When student-athletes at Barnard aren’t giving it their all on the field, they’re putting those efforts toward empowering the next generation of students in sports. The women’s lacrosse team, who train on Columbia’s campus, has been doing just that with site visits to P.S. 149, the Sojourner Truth School, as part of a treasured partnership with the nonprofit organization Harlem Lacrosse.
Harlem Lacrosse serves students who are most vulnerable to academic decline, based on factors like race and socioeconomic status, according to its mission statement. Through its 41 programs, the organization helps students to flourish academically, personally, and socially. Barnard and Columbia players work closely with the youth members to demonstrate that lacrosse is more than a sport — it's also a way to change someone’s life.
The Barnard student-athletes play lacrosse through the Columbia-Barnard Athletic Consortium, a collaboration that supports Barnard athletes competing with Columbia undergraduates in the Ivy League Athletic Conference and NCAA Division 1 Athletics — making Barnard the only women’s college to offer this opportunity.
A Place-Based Partnership
Barnard’s local connection to Harlem has bolstered its commitment to the nonprofit organization since the partnership’s inception in 2014. Members of the College’s lacrosse team have extended their knowledge and skills to students on the Girls Harlem Lacrosse team of P.S. 149 while also growing into the roles of coaches, mentors, and tutors.
“[Barnard and Columbia’s student-athletes] are learning how to lead with their authentic selves and how to be kind and generous with their time and efforts,” said head coach Anne Murray.
“Having a combination of Columbia and Barnard student-athletes on the [women’s lacrosse] team allows us a diverse collection of personalities and perspectives,” said assistant coach Tierney Larson. “Barnard Athletics empowers young women to excel in the classroom, in their community, and on the field.”
For the youth at Harlem Lacrosse, this partnership with Barnard and Columbia provides insight into what’s possible.
“They’re so young, and they can’t really process what it is to play a college sport, but to see someone who they look up to and then to say, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ is the biggest thing,” said Lily Herrmann, program director of the Girls Harlem Lacrosse team for P.S. 149. “It’s a very tangible connection. [Barnard and] Columbia are not that far away — [the connection] is right there, in their backyard.”
Herrmann, who has played a critical role in expanding the partnership, highlighted the importance of having athletes from the College share their experiences with students who did not have the same opportunities to play youth sports.
“There are so many soft skills [the students] learn through playing a sport. When we come into a community [like] Harlem, we see that students might not have had the opportunity to learn those skills,” said Herrmann. “The young students are playing a sport, but at the same time, they are building up their bank of social-emotional skills through perseverance, determination, and resilience.”
Serving the Community and Building Relationships
Skyler Nielsen ’25, who volunteers as a coach and mentor to the Girls Harlem Lacrosse team, emphasized how the sport has helped her adapt to stressful and unanticipated situations. In finding her footing, Nielsen teaches the younger students skills what she has learned on and off the field.
“Adaptability, communication, and leadership are all muscles that need to be worked on continuously in order to grow and develop,” said Nielsen. “The most effective ways [I’ve found] to coach the students at the Girls Harlem Lacrosse team [have been informed] by my own strengths. Understanding my privilege to make a difference has allowed me to connect deeply with these students.”
While the pandemic has led to a decline in academic progress, Harlem Lacrosse has made recuperative efforts to maintain a 100%, on-time middle-school graduation rate among its students. Barnard-Columbia athletes work with the same students over the course of the year to build relationships that go beyond academics.
Women’s lacrosse team captain Justine Decker CC ’23 has led weekly study halls for homework catch-up and mentor-based tutoring for the younger students.
Decker also leads a one-on-one tutoring program — during the COVID-19 lockdown, Decker tutored Harlem Lacrosse students over Zoom meetings as often as two to three times per week. She fondly recalled how she discovered during a tutoring session that it was a student’s birthday. “To my surprise, [the student] said her celebration was to stay on the Zoom call and eat her birthday dinner with me,” said Decker.
This level of gratitude is felt on both sides, as the partnership is also a chance for the College’s athletes to interact with community members.
“I’ve taken away so much [from this partnership] but mostly to remain grateful for everything that I’ve been given in my life,” said Sophie Kruse SEAS ’25. “Lacrosse taught me many lessons at a young age, and now I have the opportunity to share those with the girls at Harlem Lacrosse by using the sport that I love.”
Sharing the Holiday Spirit
@barnard.college Barnard and Columbia lacrosse players take the competition off the field for gingerbread house building! #barnardcollege #gingerbread #holiday ♬ Elf - Main Theme - Geek Music
On December 9, the Girls Harlem Lacrosse team hosted the women’s lacrosse team for their annual gingerbread house competition. Players teamed up in groups to build creative versions of a gingerbread structure, with 10 pounds of frosting and 15 boxes of graham crackers. After an hour, the competitors presented 14 structures to be judged.
Whether they are passing on a pair of cleats to a younger student or sharing in the competitive fun of building gingerbread houses, the student-athletes of the women’s lacrosse team aren’t just coaches, tutors, or role models for the youth of Harlem Lacrosse — they are their friends.
—TARA TERRANOVA ’25