Shooting for Student Success
Dena Freeman-Patton steps into her new role as CSUDH director of athletics.
“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to help others get to where they’re trying go,” says Dena Freeman-Patton, the recently-hired CSUDH associate vice president and director of athletics. “Even back in high school, our boys’ basketball coach called me ‘coach’ because I would fuss at the team about getting their grades up!
“I knew what it would mean to them and their families if they went to college. I’ve continued doing that through most of my career.”
Freeman-Patton has brought her passion for student service to her new role as CSUDH’s athletic director, after many years in the athletics departments of universities across the U.S. She came here directly from the University of New Orleans (UNO), where she served as the school’s deputy athletic director and chief operating officer.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Md., Freeman-Patton’s love of athletics was nurtured during her high school years. She competed in basketball, volleyball, and softball at Lake Clifton High School—while also serving as class president and participating in her school’s Academy of Finance program. “I thought I was headed for a career in finance,” she says.
She was accepted into Liberty University on a basketball scholarship, playing “power forward, unless all the centers were hurt,” she laughs. During her last year of high school and first years on the Liberty campus, Freeman-Patton was focused on a career in finance, and landed finance-sector internships with the Federal Reserve Bank and at a law firm doing accounting work.
“I was fortunate to get those internships so early in my high school and college career,” she says. “After working at a few finance jobs, I realized I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
Freeman-Patton also feels fortunate that at an early age she was exposed to role models who proved that women could have careers in athletics. “I was one of those few women who was able to see women in athletics administrative roles. At my high school, we even had a female athletic director, which is still very rare to see.”
When she realized that Liberty University was one of the few institutions offering sports management as a major, she decided to give it a try. A summer internship with short-lived Canadian Football League expansion team the Baltimore Stallions convinced her that a career in athletics was for her.
“I worked there all summer,” she remembers. “I didn’t get paid a cent, but I absolutely loved it. I thought, ‘If I can do this for free, I can definitely do this and get paid.’”
Upon graduating from Liberty, Freeman-Patton’s career in athletics took her from Atlanta, Ga., to stops in Raleigh, N.C.; College Park, Md.; Bakersfield; and New Orleans. Along the way, she worked her way up from academic coordinator to her current position at CSUDH.
When offered the job at CSUDH, Freeman-Patton was excited by the prospect of working at a university that shared her enthusiasm for helping students. “Everybody here is fighting for our campus and for our students,” she says. “Everybody wants what’s best for the students, and has the same passion and vision that I do.”
She believes that the university is in the process of moving away from its history as a commuter school. “I can envision and see all the excitement building around the campus. With the new buildings that we have, I think it’s going to become a destination campus, and I want to be a part of it.”
“Even folks outside of the university are starting to see that growth and potential,” she says. “I think we have started to brand ourselves as a destination campus for a certain kind of student. Our students are known to have a little bit of grit to them, they’re hard working. Things might not come easy, but Toros have that passion, they have that resilience to keep fighting for their dreams.”
I want to improve the experience that student-athletes have at the university, so they’ll have great memories of their time here, and they’ll want to return and give back.
Freeman-Patton’s dedication to student success was one of the main factors that excited her about the CSUDH position. “From Georgia State to CSU Bakersfield to UNO to here, I’ve been at schools where there’s a melting pot of people, and there’s a large first-generation college student population. I feel like those kids need me more. That’s why I’m drawn to those type of institutions.”
Her goals for the CSUDH athletics program include improving the on-campus facilities. Some CSUDH teams don’t currently have locker rooms, so they have no spaces to change or prepare. She would also like to boost the school’s athletics scholarship fund, to help CSUDH recruit more student-athletes. “I can’t expect the coaches to compete at the top level if they’re not at the top in terms of what they can offer for scholarships.”
Overall, she says, “I want to improve the experience that student-athletes have at the university, so they’ll have great memories of their time here, and they’ll want to return and give back.”
She is also a vocal supporter of the proposed on-campus health, wellness, and recreation center. “I remember the impact that having a rec center made on CSU Bakersfield. When we got that done, the campus just thrived,” she says. “It became less of a commuter campus, because we had dorms, but you’ve got to make it so you don’t have to go somewhere else to work out or just shoot some hoops.”
Freeman-Patton isn’t shy about aiming high, and her ultimate goal for CSUDH athletics is to have teams competing for NCAA championships. “Winning is important because it improves the student-athlete’s experience. When you’re winning, it’s a lot of fun. Student-athletes remember winning championships for the rest of their lives.
“I want them to experience that. It’s up to me to try and put those pieces in place so that they can achieve it. I know it’s possible at CSUDH, because we have won titles in the past. I’m excited about where we are. And I don’t think it’s going to take us forever to get to where we want to be.”
A recent pep rally for the revived men’s soccer program gave Freeman-Patton a glimpse of what she hopes the future at CSUDH will be. “Everyone was out there having a ball. It was great to see the students just having fun, because they haven’t done that in so long.”
Once students return to campus in greater numbers, “I think it’s going to grow, and we’ll be able to help with the spirit of the campus. I saw a vision of that at the pep rally and was getting all excited. They even got me out there dancing with them! It’ll be really exciting once there’s more people on campus.”