Sheridan Blanford graduated from the IAL program in 2016. She is currently the Director of Inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a recipient of the Women Leaders in College Sports Rising Star award.
First and foremost, what drew you to the intercollegiate sports/sports industry and how did you decide that the IAL program was right for you?
My love for sport began at a very young age. It has always been a part of my life in some capacity, and I always knew that I wanted to work in sports in some capacity. I was exposed to athletic administration through my Aunt, Rhonda Blanford-Green, who has not only held various leadership roles for various high school athletic associations around the country, but is also the first African American woman to hold a commissioner title. I was able to witness and look up to a strong, driven woman in a position of influence – using her position to impact and advance the lives of many people through sport.
I applied to multiple programs around the country, but after learning about the accelerated one-year program, speaking to notable alumni and seeing where there careers had taken them, and visiting ‘The Quad’ in the early spring - right when the cherry blossoms were blooming - there was no competition.
Can you explain a little more about your current role at University of Wisconsin and what you are currently working on?
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the first athletic departments in the nation to create a department focused on diversity, inclusion and engagement. I have the opportunity to be a part of this new initiative as the Director of Inclusion. My main focus is to capitalize on differences to fuel access, opportunity and reach of the University of Wisconsin athletics brand. In my new role, I will assess and lead the current Division of Intercollegiate Athletics programming, initiatives, policies, and procedures regarding diversity issues. I will also have the opportunity to propose, develop and implement strategies, policies and programs that will facilitate a diverse and inclusive culture across dimensions of diversity for student-athletes, coaches, administration, and campus and community constituents.
Did you always know you wanted to work in diversity matters? (If yes, could you explain why it’s one of your passions? If no, could you explain how you came to work in this area?)
I’m the daughter of a white mother who studied vocal performance and a black father who was a collegiate football player. Diversity was the norm in my girlhood town of Denver and skin color seemed to matter far less on my high school girls’ basketball team than hustle and rebounds did. When I enrolled in St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota I found myself in the distinct minority – I was the only person of color on my basketball team and in most of my classes for four years. For the first time, I felt a new sensation that my skin color factored into people’s view of me, how they interacted with me and the depth of support I received on this predominantly white campus. Not knowing what else to do, or who to turn to, I learned to bury these feelings and did my best to fit in, into the created normal. I have continued to learn and navigate as a graduate student, intern, and now as an administrator, what it means to be a woman of color within intercollegiate athletics and higher education. My experiences have triggered a deep curiosity and passion through a lens of institutional and organizational performance, history, and structure about how underrepresented groups, but women of color particular, succeed at or feel unfulfilled in the world of intercollegiate athletics. I plan to work devotedly to better the experiences of underrepresented groups through in many capacities and on many platforms.
You’ve been busy since graduating from the IAL program, you were awarded a Rising Star Award from Women Leaders in College Sports–where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I have been very blessed and fortunate over the last two and a half years, since graduating from IAL. I am very honored to be the award recipient for the Rising Star Award through Women Leaders and College Sports this year. Over the next 10 years, I want to support, invest in, and empower as many individuals as possible to be the best versions of themselves in all areas of their lives. Specifically, I want to be able provide access, opportunity and advancement for underrepresented groups to be in non-traditional spaces that have true influence to shape and challenge broader norms. I plan to keep athletics as a key focus area, but I would love to travel the world as a consultant to help athletic departments alike, universities, and Fortune 500 companies achieve measurable and sustainable outcomes, that reflect a long-term and impactful purview of inclusive excellence.
What advice would you give to a current IAL student or recent graduate starting out in intercollegiate athletics?
I would not be where I am in my career and in my life it wasn’t for IAL. I truly believe that I took advantage of everything that the program has to offer. But if I were to give one piece of advice to current IAL students, it would be to network. Yes, I know you have heard or will hear this one million times, I promise it works. When I say network, that doesn’t just mean: attend a reception at the NCAA convention and talk to the first person that says hi to you. It means: finding a very prominent, influential professional that has your dream job – an athletic director, a commissioner, a president, etc. – and put yourself out there to ask them to set up coffee or a phone call. You will be surprised with how many people are willing to help you and invest in you.
For recent graduates, my advice is that you don’t have to have it all figured out; be patient with yourself. If you were to tell me that I would be a director of a department at a BIG 10 institution – 2 years after graduating from IAL – I wouldn’t have believed you. But being diligent, working hard, having faith, putting myself out there, and trusting the process (which was the hardest part) has all worked out for my good. And I am thankful for it!
Is there anything else that you would like to include?
I truly want to serve as a resource personally and professionally to any and all IAL students / alum. I love the program and will do any and everything that I can, to pour into the next generation of leaders go above and beyond what they think they are capable of! #GoDawgs