When the Auburn women’s volleyball team played their first game at Memphis State in 1966, they purchased blue t-shirts from a bookstore and demarked their numbers with tape. By 2002, the Auburn women's swim and diving team had won the university's first women’s NCAA championship. By 2019, Auburn women had secured 12 of the 22 NCAA national championships earned by the university.
The success of female student-athletes at Auburn made some think there should be a space for people to support women's athletics specifically, according to Assistant Athletic Director of Student-Athlete Experience and WINGS Codirector Megan Hooshyar.
Auburn’s Women Inspiring & Nurturing Greatness in Student-Athletes, is a philanthropic undertaking dedicated to supporting female student-athletes. Housed under the Tigers Unlimited umbrella, WINGS enables donors to support women's sports programs at Auburn University directly.
However, WINGS is more than a booster club.
“A big facet for us right now is enhancing the student-athlete experience. So not just jerseys, not just facility upgrades, but what are we pouring into during a student-athlete’s time here?” said Lindsay Neubarth Jabkiewicz, Director of Athletic Development and WINGS Codirector. “From a WINGS perspective, what can we do for our females to really set them up for success as they enter the workforce and as they become a future Auburn woman?”
Continuing education is core to the WINGS mission to enhance the student-athlete experience, a principle established by the program's founder Meredith Jenkins, former Associate Athletics Director Meredith Jenkins.
Jenkins herself broke through a glass ceiling when she was appointed the first female Sports Information Director for football in the SEC in 1999.
“One of the things that we are very intentional about is ensuring we are always able to support post-graduate educational opportunities. That is something WINGS was born out of,” Hooshyar said.
WINGS has given $72,000 in post-graduate scholarships and has already raised $62,000 through the Meredith Jenkins Fund for Excellence, established in 2021.
Post-graduate contributions support the future of female student-athletes at Auburn, but the mentoring network established by WINGS enriches their present. In addition to direct financial support, WINGS provides an opportunity for its members to mentor student-athletes pursuing employment in the same industry where the member has been or is currently employed.
Each spring, WINGS hosts a membership event where professionals can meet with their athletes, often one-on-one depending on the demand for a specific profession. Mentors are often at the peak of their careers. However, the program needs professionals at every level to help students map a career trajectory.
“It started with women at the highest level of their profession,” Jabkiewicz said. “While that is wonderful, and we’re always looking for the CEOs and administrators, what we found is that to truly benefit the student-athletes, it helps to have men and women in all walks of their profession.”
Although WINGS occasionally makes the typical booster-style contributions, such as improving athletic fields, or purchasing equipment, they also seek experiences for their student-athletes. For example, in 2019, WINGS funded a trip for the women's basketball team to play several European teams in Italy, the first trip of its kind since 2012.
“The real benefit of WINGS, in all honesty, is that it allows us to support our teams, oftentimes in ways that they were not aware they would need support as they are budgeting,” Hooshyar said.
2022 is an important year for women's athletics programs across the country. On Jun. 23, 1972, Title IX became law, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the legislation. Though the bill does not directly refer to women in athletics, it does guarantee access to competitive opportunities for women not previously protected.
WINGS has a natural leadership role in the celebration of Title IX, but WINGS helps Auburn set a standard in supporting women in sports for other universities to follow.
"This year, there are a lot of universities across the country and athletics departments across the country,” Jabkiewicz said, “That are using this 50th celebration as the impetus for beginning their own female focus program, whereas we did not have to do that. We have been doing that for over a decade."
WINGS builds a supportive and holistic environment for the female student-athletes of Auburn to succeed anywhere they compete. However, their support does not end when the buzzer sounds off. Through post-graduate education support, mentorship and sponsoring experiential opportunities, WINGS augments the student-athlete experience for women.
WINGS helps women at Auburn win championships, and Auburn loves to win.
"I think that's the greatest thing about the Auburn family. They love big, and they're willing to put time, effort and resources into the things they love,” Jabkiewicz said.
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Ethan Flynn, freshman in journalism and finance, is a news writer at The Plainsman.