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Men's lightweight rowing is among the Penn teams that will be competing on May 19, which is the day of Baccalaureate for the Class of 2019.

Credit: Chase Sutton

For most of Penn’s seniors, the end of the year is a time for winding down and festivities to commemorate their four years on campus. For many student athletes, though, this celebration must take a back seat to athletic competition. 

This year, all three of Penn's rowing teams will compete during graduation activities set for the Class of 2019. Men's heavy and lightweight rowing will travel to Worcester, Mass. for the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Sprints on May 19, while the women’s team will row in the Ivy League Championship in Cherry Hill, N.J. that same day.

May 19 is also when the Baccalaureate services for the Class of 2019 are scheduled, followed by Commencement the following day at Franklin Field.

Missing graduation activities is not uncommon for Penn athletes. Rowing consistently misses Baccalaureate, and track, women’s lacrosse, and baseball all missed Baccalaureate in 2018 for competitions of their own. 

“Freshman year, I already knew I would be missing [Baccalaureate] as a rower, and so when it was my senior year, even if we were a little sad we’d be missing it, we’d already made peace with it,” said Casey Howshall, a men's lightweight rower who graduated in 2017.

Being a student athlete comes with academic, social, and personal sacrifices, and Penn works hard to promote a sense of family within the athletic community. 

“One of the greatest experiences I had at Penn was being on a sports team. The environment that it created felt like a family,” said Taylor Hojnacki, a 2018 Penn graduate and former member of women's track. “We spent so much time together, and we were all able to connect with each other. We were experiencing the same things with rigorous classes, hard training, and long seasons.”

The tightness of these team communities, with many types of support — including academic — helps students juggle the responsibilities associated with being an elite student and an elite athlete at the same time, all while enjoying Penn’s college experience.

“The team really became my first friends at Penn, and it made the transition to Penn at lot easier,” Howshall said. “Being an athlete really enhanced my Penn experience.”

Athletes often must miss other traditions and celebrations at Penn, or at least alter their level of participation. Last year, Penn track athletes missed Hey Day celebrations because they overlapped with the Penn Relays. Hey Day is the day when the junior class rises as the incoming senior class, full with brunch, symbolic costumes, and a celebratory march around campus. 

“I missed Hey Day my junior year, but that’s something I don’t regret at all. I actually did get my shirt and hat and everything and went down to the field to celebrate with my team and my coach during the meet,” Hojnacki said.

Athletes in competition also miss out on full participation in Spring Fling, a weekend-long tradition with a concert in Penn Park and various events over the course of the weekend. 

“For Spring Fling, we missed some of the celebrations for races some years," Howshall said. "That was during our in-season so we couldn’t participate in everything. We had to make sure we were staying on top of the athletics too."

Penn is not alone in this issue of student athletes needing to miss parts of graduation or other ceremonies for sports competition. This year, Yale's women's rowers will also miss their Baccalaureate services on May 19 for the Ivy League Championship. But ultimately, competition can make up for the events the athletes miss out on.

“With athletics, your dedication to the sport and love for competing happen to coincide with sacrifices, but those are sacrifices you’re willing to make for your love of the sport," Hojnacki said. "I didn’t mind that I was missing the Baccalaureate because I was having a great time competing with my teammates."

This year, the three rowing teams who will miss these festivities hope to make their absence from Baccalaureate worthwhile at their respective competitions. After they're finished, they will rush back to campus, get in their caps and gowns, and join their fellow classmates in the celebration of their commencement on May 20.