‘We are responsible for a holistic student’: New Pomona-Pitzer Athletic Director Miriam Merrill to prioritize diversity, inclusion and mental health

After serving as associate athletic director at Hamilton College, Miriam Merrill will lead Pomona-Pitzer Athletics beginning July 1. (Courtesy of Pomona College). 

Miriam Merrill had never visited the Claremont Colleges before accepting the job as Pomona-Pitzer athletic director. But later this month, Merrill will fly across the country — leaving her current position as associate athletic director at Hamilton College, and trading in New York blizzards for California sunshine — beginning her new job July 1. 

Beyond high-level academics and evolving athletics, Merrill was drawn to P-P’s athletic department because she felt a shared commitment to student athletes even over Zoom, which was used for the entire interview process. In her interview, Merrill spoke about wanting “a community that is really committed to student-athletes.”

“Because that is what I passionately believe in, and it would be certainly very hard for me to be successful and to work hard if it ultimately wasn’t about the institution,” Merrill told TSL in an interview, also completed via Zoom. 

Merrill brings extensive experience in both coaching and administration. She earned a master’s of education degree in sports administration from Xavier University and holds a doctorate in psychology of human movement from Temple University.

She also served as head coach of women’s track and field at Robert Morris University prior to her time in administration, and is a former student-athlete herself — she was an NCAA Division I All-American for track, and was inducted into the University of Cincinnati’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2012. 

“… if students see someone who looks like them or someone who they can identify with, they’re likely to feel as if it is a safe space to be.”

— Miriam Merrill

“The reason why I made the change from coaching — because I think there’s a lot of people who are interested in just coaching forever — is I wanted to be able to impact more people than just the folks who were on my team,” Merrill told TSL.

Merrill is setting out to make an impact on the athletic department, starting with the diversity of P-P athletic teams. According to a 2018 TSL article, data from the 2017-2018 academic year showed that the percentage of white athletes at P-P was nearly twice as high as the percentage of white students at Pomona and Pitzer combined. 

“Initially, [my goal] is to really understand why the student-athlete body doesn’t reflect the general student body, and how we can work to make sure that that happens,” she said. 

For Merrill, staff is a good place to start. 

“[We need to make] sure that we have a diverse staff and ultimately [understand] that if students see someone who looks like them or someone who they can identify with, they’re likely to feel as if it is a safe space to be,” Merrill said. 

A focus on staff would also mean providing coaches with opportunities to reach a wider and more diverse range of potential recruits, Merrill added. 

“Are we supporting coaches to be able to go to the places that they need to be able to access a diverse pool of potential recruits? Might a coach need to go to Florida? Might a coach need to go to Maine? We don’t know, but I think making sure that we understand those types of practices and making sure that when we do increase diversity, we are having inclusive spaces,” she said. 

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But Merrill emphasized that creating a more representative student-athlete body isn’t the only extent of her role as athletic director. She wants to maintain an environment where each athlete feels supported and welcomed in their time with Pomona-Pitzer.

“It’s not okay to just say, ‘Yeah, we met the number,’ and then a year later folks are like, ‘I don’t belong here, I’m out of here,’” she said. “And that’s regardless of what identity that is. It may be race, it may be sexuality, it could be a whole host of other intersections of other identities but making sure that ultimately, they feel like this is a place they can foster and be successful.” 

“It’s not okay to just say, ‘Yeah, we met the number,’ and then a year later folks are like, ‘I don’t belong here, I’m out of here.”

— Miriam Merrill

Merrill also stressed that awareness of implicit biases and language directed toward athletes are critical to creating a healthy environment for student-athletes. At Hamilton, Merrill was “making sure that our coaches were making inclusive spaces,” she said. “Part one of that was talking about implicit bias.”

Along with her position as athletic director, Merrill will serve as chair of the Department of Physical Education at Pomona and oversee its wellness program. Having taught and introduced a variety of mental health-focused physical education classes at Hamilton, Merrill envisions a greater role for sports psychology in the Pomona-Pitzer department.

“We are responsible for a holistic student,” Merrill said. “If somebody comes to [a coach] and says, ‘I’m not okay,’ you need to be equipped to say, ‘Alright, what does that mean?’ … Making sure that everybody is equipped to be able to talk about and to support our student-athletes in that way is how I see sports psychology having a role.” 

But on top of her visions for the department, Merrill will have to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 on fall sports. According to Merrill, the P-P department does not currently have an answer to what fall sports will look like.

“The biggest challenge is that we just don’t know,” Merrill said. “The way for me to mitigate it is to make sure that I’m educated on all the conversations going on.” According to Merrill, these include the regulations and recommendations announced federally, state-wide, county-wide, as well as NCAA- and conference-wide.

Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Merrill assured she will work for the success and well-being of student-athletes, and aims to create the best possible experience for every student involved.

“Success for me is defined by the student-athletes’ experience,” Merrill said. “When student-athletes leave and say, ‘I had a phenomenal time, my coach was great, I would come back, I would recommend this department to other folks,’ then that’s when we have been successful.”

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