Spartan Athletes Play and Find Their Way

Posted on November 15, 2023

Spartan statue in silhouette at the soccer stadium.
Photo by Lynn Hey.

At UNC Greensboro, many students land here because of athletics. Some are offered scholarships, while others choose UNCG because they can walk-on to a team and continue to play a sport they love.  

In most cases, athletes’ motivational personalities, teamwork skills, and knowledge of physical fitness carve a natural career path with the right academic guidance. Here’s how three UNCG student-athletes have found fields of study that fit their backgrounds and prepare them for fulfilling careers ahead.  

Hanna Giddings: Serving Others 

UNCG Women's tennis player jumps for a high shot with a brick wall behind her.

Women’s tennis player Hanna Giddings received an athletic scholarship, but when she committed to UNCG as a junior in high school, she was already thinking about career plans that were broader than tennis.  

“I love tennis, but it was never my whole identity,” Giddings explains. “For me, athletics has always been an avenue – a way for me to get to college and help pay for it. I consider tennis as an opportunity to open doors.” 

As a Georgia high school student, doors were indeed opening for Giddings, as colleges were taking notice of her skills. In her junior year, she began to take recruiting trips and college tours.  

“UNCG wasn’t really on my radar, but we decided to stop on the way home from touring schools in Virginia and North Carolina. From the second I stepped on campus, it just felt like home. The campus was beautiful, and I loved the tennis coach and the girls I met on the team. It was so comfortable that I committed early before I entered my senior year of high school.” 

UNCG’s recreational therapy concentration in the recreation and parks management major was also a big draw for Giddings: “I did a lot of volunteering in high school,” she says. “From a very young age, I knew I was passionate about helping people. I thought about nursing, but recreational therapy was a natural fit for me.” 

3 women standing in a covered arena with a horse.
Hanna Giddings (center) at her Horsepower internship.

In recreational therapy, professionals use the leisure interests of clients to assist with their therapeutic needs. Giddings loves the community aspect of the job, making connections and finding adaptive ways for disabled people to be active in their communities.   

She just finished an internship with Horsepower, a local horseback riding program for children with special needs. “I’d love to work with the Special Olympics or in an adaptive sports program one day,” she says.  

Although Giddings’ tennis scholarship and academic path clicked into place early, Giddings’ collegiate journey has been far from easy. In her freshman year, a shoulder injury took her out of tennis for a year. COVID-19 shutdowns sidelined her again, and when she returned to campus, an ACL injury forced another break from tennis during her junior year. 

After all those disappointments, she will play her final season of competitive tennis this spring, and she credits UNCG for providing physical and emotional support along the way.  

UNCG tennis player on the court preparing to take a shot.

“Freshman year was so hard. I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions of not being able to play and focus on rehab while also managing school. UNCG’s athletic department and my recreational therapy department provided me with so many helpful resources.” 

In the end, Giddings has made the most of her scholarship as she has one more year before she’ll leave UNCG with a parks and recreation management, M.S. with a concentration in recreational therapy.  She’s proud of her performance on the courts, her academic excellence, and the internship hours she’s logged while finishing her degree.   

“I’ve learned and grown so much over the past six years,” Giddings says. “I’ve made incredible connections and friendships with people throughout the University. UNCG has put me where I am today.” 

Ethan Conley: Pre-med Goals 

Man with UNCG soccer t-shirt walks in stands with a backpack and MCAT book.
Photo by Sean Norona.

Ethan Conley has been a soccer player his entire life. When he was offered the chance to play soccer at UNCG, he didn’t think twice. In Ethan’s case, there wasn’t a scholarship attached to the offer, but he was excited about the opportunity to play at the collegiate level and work with UNCG coaches to improve his game. As he played more in subsequent years, he was able to earn scholarships that helped pay his tuition. 

For Conley, being a Spartan men’s soccer student-athlete was a crucial step to achieving his dream of playing professionally one day, but his time as a UNCG student-athlete changed this mindset. Originally a business major, Conley declared a psychology major and considered a pre-med track after a sports feature was published about him, in which he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at the age of thirteen.  

“When other people started reaching out to me and sharing their stories, I began to consider that my diagnosis didn’t happen purely for me to suffer,” explains Conley. “It gave me empathy for people that experience the world differently, especially through the lens of neurological syndromes.” 

Service opportunities with his team also left an impact on Conley: “As a student-athlete, your focus is all about yourself – your body and your performance – but physicians put themselves in a position to be of service every day. When I discovered how good it felt to give back, I wanted to do it more and more.”  

His competitive drive on the soccer field never wavered, but his career goals shifted from professional soccer player to medicine. 

“I remember my grandpa saying, ‘Passion is transferable.’ If you have passion for the right reasons, you can transfer that into any domain in your life,“ he explains. “The feeling I get from training hard and seeing my work pay off on the soccer field is the same exact feeling that I get from studying hard and doing well on exams.” 

He felt it again when he shadowed a pediatrician: “I realized this was where I wanted to be. It felt like stepping out on the soccer field again.” 

Thanks to coming to UNCG, Conley has had a successful soccer career, found a passion for the field of medicine, and even met his wife. Last summer, he married fellow Spartan, Madison Conley, ‘22. 

Now that Conley has finished his final year as a competitive soccer player, he’s busy considering medical school applications and enjoying life as a newlywed. In May 2024, he’ll graduate with a psychology major and minors in business and chemistry as he prepares to take the MCAT in 2025. 

“If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says about his path from athletics to medicine. “God has just given me a very good environment to work in.” 

Naomi Pridgen: Setting the Pace 

UNCG Women's track athlete stands with arms crossed.

Naomi Pridgen arrived at UNCG from a small, Christian school in Chapel Hill. The Lloyd International Honors College and the media studies department attracted her to UNCG, where she hoped to explore careers in broadcasting.  She was a basketball player and on the track team in high school, but she assumed that her team sport days were probably behind her. 

When Pridgen met a friend on campus who was a distance runner, she remembered her track and field days and became curious about UNCG’s program. After hearing about the new coach, Kaleigh Roach, and the sprinting program she wanted to develop, Pridgen decided it couldn’t hurt to reach out to her. 

“It was definitely a ‘right time, right place’ kind of thing,” Pridgen explains. “A group of us showed up for an interest meeting my second year at UNCG, and before I knew it, I was walking on to a Division I track and field program. I’m still in shock over how it happened, but it’s been such an amazing experience.” 

Pridgen represents a substantial set of student-athletes who are not on athletic scholarships. “There’s a misconception that student-athletes get everything handed to them, but that is not the case in programs like mine. Being on a team is hard work. It requires time management and discipline. We train, we travel for meets, and many of us are doing it for the pure love of the sport.” 

Pridgen’s coaches are grateful for her leadership in helping to build the sprint program at UNCG and she is grateful for the resources available to student-athletes. “Strength and conditioning coaches teach us how to lift weights to make us stronger. We learn how to take care of our bodies in different ways and learn about nutrition and recovery. Student-athletes have access to mental health resources that have been so helpful to me. I’ve learned so much about myself through athletics.” 

Pridgen is convinced that balancing academics with athletics has made her a better all-around student. She is thriving as an honors student and credits her experience as a student-athlete with giving her insight into sports marketing and broadcasting. She has worked as a camera operator, replay operator, and director for ESPN Plus broadcasts on campus and has recently been involved in broadcasting for esports tournaments at UNCG.  

This spring, Pridgen will finish her last season on the track team before she graduates with a media studies major and minors in new media and design and esports.  

“I’m not the fastest on my team,” admits Pridgen, “But I’m doing this for the leadership opportunities, the athletics connections, and the experience it gives me for a future in sports media. I’m built for this!” 

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photos courtesy of student submissions, unless otherwise noted. All photos of student-athletes were taken before June 1, 2023

Photo of Spiro mascot and cheerleaders celebrating win with confetti on court

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