By: Jordan Mitchell, originally on SMUMustangs.com (October 26)
DALLAS (SMU) – Getting hired on as a senior academic counselor in SMU Athletics’ Academic Development of Student-Athletes (ADSA) office was a full-circle moment for Ariana Contreras.
When she was taking a sports law class during her undergraduate career at New Mexico State in 2015, Contreras was struggling to find a topic for a required paper. Eventually, her brother, Alan, suggested she watch the ESPN 30For30 documentary “Pony Excess.” After watching, Contreras decided to write about SMU and completed what she believes was one of the best papers of her undergraduate career.
Fast forward to November 2022. After earning her master’s in sports management from Eastern Michigan University and spending 18 months as an Assistant Director of Men’s and Women’s Track and Field and Cross Country at the University of Houston, Contreras found a job opening for a football academic counselor at SMU.
During an interview with associate head football coach Rob Likens, she told him about the “brilliant” paper that she had written about SMU as an undergrad and about how she almost came to the Hilltop for graduate school. He laughed.
“I think at this point, I’m manifesting (things) into reality!” Contreras said.
While manifestation is all well and good, Contreras excelled in her career through hard work and a passion for students. A first-generation college student and American from La Quinta, California, she had to wondered on and off different career paths before finding her love of academic counseling in athletics. A love that has only grown stronger since moving to Dallas.
Working with football, men’s soccer and women’s basketball gives Contreras a unique opportunity to build genuine relationships with a diverse group of student-athletes. When working with some men’s soccer student-athletes, she is able to practice her Spanish, her first language, so that she can communicate better with her father back home in California.
While speaking Spanish with Spanish-speaking students isn’t a job requirement, it allows Contreras to create a comfortable environment that feels like home for Hispanic students. Those students regularly praise her for making them feel connected to their heritage when away from home.
Women’s soccer midfielder Layla Garcia-Moreno had immense appreciation for Contreras when she stepped out of her office and called her “mija,” an endearing Spanish contraction translating to “my daughter” in English, and asked how she was doing.
“(Garcia-Moreno) was super excited,” Contreras said. “She was like, ‘You just made me feel like I was back home.’ That made my day.”
Her Spanish not only benefits other Spanish-speaking students, but those taking Spanish classes as well. SMU football offensive lineman Keaton Schultz approached her last Wednesday to talk about his upcoming advising appointment, but did so fully in Spanish. When he stumbled on a word, Contreras let him rummage through his thoughts to recall vocabulary, just as she must do when remembering obscure vocabulary when talking with her dad. But unlike her dad, who tells her to ask her mom for the word and will joke about her losing her grip on the language, she let him fumble until Schultz got it.
“It made me so happy!” Contreras said. “For the guys that are taking Spanish, once I know who they are, I start speaking to them in Spanish. And (Schultz) never used English! We had a full-on discussion.”
While working as an academic counselor allows for Contreras to play to her strengths and use her big personality to build relationships with student-athletes and help them grow holistically as people, she loves that she can be a role model for Hispanics and other minorities wanting to work in collegiate athletics. There aren’t many Hispanic women in those type of senior athletic staff roles, and Contreras believes that if she can be the first in her family to get her master’s and climb the ladder, others can too.
“I’m in this profession because I think it’s important that women of color, especially Hispanic women, be in leadership roles,” Contreras said. “I would love to eventually be a Director of Football Academics, Senior Woman Administrator and Deputy AD one day. I want student-athletes who look like me to have someone they can look up to and (say), ‘If she got there, I can too!'”