Wide receiver Joshua Aka committed to East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) with visions of displaying a gridiron skill set that netted him 11 touchdowns as a senior at Starkville High School.
The coronavirus pandemic brought Aka’s new beginning to a halt, with EMCC in August opting to cancel football alongside its other fall sports. Months of training and preparation fell shockingly by the wayside, though the soft-spoken student-athlete knew he had no choice but to deal with the disappointment.
“It was overwhelming at first,” says Aka, 18. “I put in a lot of work in the offseason and was ready to showcase my talents to a bigger audience. I had to look at the bigger picture, even if it hurt in the moment.”
Aka’s pain echoed throughout the country this spring as community colleges responded to the unprecedented virus crisis. While Covid-19 has stalled aspirations of two-year learners from New York to Oregon, it has not stopped their dogged pursuit of academic and athletic excellence. Their ambitions have been buoyed, for the most part, by flexible administrators and faculty still learning themselves how to best serve struggling enrollment.
Aka endured a bout with Covid-19 in July, losing his sense of taste and smell and suffering severe headaches. Fully recovered as of December, Aka is now training with teammates and pursuing an associate degree in kinesiology at EMCC. If a professional football career isn’t possible, physical therapy is Plan B for the former three-sport athlete.
“When I was younger, I was always in the rehab clinic,” Aka says. “The environment there was amazing. I wanted to get back on the field quickly and the therapists there helped me do that. I feel like it fits me — I like to be a helping hand and physical therapy has always caught my eye.”
Finding ways to connect
In place of competition, EMCC instituted a special program called ROAR (Responsibility Ownership Accountability Respect), which focuses on mental health and student well-being.
Head football coach Buddy Stephens, whose program was highlighted in the Netflix series “Last Chance U,” says ROAR connects players via personality quizzes and group discussions. Additionally, 29 participants registered to vote in the 2020 presidential election, a crucial civic duty that Stephens maintains makes for a well-rounded student-athlete.
“With the coronavirus and all that was going on with civil and social unrest this summer, our young men needed a way to vent and get those things out,” Stephens says. “They needed to be able to talk about those issues.”
EMCC serves six counties in east-central Mississippi, with 3,480 students admitted for fall semester. About 46% of the college’s enrollment is Black or African-American, earning degrees in fields such as healthcare, business, marketing and the humanities. The rural campus also works with Mississippi businesses and links students to lucrative employment opportunities in STEM fields.
Adapting to a new environment
Regarding its lost fall sports season, EMCC is honoring scholarships while ensuring student-athletes retain access to facilities and support services. During the fall semester, Aka took four online classes — algebra, general psychology, health and American history. He worked from home on a laptop, enjoying the convenience of online study, even if he missed the camaraderie of campus life.
“I felt like I could accomplish a lot more online than being person-to-person,” Aka says. “As soon as the Zoom was over, I could go straight into my work rather than having to walk back to my dorm room.”