Once she realized she’d chosen the wrong university in 2017, Sarah Merriwether would have liked a pair of magic ruby slippers to get her home. She knew the Kansas City, Missouri, school wasn’t the right fit but spent 18 months “toughing it out” before she returned to Southwest Florida.
“When I got home, I told my mom: at least I’m not in Kansas anymore!” Merriwether jokes.
The Naples native knows Florida Gulf Coast University well. She spent her summers in FGCU volleyball and lacrosse camps and attended Eagles baseball and softball home games each spring. But when it came time to choose a university, she says she and some of her Gulf Coast High School classmates considered FGCU too close to home.
“I had this idea that I had to get out, that it was time to be independent,” Merriwether says, and attending a university in South Florida didn’t jibe with that goal. She looks back on that decision as deeply flawed.
Although she had specific career goals, Merriwether chose an out-of-state school that offered her a spot on its lacrosse team but didn’t have her preferred undergraduate program.
“Coming out of high school, I felt I needed to prove my athletic ability at the collegiate level, and I didn’t think about my future the way I should have,” she admits. “I’ve known what I wanted to do with my life since ninth grade, but I chose a school that didn’t even have my major.”
She wound up studying health science and playing lacrosse until multiple concussions took her out of the game. She found herself on a campus she didn’t love, depressed because she couldn’t play contact sports anymore, knowing she was in the wrong place academically and feeling too far from home.
“I didn’t even tour the school before I applied,” she says, remembering how she was more focused on leaving instead of where she would end up. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Six years after that initial decision, Merriwether is in her final semester at FGCU and about to graduate from the exercise science program.
Patti Bauer, assistant professor of rehabilitation sciences in Marieb College of Health & Human Services, knows the exercise science program at FGCU is exceptional.
“As faculty, we’re focused on training the next generation of healthcare providers – for our parents, for our neighbors and for our future selves,” Bauer says.
Site partners are a unique aspect of training. Students in the exercise science program participate in two internships and choose from more than 200 site partners, including Moorings Park and NCH Healthcare System in Naples, Lee Health, Tampa General Hospital, the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins.
Merriwether’s internships allowed her to explore athletic training and gain insight into performance and wellness.
Last fall, she interned at Matterhorn Fit in Bonita Springs. This semester, she’s interning at the Hartlieb Elite Athletic Transformation (HEAT) facility at Hertz Arena and learning about performance issues in hockey players. HEAT is owned by retired professional hockey player Ernie Hartlieb and his wife, Miranda Hartlieb (’09, communication), a trainer and off-ice coach.
“I’ve wanted to work at the arena since I was in fifth grade,” says Merriwether, whose parents often took her to Everblades games Friday nights. “I wish I could tell my 10-year-old self, we made it!”
With an average cohort of 70 each semester, exercise science students learn in state-of-the-art laboratories and classrooms with small class sizes. As interns, FGCU students gain field experience and insight into managing client relations that builds on the learning done in the classroom. Bauer refers to it as “see one, do one, teach one.”
All of those factors can make the difference when life gets in the way of school. The exercise science program is five consecutive semesters, so if a student loses even one semester in the program, they would be a full year behind. That exact scenario threatened to dislodge Merriwether’s progress when she underwent surgery related to injuries she’d sustained as an athlete. She worked with the faculty to ensure she stayed on track to complete her coursework and internships on time.
“FGCU gave me so many opportunities as a kid – in camps, going to games – and now it’s given me an education,” Merriwether says. She plans to start graduate school to attain a master’s in athletic training. Her ultimate goal? To become a National Hockey League athletic trainer.
When asked if she has advice for high school students looking at colleges, she says, “Look far, but look near, too.”
“My mom loves having me close to home, but that 25-minute drive is just enough distance,” she adds with a laugh.