was extremely rewarding.”
Chris adds “I was also fortunate that Alon was a year older than me so the coaches knew what classes I would be taking each year.” Alon is Alon Mandel, (BSE ChE ’10), shown in photo at the top of the page, who represented Israel in the 2008 Olympic games, between his sophomore and junior years at Michigan. This meant participating in the Olympic Trials and NCAA tournament championship the same semester he took Thermodynamics and Fluid Mechanics, arguably the toughest semester for any chemical engineer. Alon recalls the support he got from his ChE classmates “who helped me all the time and let me be part of their study group. They were willing to meet near South Campus (the athletic campus).” He recalls a great friend who sent him class notes for two weeks while he was competing.
Why work this hard? For Brook, who recently started the Masters of Management program at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, “being a student athlete is a huge honor. It is amazing to see the work people are doing, especially seeing research in the College of Engineering and knowing that by wearing the block M on my chest I am doing something small to represent Michigan and the excellence that the letter stands for.”
Wrestler Ben Apland (BSE ’13) concurs and adds, “Another benefit was being able to learn to become a well rounded ChE by learning the technical side through the ChE curriculum and from wrestling learning some of the more non-technical skills important in the workplace such as leadership skills, that team mentality, coachability, and continual self-improvement.”
Chris uses the lessons from swimming to succeed as a biomedical engineering graduate student at Johns Hopkins, where he is working on computational methods to interpret genetic variation. He reflects that “swimming at Michigan taught me the importance of surrounding yourself with people who constantly challenge you to better yourself. In the pool, you surround yourself with swimmers who are faster so you can continue to drop time but this message translates into your career and personal life. It is important to work with people who are consistently challenging you to become a better engineer and a better person.”
The work ethic and drive that Ben, now a process engineer at Resintech, developed as a ChE student athlete, serve him well. “I’ve set the bar high for what I can handle in terms of difficulty and amount and there is no reason to think that I can’t do that still after college as well,” he reflects.
For Alon, who went on to earn an MA in political science and MSc in environmental engineering from TelAviv University and now serves as an Environmental and Risk Engineer at Noble Energy, “the long term impacts of being a student athlete and also pursuing an engineering degree are second to none. First of all, it gives you a perspective of life. Life is hard—get over it and do a better job next time. Train (work) harder, be the best in your industry.”
Looking back on her time at Michigan, Brook appreciates the greater connection she has with the school compared to the typical alumnus: “I think the community of people I have come in contact with through athletics at the University of Michigan will have the greatest impact on the rest of my life.
Ben adds “There will always be a place to come back and visit and reminisce about past experiences with former teammates and other alumni and celebrate the accomplishments of current and future wrestlers.”
Alon adds that “using the great fundamentals I acquired while being through the most difficult four years of my life at Michigan, I feel that I know the definition of excellence—‘the gradual result of always striving to do better.’ ”