The Power of Understanding: Ball State student-athletes use their experiences to open opportunities to help others

Junior outfielder Faith Hensley gives senior outfielder Kennedy Wynn a thumbs up after Wynn's double hitter March 26, 2021, at the Softball Field at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. The Cardinals won 8-6 against the Falcons. Jaden Whiteman, DN
Junior outfielder Faith Hensley gives senior outfielder Kennedy Wynn a thumbs up after Wynn's double hitter March 26, 2021, at the Softball Field at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. The Cardinals won 8-6 against the Falcons. Jaden Whiteman, DN

Books. Pencils. Whiteboards. 

All three items are present in classrooms and used by teachers and students to learn, but educators plan their lessons and days outside the classroom. 

Ball State Cross Country and Track and Field senior runner Emma Cunningham gained this perspective firsthand growing up from her mother, who she witnessed plan lessons.

“My mom is a preschool teacher and has been since I was 2, so that is all I remember her doing,” Cunningham said. “It was always fun to watch her prep for her lessons.”

Cunningham is finishing her major in elementary education. She decided to attend Ball State to pursue being a teacher, like her mother. Ball State offers around 180 majors along with 18 intercollegiate sports, allowing for student-athletes to explore and create their own experiences.

Cunningham narrowed on elementary education because of her background in helping her classmates and peers. Having formed many relationships in school before attending Ball State, she said she associates school with positive memories and took several opportunities to help younger kids as she grew older. 

In high school, Cunningham took advantage of an opportunity to coach gymnastics, which reinforced her love of helping people. She said it was one of her “favorite things ever” because of how much she loved working with kids and in a school setting. At 15 years old, Cunningham also volunteered with summer camps for gymnastics.

“I found that I was really good at it,” Cunningham said. “I always got really good feedback, and even though I was young and inexperienced, it came really naturally to me.”

As she grew older, Cunningham coached older kids and said her teaching performance comes from her ability to explain things clearly for people who may not understand. She credits her time as a gymnastics coach as the moment she experimented with different strategies in different age groups to see how they learn and respond.

As a student-athlete, Cunningham sees herself as a more relatable figure for those she coaches and works with as a student teacher in her third-grade classroom. 

“Some of them are old enough to understand what track is, and some of them even run track for the elementary school’s track team,” Cunningham said. “I feel like it makes me a little bit more relatable and a bit cool.”

Senior Emma Cunningham runs through the water during the steeplechase during the track meet April 16 at Briner Sports Complex. Jamie Howell, DN

As Cunningham participates in student-teaching, athletics and classes, Ball State Track and Field head coach Adrian Wheatley said her ability to balance several commitments simultaneously is what makes her stand out. 

“The exciting thing about Emma is that she brings a competitive mindset and energy to training sessions while being in the school of education and student-teaching, which is not an easy thing to do,” Wheatley said.

Like Cunningham, Ball State Softball senior outfielder Faith Hensley also experienced a life-changing moment that led her to choose a double major in pre-medical preparation and biology. Instead of inside of a gymnastics studio, though, Hensley made her discovery in a doctor’s office.

“I was a competitive gymnast [when I was younger] in addition to playing softball and also very clumsy, so I was always getting hurt,” Hensley said. “I broke around 12 bones when I was a kid, and a lot of the time, doctors did not understand me or what it was like being a gymnast.”

After several bouts of wrist injuries prevented her from participating in gymnastics, Hensley went to see Roger Cornwall, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital pediatric hand surgeon. That visit was the spark that ignited Hensley’s desire to serve in the medical field.

“I remember he explained so well to me what my injury was, how to heal it and my limitations [with the injury],” Hensley said.

Since the visit, Hensley has remained intrigued by science and became obsessed with knowing what made everything work, making her decision on a major easier.

Earlier in her collegiate career, Hensley shadowed Michael C. Albert, Dayton Children’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon, and Kate. E Berz, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital pediatrician. Both experiences offered Hensley a new perspective on doctors.

“It was a really cool experience to follow [Dr. Albert and Dr. Berz] and see their everyday lives and what they do and how they navigate problems,” Hensley said.

Hensley thinks her time with Ball State Softball, which will continue into the 2023 season due to COVID-19-related NCAA eligibility rules, has prepared her mentally for her professional future post-graduation.

“The team-building and leadership skills that you acquire from the grind that is sports prepares you thoroughly for dealing with and solving problems once you enter the workforce,” Hensley said.

Contact Corbin Hubert with comments at or on Twitter @corbin_hubert