KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Basketball has been a lifelong passion for Warda Niaz. And even though her days on the court are over, she's intent on incorporating her love of sports into her future career.
"I just knew whatever I did, I wanted to stay connected with the sports industry," she says. Now, as she prepares to graduate from Western Michigan University on Saturday, June 24, with a degree in sport management, she's well on her way. "My experience here has been phenomenal. I really feel at home here and I like the sense of community and culture that Western Michigan has; it sets you up for success."
Her hard work could pay off soon; Niaz has been in contact with several professional sports teams and continues to move forward in the interview process with them.
During her time at Western, Niaz interned with Girls Club, an organization that uplifts women aspiring to break into the sports industry. She gained valuable experience on the social media team, developing her technical skills on a variety of content creation platforms while also having the opportunity to create content for large audiences and learning strategies to boost engagement.
She also cultivated leadership skills through jobs on campus, working as an assistant program manager for social media in Western's Office of Student Transitions as well as a student ambassador for the College of Education and Human Development.
"I think it helped me feel closer to WMU," she says, adding, "It set me up to be very adaptable and work in different situations."
The positions connected her with mentors who supported her growth—both personally and professionally.
"My supervisor, Tayler Boelk, just now was coaching me through getting an interview," Niaz says.
She found her stride in the sport management program through its versatility. Initially intent on a career in coaching, she pivoted to sports marketing last semester.
"The sport management program at WMU is amazing. The faculty are so supportive of students and give you multiple opportunities to gain real experience while also being a student," she says. "We learn a wide range of topics, which sets you up to work in any department within the sports industry."
Expert faculty like Dr. James Lewis, undergraduate program coordinator and associate professor of sport management, challenge students to think outside the box and consider varying perspectives in order to enhance their understanding of the field.
"He's my all-time favorite professor," says Niaz. "He makes every class fun and keeps our energy up while also teaching us things to help us in the classroom and outside of it. He really supports his students and is passionate about seeing us succeed."
Lewis and other professors in the program also emphasized application, allowing Niaz to put what she was learning into practice in real time. Niaz says it made her a top applicant when she began applying for jobs.
"In our classes, we didn't just look at PowerPoints all day. We had class discussions about what was happening in the world and how we could connect what we were learning to those real-world events," she says.
In one class, she remembers working in teams for a semester to mimic working on a team in the workplace. In another, students planned and executed a tournament at the Student Recreation Center. Another professor challenged students to create a pitch on increasing attendance at Western athletic events and present it.
"All of this experience-driven education at Western has equipped me with skills and allows me to be confident in my success post-graduation," says Niaz.
In addition to connecting with experienced faculty and staff, Niaz was empowered to create a professional network for herself and other Broncos as a founding member of the Sports Management Association on campus. The registered student organization (RSO) focused on creating community with students who shared her same passion for the sports industry.
"I wanted students who are pursuing a career in sports to feel comfortable and have a group of people they can reach out to and rely on if they need anything while also building connections and growing their network to use later on," she says.
Her responsibilities on the RSO's executive board paralleled many responsibilities she will likely have in her future career.
"I promoted the organization, made graphics and recruited incoming students … which are things I could do for a sports organization," she says. "I also gained leadership and communication experience and skills while learning to work in a team environment. I was able to grow and practice things I learned in my classes and apply them to the RSO, which makes me feel equipped to start my career."
Niaz also had the opportunity to work more closely with Lewis, the RSO's faculty advisor.
"He has worked at Western and in athletics for years, so having access to his knowledge and being able to get advice and job opportunities from him is a huge resource (available through) this RSO. Also, staying connected to this network of people is a great resource in searching for a job later on," she says.
It's those connections that Niaz will hold tight as she prepares to walk across the stage for graduation and into the next phase of her career.
"The people at Western make it special to me," she says. "Being able to build bonds with other students, professors and faculty really makes Western stand out from the rest."
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