Dana Harmon

Q&A: Dana Harmon on Success, Mental Health, and Title IX

Dana Harmon, who has served as the director of physical education, recreation, and athletics at WPI since 2002, answers questions about success, mental health, and Title IX.

Several WPI athletic teams and individual student-athletes have achieved regional and national recognition recently. What’s the secret to their success?

Our coaches do an outstanding job in recruiting talented individuals who are committed to their academics as well as their athletics, striving for excellence in all that they do. Additionally, our coaches are some of the best in the profession, helping our student-athletes get better not only in their athletic skills but also bringing them together as a team, supporting them academically while also remaining committed to helping them be the best individuals they can be.

And it also takes a village—we have a great administrative group that helps support our coaches and student-athletes with all the work behind the scenes required to make this work, day in and day out. We are committed to excellence in competition, in the classroom, in the community, and for each other.

What unique challenges do student-athletes face at an academically challenging STEM school like WPI?

Our student-athletes are really great individuals who fully embrace how wonderful WPI is while they are here for four years and what this education can do for them for the rest of their lives. The challenge is they want to do it all, and do it all perfectly. With the term system, they have to really be disciplined with excellent time management skills—I am in awe of what they do every day. Learning to prioritize and knowing that you can’t do everything perfectly can be hard; that’s why we talk about striving for excellence and understanding that you can’t give 120 percent every day, but to do your best that day, learn from your mistakes, and keep trying to expand your comfort zone. We also know our faculty are really special in helping them achieve a good balance between academics and athletics while also being supportive when there are academic conflicts with athletic contests; that understanding has been crucial in minimizing the academic challenges for our student-athletes, and we are grateful for that support.

What role does physical activity play in the mental health of all our students, not just varsity student-athletes?

Our student body is very physically active, from PE courses to intramurals to club and varsity athletics. We know this physical activity is important to many in helping them with their mental health, wellness, and for managing stress. We hear from many students (and employees!) how much they appreciate the Sports & Recreation Center and outdoor facilities along with the various physical activities they can participate in as they manage their own mental health and wellness. We know our PERA Department has an important role on this campus to provide and support the spaces, equipment, and programming for those seeking physical activity, as well as to help our campus community overall in improving wellness and mental health.

The 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX was celebrated in 2022. How were you personally affected by this landmark legislation?

This legislation changed my life. I am a “Title IX Baby,” since it had just passed when I was reaching the age to participate in sports. There were not a lot of girls’ youth sports leagues at that time so I had to tag along with my dad (and brother) as he coached him in myriad different sports. I could participate in practices against the boys but couldn’t compete in their games. I was lucky to have a “Girl Dad” (and wonderful brother) who believed in the power of sports for both of his children and wanting us to have those equitable experiences growing up. Eventually some sport leagues for girls started (soccer was first). I had to wait until junior high to participate in volleyball, basketball, softball, and track. Thankfully, I was good enough in basketball to earn an athletic scholarship, something that was still very limited for women at that time, and it helped me get a college education while participating in a sport I loved. It was then that I began to see women like myself be coaches and administrators in college athletics and then I could begin to chart my path toward this wonderful profession in college athletic administration that I have been able to enjoy these past 30 years—all because of Title IX.

Why is serving on the executive committee of the NADIIIAA (National Association of Division 3 Athletic Administrators) important to you?

There are two reasons: First, I firmly believe in giving back to this athletic administration profession that has been so good to me. Many people and mentors have been crucial to my development and success, and I like to continue to pay it forward to the next generation of leaders. Second, this is a crucial time in the history of college athletics. Big-time NCAA D1 programs like Ohio State and Alabama have previously driven how college athletics operate—and any changes will affect us in NCAA D3, even without athletic scholarships; this is a real opportunity to help shape the future of athletic programs like ours at WPI while staying committed to the true student-athlete model for college athletics. I’m excited to be part of NADIIIAA with the important role it will have in the process.

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