If you think being a pre–med student is hard in and of itself, meet the student-athlete who balances pre–med, athletics, mentoring, Student Activities Council, and starting a new CPR–training program. Jeff Zucker (C ‘21) came to Penn to play for the men’s tennis team, excited by the idea of playing for an Ivy League with great coaches and an amazing team environment.
With the influence of his mom, who was also a college tennis player, Jeff began to play tennis when he was around five years old. Since then, the sport has been a major part of his life. Even though he has had a little bit of a “bumpy road” in college after an injury freshman year, he continues to love the sport and appreciates the team aspect of playing in college.
“I think tennis is a really cool sport because you’re independent, like you have to go out there and problem solve on your own, and there’s really nobody else that you can fall back on,” Jeff says.
Jeff recalls the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament last year as an excellent example of the team’s unity. Even though he was still unable to play due to his injury, it was amazing to see the team in the matches that led to their ranking of 23 in the country, which has been Penn’s highest tennis ranking thus far.
“The camaraderie amongst my team, like, sitting there watching—because it came down to a one final match split,” Jeff recalls, “that was the most amazing experience that I think I’ve had as a Quaker on the tennis team, it was just surreal.”
As much as he enjoys playing for the team, Jeff recognizes the difficulty in juggling athletics and academics. Involvement in sports not only involves constant travel, but also multiple hours of training each day. In addition to the difficulty of being a student–athlete, Jeff is currently on the pre–med track, pursuing a degree in neuroscience.
“I’ve always thought about being a doctor and I think it’s really cool to be able to do something every day that is good,” he says, “what your intent should be is to help people and that really coincides with what I like doing.”
He says that being a student–athlete, especially in a particularly challenging academic path, is something one learns to navigate through time and experience. Using the knowledge and experience he has gained, Jeff is involved in a mentorship program to help lead students to success.
The program is called Classroom Champions, which connects participating college athletes, paralympic athletes, olympic athletes, and some NFL teams to classrooms in different areas of the country to provide mentorship to students.
“We make challenges and videos that talk about the things that we think will help lead our students to success, things like leadership, and diversity, and community, and goal–setting, and all these different things that influence a lot of people,” he says.
Last year, Jeff had the opportunity to mentor around 100 children through video communication, and actually had the chance to visit their classrooms. Jeff mentions that visiting the classrooms is an extremely gratifying experience, in which the athletes are able to physically see the impact of their mentorship. Each year, they also receive statistics for their assigned classrooms to see their impact through tangible numbers.
“We get the statistics each year, which is really cool, from our classrooms. So we get to see if, like, attendance has changed, or how different things have changed and it’s really cool to see an actual concrete impact that you or this program that I’m part of is having,” Jeff says.
In terms of creating impact, Jeff has also been involved in reforming the athletics department to ensure the safety of student-athletes through the development of a mandatory CPR training program.
Jeff learned the story of a student–athlete who collapsed on the field, and even though her teammates ran over to try and help, they didn’t know what to do. The experience could have been fatal for the student if it wasn’t for a bystander who was CPR certified. After hearing about this incident, Jeff asked himself “if I collapse on the court, would my teammates know what to do?” Knowing the answer would most likely be no, Jeff decided to go to Dr. Andrea Weiland, who is part of the athletics administration, with the idea to start a program.
“I wanted to get every single student-athlete CPR trained, this way nobody would ever not know what to do in a catastrophic situation and athletes are, as I sent out to the email I just sent to the freshmen, they’re at a shockingly higher risk than they might believe,” Jeff says.
He mentions that Dr. Weiland was an amazing source of support. Even though she had to play devil’s advocate at times, this only strengthened his passion for the project and developed his leadership skills.
When the idea came to be, a pilot program followed soon after. It was then time to figure out the logistics for funding, as there is no fee incurred on the athletes themselves, and training. The program is currently run by Jeff and the administration, but he wants to find a way to make it more student-run to make sure it outlives his time at Penn. Even though the program is currently receiving one-time funds from the athletics department, Jeff has to figure out additional ways for funding. He hopes that when people realize the greater implications the program has, it will be easier to receive funds from the school or other donors.
“I really wanted to start something that made people not only better leaders in like sports, but think about how many—there’s a thousand students athletes at Penn, so every time you’re at a party or you’re out in class, odds are you’re around a student–athlete and so, having our student–athletes know this skill was something that I felt would make Penn in and of itself a safer space too,” Jeff says.
In the future, Jeff hopes there is a way to involve more students in the process, so he can eventually step down and, instead, focus on sharing the program he has created with other schools to make CPR–trained student–athletes the norm.