Sarah Axelson ’08 searched months for the right college. Yet by the start of her senior year of high school in Long Beach, New York, she felt no closer to finding it.
When a family friend recommended the University of Mary Washington, Axelson dug out her college guide book. Rigorous academics. A Division III softball team. Affordable, even though it was out of state. She looked up the website and took a virtual tour.
Then she turned to her mom. This was it.
Ten years after graduating from UMW, Axelson returned to her alma mater – this time as the 2018 Department of Psychological Sciences graduate-in-residence. She has spent the last decade merging her love of sports and psychology at the Women’s Sports Foundation, a national nonprofit in New York that advances the lives of women and girls through sports.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, Axelson gave a lecture called “Title IX & Athletics: How 37 Words Have Brought Us Closer to a Level Playing Field” in the Hurley Convergence Center Digital Auditorium.
Axelson landed an internship at the Women’s Sports Foundation right after graduation. She’s been there ever since, today serving as director of advocacy. She spends her days working on gender equity in sports and advocating for opportunity and access for girls.
“The strong research foundation I received in the psychology department at UMW is a big part of why I’ve succeeded in the roles I’ve had,” she said. “All of my experiences at Mary Washington, be it on the softball field, in the classroom or in Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology, have shaped me into who I am.”
Axelson played on UMW’s varsity softball team for four years and was an officer in UMW’s Psi Chi chapter. Off the field, she won awards for her research on gender equality.
“Sarah was a true scholar athlete,” said Professor of Psychology Mindy Erchull. “I can remember many afternoons where she went to softball practice early to work out on her own so that she could leave in time to attend Psi Chi meetings and events. She balanced these roles with a heavy course load – including a psychology research group and her honors thesis.”
Axelson found the Women’s Sports Foundation much like she’d found UMW. Until a friend mentioned it one night on the way home from a softball game, she hadn’t heard of the nonprofit, which was founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King.
And just as it had been with UMW, Axelson knew it was the place for her. “I just had this realization. If I could do anything with this organization, no matter what the role, I would be so fulfilled.”
One of her first tasks as an intern was to wade through a 100-plus page research report. “I understood and appreciated it at a level most people don’t,” she said, because it was the kind of thing she’d done at UMW.
During her visit to UMW, Axelson, who also has a master’s in public administration, talked about her current work to classes in sports psychology, advanced statistics for psychology and a first-year seminar on feminism. And she gave advice over lunch to UMW students who sit where she once did.
The Graduate-in-Residence program began in 1995 to help expose psychology majors to UMW graduates working in the field. Each year, the department of psychological science faculty nominates alumni who are engaged in interesting work in the field of psychology.
“Sarah has done extremely important work on women’s equality in sports as the director of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation,” said Professor of Psychology Miriam Liss. “We are lucky to have her because she combines her background in psychology with a passion for social justice and gender equality – using science to make the world better.”