Jarrett Gardner, Sue Patterson, CAPS counselor Alyssa Luther Vasko, and student Kadyn Carey at the NCAA Inclusion Forum.

Building Belonging, Inviting Inclusion

Jarrett Gardner is using his status as a student-athlete to create a campus where everyone feels safe, welcome, and accepted.
By: Marissa Carney
Jarrett Gardner at a home men’s basketball game

Jarrett Gardner at a home men’s basketball game

Credit: Penn State

As center for the Penn State Altoona men’s basketball team, Jarrett Gardner attended this year’s NCAA Inclusion Forum. While there, he had the remarkable opportunity to take part in a new program offered to a select few. That initiative made a big impact on Gardner. In turn, he is making his own impact on inclusion and belonging at the college.

After graduating from a small community college in his home state of Florida, Gardner was recruited in 2021 to play basketball for Penn State Altoona. Thrilled with the opportunity, he is now pursuing a degree in criminal justice while playing center for the team.

“It’s just awesome playing for and representing Penn State. It’s nice being on a team for a small college. Everybody knows you as a student-athlete, but they also know you as a person. It’s been amazing for me.”

Gardner was one of two Penn State Altoona student-athletes selected by the college to attend the 2024 NCAA Inclusion Forum, which took place in April in Indianapolis.

Jarrett Gardner’s forum pass

Jarrett Gardner’s forum pass

Credit: Jarrett Gardner

Hosted annually, the forum brings together leaders in higher education and intercollegiate athletics to discuss diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives (DEIB). Educational programming focuses on five core areas of inclusion: disability, internationality, LGBTQ, race/ethnicity, and women. 

More than 600 coaches, administrators, and student-athletes attended this year's program.

Keynote speakers included Dawn Staley, who coached South Carolina's women's basketball team to the 2024 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship title, and LZ Granderson, op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times and ABC News contributor. Staley addressed ways to advance equity on campus and in the media, while Granderson spoke about the unifying power of sports. Attendees also heard from Keith Harrison, professor of business, hip-hop, and sport at the University of Central Florida, who talked about the intersection of hip-hop music and athletics. 

Breakout sessions and panel discussions covered topics such as the development of adaptive sports programs, using inclusive language, understanding implicit bias, and effectively coaching Generation Z student-athletes.

Gardner with CAPS counselor Alyssa Luther Vasko and student Kadyn Carey at the NCAA Inclusion Forum.

Gardner with CAPS counselor Alyssa Luther Vasko and student Kadyn Carey at the NCAA Inclusion Forum.

Credit: Jarrett Gardner

“The speakers gave us all sorts of tools and strategies to take back to our campuses,” says Gardner. “I came away with so many ideas and ways we can improve DEIB at Penn State Altoona.”

But what made this a stand-out year for the conference, and for Gardner in particular, was the launch of the new Student-Athlete Symposium, hosted in conjunction with the forum. This symposium offered individualized educational programming to engage, equip, and empower student-athletes to participate and contribute to DEIB initiatives within their teams, athletics departments, campuses, and communities. 

Gardner was one of just sixty students selected from nomination forms to attend the symposium, a group comprised of twenty students from each of NCAA Division I, II, and III sports from across the United States.

He was nominated by Sue Patterson, director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Penn State Altoona, in part for his work in the dialogue facilitation team All Voices in Dialogue and in the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Patterson also noted his overall presence and engagement with his peers. “Jarrett is a quiet leader who makes others feel welcome,” she says. “His soft, gentle leadership invites others in and calls them to step up at the same time. His selection for the symposium was well-deserved.”

Gardener says his nomination was a surprise, and being chosen was an incredible honor. “I was so excited. The NCAA is a big deal and to be seen as someone worthy of an additional program at the conference is just really special.”

Jarrett Gardner, Sue Patterson, CAPS counselor Alyssa Luther Vasko, and student Kadyn Carey at the NCAA Inclusion Forum.

Jarrett Gardner, Sue Patterson, CAPS counselor Alyssa Luther Vasko, and student Kadyn Carey at the NCAA Inclusion Forum.

Credit: Jarrett Gardner

Symposium speakers addressed building relationships and creating environments of belonging on campus. Plenary sessions focused on inclusive language, adaptive sport programs, equity, sexual violence prevention, best practices around the inclusion of trans and nonbinary athletes, and ways to safeguard athletes’ well-being.

It was nice for Gardner to meet athletes from all NCAA divisions across the country and to listen to their stories and bond over hardships. But the conference was also about hearing different experiences and struggles, then exploring emotions and solutions.

“It was about making connections and meeting others who are on a journey like I am,” says Gardner. “We’re all growing together as student-athletes, and we can be so powerful as one unit.”

The final symposium session tasked student-athletes with setting goals and creating action plans to promote and practice inclusion and belonging on their campuses.

Gardner wasted no time. Shortly after returning from the conference, he and Patterson met with Penn State Altoona’s chancellor Ron Darbeau and Brent Baird, director of Athletics, to discuss outreach at the college. Gardner wants to boost what is already in place and to implement new programs.

Strongly impacted by conversations about mental health that took place at the conference, he hopes to offer mental health panels for athletes where professionals can share information and coping tools. The panels would also offer a chance for student-athletes to share their thoughts and struggles in a safe place.

“When you see me on campus, you see a guy who’s always smiling and trying to make everybody else smile. But I have my own struggles that I don't really talk about. I know my teammates probably aren’t either. I want to make it okay to speak truth to mental health problems and issues.”

Gardner is also excited about starting a mentorship program within Athletics that would pair upper classmen with students just starting their college careers. In his meeting with Darbeau and Baird, Gardner spoke about how helpful it would have been to have had established athletes show him the ropes and share resources with him during his first year. He talked about how as a student of color, his experience during that time was different than that of white students. Recognizing that and offering more means of inclusion would make not only student-athletes, but their peers across campus, have a better sense of belonging.

Gardner hopes returning athletes as well as athletic alumni could serve as mentors.

Patterson believes it is this type of work that would put Penn State Altoona at the forefront of true inclusion using athletics as a venue.

“It was wonderful watching Jarrett throughout the conference,” she says. “I believe it was transformative for him and that he realized the impact he can have on others.”

“It was a great experience, very inspiring. I think it was much needed for me,” says Gardner. “It helped me discover that I have an important voice and that I can use it to improve things on campus, especially for student-athletes. I hope that I can be the starting point of creating a more inclusive, safe environment. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.”