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Master's Student in Mental Health Counseling Returns to Class After Second Season Playing Professional Softball

Like many Old Dominion University students, Jenna Rhodes works during the summer to help pay for school. But her job, it's safe to say, is a bit on the unusual side. She's a professional softball player with the Tennessee Diamonds of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) softball league.

Rhodes started her second year in ODU's master's program in mental health counseling this fall as her sophomore season in the NPF came to a close. It all makes for a busy schedule for the 23-year-old from Broadway, Va., whose season runs from early June until the end of August.

In fact, one of the first questions she asked when looking into ODU's graduate counseling program was whether summer classes were required. Ted Remley, program director, assured her that she would be OK taking classes only in the fall and spring.

Rhodes hopes to earn her degree in May 2012, though she said it could be a semester after that if she decides to play ball again next summer.

Rhodes played her first season of professional softball with the Rockford Thunder after graduating from Virginia Tech in 2009 with a double major in sociology and psychology. A National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American and Virginia Sports Information Directors Player of the Year as a Hokie, she ended her collegiate experience with three seasonal career highs at Tech: .474 batting average, 91 hits and 49 stolen bases.

As an NPF All-Star in her rookie season, Rhodes had 29 hits with the 2009 championship Thunder, one of two teams that folded at the end of the season. With the Diamonds this year, based in Nashville, the right fielder finished 14th in the league in batting with a .225 average. Teams in the league play a 48-game regular season schedule, including games against international teams as part of their pre-Olympic warm-up tour and additional exhibition games.

The four-team league, which Rhodes says is looking to expand - in addition to Nashville and Chicago, the other two teams are based in Kissimmee, Fla., and Akron, Ohio - features 11 players who were on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, including well-known pitching ace Jennie Finch of the Chicago Bandits.

"I believe in my career I may have one or two hits off her, but she lives up to her reputation, for sure! She is definitely an awesome pitcher," Rhodes said of Finch, long regarded as the face of softball, who retired July 26 as a member of the USA Softball Women's National Team.

Rhodes' interest in the sport was sparked at a young age. Growing up on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley 13 miles north of Harrisonburg, she is the younger of two girls. "My dad was always trying to get my older sister and me to play sports and to be active," she said. "We played ball in my uncle's yard up on the farm, and I eventually started playing in Little League when I was about 8 years old. My dad was always there to help coach and really kept my head in the game. And, of course, I was always in competition with my older sister, Callie."

At age 14, Rhodes' parents told her she would need to choose either softball or swimming, another activity she loved, since they both took place at the same time of year.

Not long after that, Rhodes experienced a devastating loss, the death of her mother to pancreatic cancer, which would influence her eventual career choice. A few years later, in 2007, she was on campus at the time of the Virginia Tech massacre, when 32 people were shot to death by a student.

"My goal is to obtain my certificate in thanatology (the study of death and dying) and to become a licensed professional counselor," Rhodes said. "I want to work in bereavement counseling and possibly trauma for families, children and teens."

Previously, Rhodes had helped with cleanup efforts following Hurricane Katrina, and she has worked as a volunteer at a suicide/crisis hotline. It was the combination of all of these life experiences, along with her religious faith, that helped her decide on her future path, she said. "I would love to go to areas that have experienced a collective disaster or trauma, and work in the community to help restore balance to the community and to people's lives."

Rhodes said her first year in the ODU master's program went by fast, and she is looking forward to this year's course of study.

"I look back and am astounded at how much I learned and how I grew in just nine months in the program," she said. "I am so pleased with this program and feel honored to be a part of it, and I feel like the longer I am in it, the more I will grow and learn.

"I am really looking forward to some of my classes this year, like Couples Counseling and Family Systems and Family Development. Of course, practicum is definitely exciting to think about, but I won't be in that probably for another couple of semesters. I am really looking forward to the hands-on classes and just continuing to build myself as a counselor and as a person."

On top of her classes and studies, Rhodes stays in shape during her softball off-season by running three miles a day, five or six days a week, and doing strength training and interval workouts. She also practices batting and throwing at an indoor facility in Chesapeake.

Still adjusting to a new routine that requires more self-discipline, Rhodes has experienced both advantages and disadvantages in her post-baccalaureate life.

"At Virginia Tech, softball and class were literally my life every day, but now I can separate the two a little more since the season is only during the summer months in the pro league," she said. "It's been really nice just to focus on my studies for graduate school and not worry as much with softball every day, like I had to as an undergraduate at Tech."

On the flip side, the life of a graduate student has thrown her a few curves. "It has been a challenge to be in grad school and not be around a bunch of my teammates every day anymore, and I have really had to adopt more of the strictly student role, which has been a big change for me," she said.

Despite her love of softball, Rhodes doesn't think she will have a hard time giving it up when the time comes.

"Though it is definitely a part of me, I wouldn't say it is my passion, like counseling is. Softball has always been something I have done because it was fun and I had great friends who played. In college, it became more of a challenge for me, but I loved that aspect of it, too, and it has shaped me into the person that I am today.

"I have been so grateful for this game, and the relationships that it has built in my life - I have met the most incredible people - but I think there will come a time when I will let it go, and I think I will be OK with that and be grateful for all it has given me."

In keeping with her giving nature, Rhodes hopes to be in a position one day to give back to the sport as a volunteer with younger girls and their teams.

This article was posted on: September 13, 2010

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