Alaina Woo '17: A Voice for Change in the NCAA

Alaina Woo '17

Alaina Woo ’17 stepped to the free-throw line hundreds of times during her basketball career with Pomona-Pitzer. But she had never stepped onto an athletic stage quite like the one at the NCAA Convention in January when she stood in front of nearly 3,000 of the movers and shakers of college sports for a one-on-one talk with association President Mark Emmert.

“It was a completely new experience for me,” says Woo, who appeared in her role as chair of the first NCAA Board of Governors’ Student-Athlete Engagement Committee, tasked with considering some of the crucial issues facing college sports – including the hot-button topic of how the NCAA addresses sexual violence.

“I felt prepared in the sense that I obviously was very familiar with the committee’s work and I had worked on the Commission to Combat Sexual Violence, which is why I was named chair,” Woo says. “But it’s completely different when you arrive in Indianapolis and see the giant place you’re going to be speaking. The NCAA helped me out by making it be more of a conversation with President Emmert, rather than me giving this giant speech looking out to a crowd.”

Among the points Woo made onstage: “I think it’s a rare opportunity for student-athletes to have that direct line to the Board of Governors. And like I said, I was a public policy major, and I’m surprised by how often people craft policies or make changes without engaging the people that they’re making the policies for.”

Woo’s role is seeking change from within the NCAA.

"There is so much more to be done," she says. Citing recent news stories of mishandled cases of sexual violence in athletics and at NCAA institutions, Woo feels that athletics and higher education are a step behind. "Issues of sexual violence have plagued college campuses and athletics — both youth and collegiate — for years. It is imperative that the NCAA and other sport governing bodies continue to work on efforts to prevent sexual violence, support survivors and hold their memberships accountable."

Basketball and Advocacy

Now in her first season as an assistant basketball coach at Tufts University while simultaneously working as a research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School, Woo was deeply active in NCAA issues while at Pomona, where she is the Sagehens’ career leader in three-pointers. She also is ninth on Pomona-Pitzer’s career scoring list and was the team’s leading scorer as a senior.

Woo was still a first-year student when a teammate took her to a meeting of Pomona-Pitzer’s NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. That friend and Lisa Beckett, a professor of physical education and associate athletic director, encouraged Woo to get involved.

“They said, ‘If you’re interested in making athletics something where you can make a difference off the court, interested in community service, interested in leadership, you should definitely check this out.’”

By Woo’s sophomore year, Beckett – “a wonderful mentor,” Woo says – suggested applying for the NCAA Division III national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.  Woo was selected and represented Pomona-Pitzer’s Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the Northwest Conference for a three-year term that ended in January. Among other roles, she also served on the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics for Divisions I, II and III.

“My interests really lie in women’s athletics and Title IX, advocacy for victims of sexual violence and underrepresented student athletes, so that was why I was chosen for those committees rather than a championship committee or something like that,” Woo says. “My interests were definitely inspired by being at Pomona, a liberal arts campus where there’s this sense to explore how something like athletics could make a difference.”

She hopes for further advances on sexual violence issues after the NCAA adopted a policy last year requiring coaches, athletes and administrators to complete education in sexual violence prevention each year. 

The new sexual violence policy has been an opportunity for the NCAA to reflect on what its role is, she says.

“It seems ridiculous that someone who has a low GPA might not be eligible but someone who perpetrates sexual violence is eligible. These are the types of conversations we are now facilitating on a national level."

Choosing a Goal

Woo’s work at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is not enrolled as a graduate student but works part-time on a project called Participedia that seeks to crowdsource and map participatory political processes around the world, allows her to continue pursuing the policy interests she developed in her studies at Pomona with Politics Professor David Menefee-Libey.

At Tufts, a Division III women’s basketball power that has reached the NCAA title game the last two seasons, Woo got a foot in the door thanks to Pomona-Pitzer Coach Jill Pace, a former Tufts assistant coach.

Like a basketball player in position to pass, shoot or drive, Woo is something of a triple threat as she starts her career: She could continue coaching, pursue graduate work in public policy or possibly combine sports and advocacy as an athletic administrator.

“I’m still very on the fence,” she says.

“When I’m thinking about being a coach in college sports and mentoring young women, I’m thinking all about policies and politics and power and how to best advocate for my athletes or people in the athletic department who are struggling with things outside of athletics.

“It feels so connected. This work at the NCAA has really tied together my academic interests with my love and passion for the game of basketball.”