Twenty-one-year-old School of General Studies (GS) student Kim Navarro smiles as she rushes to class across Columbia's campus with two backpacks-one for her books, one for her ice skates. After withdrawing from her Santa Rosa, California high school in favor of a competitive skating career, she never imagined one day she'd be living out her skating dreams while also in hot pursuit of an English degree at Columbia. But today, Navarro has maintained an overall 3.6 GPA at GS amidst her busy skating schedule which includes preparation last fall for the U.S. National Ice Skating Championships.
Why would an up-and-coming athlete care to couple the rigors of a demanding workout schedule with studying Plato and Chaucer in the trenches of the Ivy League? Navarro says she's motivated by more than just getting a degree. "It's about expanding your mind," said Navarro, a Jane Austen enthusiast. English has always been one of her favorite subjects.
Though the U.S. Figure Skating Association is not known for encouraging its skaters to pursue higher education, Navarro says, her experience skating while in college has been so positive that she is trying to encourage other skaters to do the same. "I'm trying to promote skaters staying in school," Navarro said during a special visit she made to a recent practice session of the Columbia Ice Skating Club.
For the past three years, Navarro and her skating partner Robert Shmalo have driven five times per week from Manhattan to a rink in Monsey, New York, for a 7 a.m. morning workout with their coach and choreographer, Inese Bucevica. Four hours later, they drive back to Manhattan for afternoon classes at their respective universities. The 25-year-old Shmalo, now a Benjamin A. Cardozo Law School senior, has been skating with Navarro since 1999 and shares her passion for simultaneously pursuing a skating career and an education. "Not only did our schedule regiment us," said Shmalo, "it has helped us keep our opportunities wide open."
Navarro said her classes may have even helped her keep a positive attitude on the ice, by reminding her there is more to life than skating. "It's easy to forget there is another world out there, especially when you're at a competition," she said.
The School of General Studies is specifically designed to give nontraditional students like Navarro the flexibility they need to pursue other dreams while obtaining a liberal arts education. In addition, Columbia is the only Ivy League institution to fully integrate its nontraditional students, attending classes part-time or full-time, into the same classes with all other undergraduate students.
Advisors and administrators at the School of General Studies strive to address the special needs of nontraditional students to this end. That flexibility has enabled Navarro to take time off for skating competitions at short notice. "Last year before we went to compete in Japan, we only knew a week beforehand," she said, "and my professors were great about it."
Daughter of an Ice Capades performer and skating instructor, Navarro said her mother exposed her to the joys of skating from a young age. Instead of daycare, the tiny Navarro sat in a snowsuit on the ice and watched. Through the years, Navarro began skating herself and though she showed strong signs of talent, her mother never forced her to pursue the sport. It was her own decision to skate seriously after a friend of her mother's recognized her abilities and suggested she pursue it.
From then on, as a child Navarro traveled to Los Angeles to frequently appear in shows, most notably skating as Woodstock in the Charles Schultz Christmas ice shows. She also began to perform off the ice as well, as an inline skater with Team Rollerblade. You may have seen her at age nine or ten in a "Rollerblade Barbie" commercial for Mattel, or in a public service announcement for inline skating safety gear. She also pursued dancing and acting, and without skates of any kind modeled for a Levi's commercial. Through it all, the money she made from these appearances paid for all her skating expenses.
Before finishing high school, Navarro's love for ice dancing compelled her to move to Dallas to skate with a promising new partner. Because of a shortage of male ice dancers, the girl in a pair often has to move where the boy and his family live, Kim exlpained. But her Dallas partner and coach wanted her to focus almost completely on skating with no time for much of a life outside of the rink. Six months later, at age 16, she moved back to Santa Rosa and completed her studies at her old high school. "Graduation meant more than I thought it would," said Navarro. Navarro then moved to New York to skate with Shmalo, who was then studying at NYU. Their two coaches had been acquainted and arranged for the pairing.
Hungry for more education, Navarro first took courses at the New School, but decided to enroll in GS after she first strolled amid Columbia's columns and archways on a campus tour with her family when they came to visit New York shortly after her move.
This past January, at their third U.S. Championships, Navarro and Shmalo skated to 7th place in ice dancing overall. With a possible bid for the 2006 Olympics still in the picture, Navarro said she and Shmalo are trying to determine their next step. In June, Shmalo will graduate from law school, but Navarro said she doesn't see herself skating with anyone else. The two are "truly dear friends," said Navarro. "We have our share of laughs for sure."
In addition to practices, competitions and school, Navarro teaches inline skating at Chelsea Piers and skates with the Ice Theatre of New York, performing February 26 at Rockefeller Center.