Erica Woda ’04 Tries To Level the Field
By Joshua Robinson ’08
It had been almost a decade since Erica Woda ’04 took her first campus tour in Morningside Heights, a decade since she had been that impressionable recruit deciding, “Yep, this is where I want to be.” And now, here she was, with a group of laughing, chattering, bouncing sixth-graders from Washington Heights, walking through the gates.
The chattering stopped and their eyes opened wide.
They slowly made their way along College Walk, taking in the grandeur of the buildings and the buzz of the campus. Woda spoke, as she always does, at a mile a minute, telling them what it means to be a student, where the classrooms are, how hard you have to work. The students, all from the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, hung on her every word. One boy began taking notes, and Woda knew she had made an impression. She had shown them the prize.
“These kids don’t grow up in a culture of achievement,” says Woda, who has taught at two schools in the Bronx and now is a P.E. teacher at the KIPP NYC College Prep School on West 133rd Street, just north of Columbia’s proposed Manhattanville campus. “But hopefully, they’re all going to be first-generation college graduates.”
Woda’s tool to get them there is sports. A former captain of the Columbia soccer team, she has spent the last two years building Level The Field (LTF), a free program for inner-city sixth- and seventh-graders to keep them busy on weekends while boosting their academic ambition.
On Saturday mornings, Woda and her team of volunteers pick up a gaggle of kids outside their school on West 182nd Street and shepherd them to one of Columbia’s athletics facilities, where they attend clinics for basketball, baseball and of course, soccer, all taught by student-athletes. On afternoons, LTF also takes them to Columbia sporting events at Robert K. Kraft Field and Levien Gymnasium. “The message is that athletics teach intrinsic lessons that cannot be taught by a textbook,” Woda says, pointing out how much of her character was developed on the soccer field. “You can’t teach a kid to be a leader, or a team player, or a good sport, by showing him or her a textbook.”
But just to make sure they know textbooks are still important, the student-athletes then visit the kids at their school on Thursdays. Woda, LTF’s organizer and worrier-in-chief, piles them into cabs heading uptown, where they go into the sixth-grade classrooms and preach the gospel of hard work.
LTF was born one afternoon in May 2008, as Woda was heading home. Walking along West 106th Street, she lingered behind the tall black fence surrounding a public soccer field. As she watched kids playing a rag-tag game instead of sitting on their couches, inspiration hit her.
“All these kids, they’re out playing soccer,” she says. “It’s not structured, they don’t have the best equipment, they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re out and they’re having fun. It was one of those ‘aha’ moments.”
And Woda has never been one to keep an “aha” moment to herself.
A self-described “crazy, passionate, all over the place, eccentric person,” she immediately began firing off e-mails and making calls. She rounded up friends and reached out to her former coach, Kevin McCarthy ’85, ’91 GSAS. Before she knew it, Woda had cobbled together an advisory board and was holding planning meetings at the lunch tables in the Columbus Circle Whole Foods.
“You can’t help but get caught up in the whirlwind of energy — it’s a force — around Erica,” McCarthy said. “Even when I recruited her, that energy was palpable.”
Those who have latched onto LTF around Woda echo the sentiment. They tell stories of frantic calls and breathless explanations that they just couldn’t ignore. As they listened to her talk so fast the words tripped over each other, people from all over Woda’s Columbia universe offered to help in any way they could.
“Even if they have a lot going on, a lot on their plates, it’s soccer and kids, so they come out,” former roommate and soccer player Gui Stampur ’04 said. With word spreading among generations of soccer alumni, he adds, people are starting to emerge from the woodwork.
Woda reeled in other coaches, such as Columbia baseball’s Brett Boretti. She called on Stampur. She enlisted the men’s and women’s basketball teams, the men’s and women’s soccer teams and the baseball team. She recruited Fernando Perez ’04, who has played for the Tampa Bay Rays and now is in their farm system. The athletics department even offered to make its facilities available for free — though that didn’t stop Woda from once trying to book a field eight months in advance.
“The Columbia University community has completely adopted this program, completely embraced it,” she says.
Eighteen months of scrambling after Woda came up with the idea and $30,000 later, LTF was ready to hold its first event. It kicked off with a soccer clinic on Halloween weekend last year, with no guarantees that any kids would show up — especially when Woda had a feeling that soccer might not be the most popular sport in the urban neighborhood. Only seven came, yet Woda was thrilled. The first session, small as it was, had come together.
Woda and LTF’s COO, Julia Nozov, believe that the only way they can really gauge LTF’s impact is attendance, especially since nothing is mandatory. They are not yet in a position to track grades or classroom behavior, but they know that if kids are coming to the clinics, they certainly aren’t playing video games. Before every clinic, Woda spends entire evenings on the phone trying to remind parents about it. She even buys a MetroCard for one girl who cannot afford the $5.50 round trip from Washington Heights. But after a year, excitement is growing inside the school. Eighty-seven kids are currently enrolled in the program, with 20–25 regularly attending on Saturdays. This fall the program’s capacity grew to 190, as it opened up to seventh-graders.
“Kids spread news like wildfire,” Woda said. “Whether it’s the pizza, whether it’s the train ride, who knows what the incentive is that brings them out? But for the most part, if I reach a parent or if I reach a kid the night before, they generally have nothing going on.”
Once the kids are under Woda’s watchful eye, the fretting subsides and the pace finally slows. The anxiety of waiting to see whether anyone turns up melts away. For a few hours, there are no more parents to call or athletes to corral. For a few hours, Woda gets to put down the crucial green binder full of permission slips. All that matters is making sure the kids have fun, until it’s time to start counting heads again and take them home through the subway maze. For now, in the friendly blue confines of University Gymnasium, she can concentrate on demonstrating the drills and applauding the goals.
“It’s a bit of relief and it’s a bit of excitement to see all the work that goes on in the background come to fruition,” Woda said. “When we’re actually at a clinic or a game, that’s when I get to relax a little.”
Joshua Robinson ’08 is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. Read more about him at joshuasethrobinson.com.