Abby Van Winkle wants to play beach volleyball for as long as she can, and no wonder. As a UCLA student-athlete she has been named an All-American twice and an All-Pac-12 honoree three times. Widely considered one of the top collegiate players in the country, the Southern California native is a safe bet to one day compete for the U.S. in the Olympic Games.
But for all the accolades she’s received, Van Winkle knows that nobody gets into beach volleyball for the money, and she still has to prepare for life off the court.
So when she graduated in 2022 with a degree in psychology and an extra year of NCAA eligibility — thanks to a rule change for student-athletes who lost playing time to COVID-19 — Van Winkle was doubly interested in UCLA Extension’s project management certificate program. The program would both give her a chance to compete as a Bruin for one last season, and help her pick up skills for the type of job she hopes will support her volleyball career once she turns pro.
“I wanted one more year with my teammates, so Extension was perfect,” she said. "At the same time, having that project management certificate is going to allow me to open some more doors.”
The program, which began as a pilot initiative in 2022, offers student-athletes who graduate before using their four years of NCAA eligibility — including those who transfer from other universities — the opportunity to keep playing by enrolling in one of three UCLA Extension certificate programs: project management, pre-medical and general science studies, or business and management of entertainment. Van Winkle was the first UCLA student-athlete to take advantage of the program; another 22 from across 10 sports have since followed suit.
After spending her undergraduate years studying for a post-volleyball career in nursing, Van Winkle said project management felt like uncharted territory. But the program fit with her immediate goal of supporting herself while she continues her volleyball journey.
“It’s important to me to be independent,” Van Winkle said. “I have really supportive parents, but I also want to be able to do things on my own."
While student-athletes like Van Winkle could previously keep their NCAA eligibility by enrolling in graduate school programs, UCLA Extension provides a shorter-term, career-focused path. The emphasis on professional skills comes amid a broader shift in perspectives in the U.S. job market, said Sheila King, UCLA Extension’s assistant dean for strategic initiatives, who helped develop the program.
“Employers increasingly look for candidates who have practical skills, and there’s growing understanding of the value of education that is tailored to a real-life work environment,” said King, who herself played volleyball — the indoor version — for UCLA in the 1970s. “For student-athletes, this gives them the flexibility to keep competing without sacrificing their academics or career goals.”
Van Winkle’s participation in the program and her own hard work have paid off; the certificate in project management already helped her land a summer internship with Monster Energy. Her final season as a Bruin was a success, too. The beach volleyball team posted a match record of 40-4, was ranked No. 1 in the nation, and advanced all the way to the national championship before falling to rival USC. Van Winkle was recognized as the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year in her sport.
“I was really honored, because I’ve put in a lot of hard work in the classroom,” she said. “Being a student-athlete in the full sense is very important to me.”
Kenny Donaldson, the UCLA senior associate athletic director who oversees beach volleyball and told Van Winkle about the Extension program, said it was an especially good fit for the demanding schedules of many student-athletes.
“We felt it would contribute to our student-athletes’ opportunities after they graduate and still allow them to compete,” he said. “The program provides both academic rigor and experience gained from working with faculty who have done these jobs in the real world.”
Van Winkle’s plan for the future still includes nursing school — eventually. But first, she’s going to follow some advice she picked up while volunteering last year at the labor and delivery ward at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
“All of the nurses said, ‘Go play volleyball while you can! Follow your volleyball dreams, then you can come back,’” Van Winkle said. “So I’m going to do that for now.”