Q&A with Associate Athletics Director Nnenna Akotaobi

Having been at Swarthmore for four years, Associate Athletics Director Nnenna Akotaobi knows how challenging October and April, in particular, can be on student-athletes.

“The academic work of the semester is increasing, playoffs are on the line, and teams are dreaming of conference championships,” says Akotaobi. “It’s also when we get to see the student-athletes’ resilience. They always persevere, managing mid-terms and writing reports, then coming back here and thriving competitively.”

The athletics department staff, too, strikes a delicate balance — doing everything possible to help students excel in the classroom and on the fields, while honoring the rich history and raising the visibility of its programs. In a small department, that means wearing many hats, says Akotaobi, who is also the department’s senior woman administrator (SWA) and a Deputy Title IX Coordinator for the College.

She recently sat down to discuss her main responsibilities, what she finds most rewarding in her job, what she’s most excited about with fall sports and the athletic department in general, and more.

What brought you to Swarthmore?

I came from Grinnell College, a similarly situated, highly selective liberal arts institution. And as I’ve grown professionally, I’ve learned how important it is for me to work at an institution whose values align with my own, whose ethos resonates with me. Swarthmore brings that progressive attitude and a student-centered campus, along with exceptional students, faculty, and staff. I just felt that it was a great fit.

What are your main responsibilities?

I typically tell people I do whatever [Marian Ware Director of Athletics Adam Hertz] doesn’t want to do [laughs]. But we work collaboratively to administer the department and physical education program. It’s a little bit everything — business operations, scheduling, facilities, working with our student-athletes, compliance issues. When you work in a small department, like a lot of the staff here at Swarthmore, you pitch in wherever you can.

What do you find most rewarding?

For me, it’s the conversations with our students. They’re so fascinating. A year or two ago, I was just sitting in my office talking to a couple of them about the greatest female rappers of all time. They took such an intellectual approach to analyzing that. In that moment I had an epiphany — I have a really cool job. Being able to have those conversations and getting to watch our student-athletes achieve really cool things on their respective playing fields are things I really appreciate.

What are you most excited about among the fall sports?

There are a lot of strong programs and top recruiting classes — student-athletes we are really excited about for their talent, but also the interesting and dynamic personalities they bring to campus. Women’s soccer came into the season ranked No. 12, which is really exciting [Update: the team is ranked No. 9], and the volleyball team is right on the precipice of a conference championship. But mainly, we are looking forward to building on the challenges and successes from last year and entering into that space where the other College programs are eyeing us and trying to keep up with what Swarthmore is doing. That’s exciting for everyone here.

What’s new in the athletic department?

We’re in an exciting transition point, having hired an Assistant Athletic Director for Recreation and Wellness for the first time. It’s great to have Max Miller here to centralize those efforts. It’s been exciting to hear [President Valerie Smith] discuss the importance of wellness for the campus community and we’re eager to do our part to support those efforts. There will be substantial collaborations, working with the Office of Student Engagement, Student Health and Wellness, Human Resources, and more to build a foundation.

What do you do in your spare time?

I do a lot for the NCAA, serving and volunteering on several committees and doing diversity and inclusion advocacy for underrepresented student-athletes, coaches, and administrators. I was recently elected chair of the NCAA’s Minority Opportunity & Interests Committee, which is a professional achievement I’m incredibly proud of. I’m also a proud Coloradan, and we wear our love of the outdoor activities as a badge of honor. I love to hike and bike and exist outdoors. But being from the west and now living in the east for four years, I love exploring more and more what Philadelphia has to offer. It’s a great food town, a great music city, with a range of offerings between the museums and the arts. I love exploring the city and region.