Field trip: Project FLEX visitors spend day at NIU to witness their possibilities

Touring the Rec Center
The FLEX group tours the Rec Center.

The topic of the day was, appropriately enough, confidence and self-efficacy.

In other words, Associate Professor Jenn Jacobs told her students in KNPE 310: Psychological Aspects of Sport and Exercise, the power of the mind. Or, she clarified, the perception of one’s ability to perform a specific task successfully.

“My favorite theory of all time,” Jacobs said. “It teaches you how to believe you can do something. What is more important than that? Nothing.”

Among the many unfamiliar faces in her classroom that Nov. 9 afternoon were a half-dozen graduate students from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education as well as four people with no connection to NIU at all.

One wore a gray Calvin Klein long-sleeve T-shirt and distressed blue jeans. Another sported a black top with red pants. The others were non-uniformed employees of the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, where the first two are incarcerated.

For the two young men, the day on the NIU campus was a reward for their active participation and good conduct in Project FLEX – which are, of course, outcomes directly tied to their belief in themselves.

Launched in the fall of 2018 by Jacobs, colleague and officemate Zachary Wahl-Alexander and graduate student Tim Mack, Project FLEX (Fitness Leadership Experience) offers structured physical activity to young men within the facilities and aspirations and resources to lead more productive lives outside once their sentences are completed.

By May of 2019, three young men earned the privilege of the project’s first campus trip.

Coming to DeKalb provided this month’s pair with tours of Huskie athletic facilities, the Rec Center and the Omega Delta fraternity house. They ate endless helpings of lunch in New Hall. They played hoops in an Anderson Hall gym.

Yet their favorite part of the day, they would say in a debriefing session, came in the classroom.

Blending easily among the regulars, they learned from Jacobs about Bandura’s four states of self-efficacy: performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion and emotional arousal.

Performance accomplishments are the best predictor of future behavior. Nothing breeds success like success.

Vicarious experiences – forming ideas about personal abilities by observing what others can achieve – are nearly as powerful. The feedback and encouragement of verbal persuasion are less strong, while the perceptions of feelings during emotional arousal can alter levels of confidence and are, therefore, the weakest predictor.

Jenn Jacobs
Jenn Jacobs

Students demonstrated their understanding by looking at pictures of various situations and, in consultation with partners, holding up color-coded cards to express which of the four states were in play. No answers were wrong if well-reasoned and defended, Jacobs said, and some students did indeed hold up two, three or even four cards at a time.

The professor also explained the “vicious cycle” of self-fulfilling prophesies, fed by the endless march of beliefs that fuel expectations that influence behaviors that produce results – a process likely familiar to people in correctional facilities.

Jacobs later handed off to Gabrielle Bennett, a Ph.D. student in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, who divided the classroom into nine groups – all guests included in the random clusters – for an icebreaking activity.

Briskly answering “hot seat” questions about dream vacations, favorite foods and more uncovered connections and raised eyebrows between strangers of diverse ages and backgrounds, providing yet another glimpse of life, culture and possibilities on a college campus.

GRADUATE STUDENT TIMOTHY MAHONEY, who is pursuing an M.S. in Kinesiology and Physical Education with a specialization in Sport and Exercise Psychology, is a facilitator in Project FLEX’s Swole Patrol.

Developed as Project FLEX grew at the Illinois Youth Facility in St. Charles, Swole Patrol offers one-on-one personal training and leadership development twice weekly to six clients who qualify and remain eligible through good behavior.

Timothy Mahoney
Timothy Mahoney

Mahoney, who came from his native Deerfield to earn his B.S. in Psychology from NIU in May 2020, glimpsed the possibility during his first semester on campus. He was taking KNPE 310 when the FLEX team presented in the classroom.

“I remember trying to sneak into Project FLEX that same day,” Mahoney said.


“Just the opportunity to work with youth, and to provide them life skills they need to use outside facility once they’re done,” he said. “I’m really fortunate to have some great mentors, and people really need that, so I hope to be that for someone.”

He views the young men from a “strengths” model: “I think it’s the situation, not the person. It’s important to give people the opportunity to succeed rather than just judging them at face value.”

As an official member of FLEX team now, and as coach of the basketball squad at St. Charles, Mahoney is discovering truths about the young men, about himself and about the importance of being “genuine” with others.

“I’m learning how similar we all are,” he said. “When you work with juveniles who are incarcerated, at the end of the day, they’re just kids. They’re still just teenagers. They still love to joke around, and we have a lot of fun.”

Personally, “I’m learning how sport can influence us outside of competition,” he added. “I think I’m a pretty confident, outgoing individual, and getting to interact with the youth has really strengthened my views on myself, and also has changed some of the ways that I view leadership. Leadership and respect are earned, not given.”

The Fall 2021 FLEX crew
The Fall 2021 FLEX crew

Mahoney, who has played lacrosse “pretty much all my life,” including on the club level at NIU, plans a career working with athletes as an applied sport psychologist: “The mental side of sports has really been exploding the past few years,” he said. “It’s only right that the next generation of athletes is given resources to succeed on and off the field, and I think I can contribute.”

Knowledge and skills gained through FLEX will prove beneficial.

“It’s always something different each day we go into the facility, whether it’s working with someone to get over some sort of anxiety related to hitting a new personal record in the weight room, or encouraging a player who missed two free throws in a row,” he said.

“We’re always working on, ‘How can we get better at this? What can we do? What little tips and tricks can I give you mentally that will give you an edge over your opponents?’ ”

Calculating the power of the Nov. 9 campus visit toward that goal is impossible.

“Coming here gives them a great perspective on something that they might have heard about but don’t know firsthand,” Mahoney said. “As much as can talk about life at NIU, there’s nothing like bringing them to campus, giving them a taste of what it’s like to go eat at the dining hall and to experience a classroom setting. It’s a really unique opportunity. It gives them a taste of what could be.”

SEVEN HOURS AFTER THEIR ARRIVAL in DeKalb, the two young men and their chaperones from Warrenville gathered around a table in Anderson Hall to reflect on the day.

It was a time to chill, said Wahl-Alexander, an associate professor of Physical Education, and the next hour did produce smiles, laughter and posing for pictures with disposable cameras.

The Anderson Hall pool
The Anderson Hall pool

Questions were plentiful; answers were revealing.

For example, as both declared the 74-minute class as the best part of their visit, one called it “fun.” It had been so long since he’d been in a classroom. It also wasn’t what either had imagined of a college classroom, of an old professor lecturing students to sleep.

But, clearly, the lesson had broken through. Thinking of the self-fulfilling prophesies that Jacobs had spoken on, one connected it to his negative thoughts at night while locked up and how those emotions can determine how he approaches the coming day.

They talked about the pizza and the Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal they’d gobbled in the dining hall. They talked about whether they could see themselves as college students and, if so, their majors. Criminal Justice, one said.

They talked about the conversations they’d had with NIU students, the stories they might tell their counterparts when they returned to Warrenville and the advice they would give the visitors chosen for the next on-campus field trip in the spring: “Bring some shoes that don’t hurt your feet.” “Ask questions.”

They talked about what they would change to the day’s agenda: more classes, please. They learned about the process of applying for admission and financial aid.

The end-of-the-day debriefing
Let’s talk: the end-of-the-day debriefing.

They heard what their chaperones and the Project FLEX graduate assistants had enjoyed about the day. Watching them simply walking through campus. The chance to eat a meal with them. To play basketball with them. To witness their interactions with college students. To see them immersed in the moment without the walls of Warrenville literally and figuratively bearing down on them.

“Do you feel different?” Jacobs asked.

“I feel different,” one answered.


“I feel like one of y’all.”

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