Chris Howe, Rob Hill, and Rob Brett: The Character-builders

“Every single player has the opportunity to be a top-quality person in life. That’s what the mentorship program is about.”

– Rob Brett, BCom’85

When it comes to supporting a favourite team, there are few fan bases more loyal than former players of the UBC men’s volleyball program. For decades, a small but committed group of them has been attending UBC games, meeting with current players, and boosting program resources. Their mere presence has been inspiring students for years, but these alumni have a lot more to offer, so they recently created a formal mentorship program to help build community and allow more alumni to contribute to the success of student-athletes.

Chris Howe, BA’15 is one of the alumni who helped to implement the new program in time for the 2020/21 season. Volunteering was a natural next step for Chris, who served as president of UBC’s Athlete’s Council when he was a player, and regularly benefitted from the presence and advice of volleyball alumni. He sees the mentorship program as a way of bringing together alumni from different eras to collectively invest in the strength of current players.

1982 Mens Volleyball team, including Rob Brett
1982 Mens Volleyball team, including Rob Brett

“Having a more structured way for players to engage with all of these amazing mentors will help athletes, while giving our alumni a human way to interact with the program,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity to foster some intergenerational connections, which makes people feel more connected to the community as a whole rather than to just one group.”

When Chris is mentoring, he hears the words of alumni who helped him as a young athlete echoed in the advice he now passes along to students. “It brings me right back,” he says. “I love helping my mentee, Zarley Zalusky, realize that all the skills and character he’s developing through volleyball will help him in his life.”

Two of the alumni Chris looked up to when he was a player—Rob Hill, BSc’91 and Rob Brett, BCom’85 —are also helping build the mentorship program. Both former players have remained committed to the success of the volleyball program, and were crucial in seeing it safely through a review of sporting programs conducted by the university in the early 2010s that threatened the team’s varsity status.

Rob Brett
Rob Brett

Rob Brett remembers his days on the court fondly, including his team’s 1983 National Championship. He notes that the support and encouragement of influential alumni helped him play his best. It’s one of the reasons he volunteers today. His experience as a national champion and member of one of UBC’s greatest volleyball teams has elevated and inspired players and teams for over 30 years.

He sees the mentorship program not only as an opportunity to help players develop their athletic skills, but also as a way to inform their transition into the world of work and build qualities beyond athleticism. As a father of two former UBC student-athletes and long-time business leader, the recently retired chief financial officer has a lot to offer when it comes to guiding and supporting young players as they chase their athletic and professional dreams.

“We want players to get far more out of their experience than just being a good volleyball player,” he says. “What’s really behind the mentorship program is the chance to develop the character side.”

Rob Hill (left)

Rob Hill, father of two UBC students, including one set to join the women’s soccer program this fall, echoes this commitment to both career and character—which he admits better describes what he gained from his volleyball years than athletic excellence.

“When I arrived on campus as a 17-year-old, I was shocked by how big the talent gap was between me and everyone else on the team,” he laughs. “To this day, it remains a mystery to me how I made the team. But I know that my path to becoming a successful player was aided a lot by supportive alumni – many of whom, like [’84 Olympian and ’76 national champion] Tom Jones, [’76 national champion] Ian Gregory, Rob Brett and my coach [and ‘68 national champion] Dale Ohman, remain closely involved with the team.” He thinks an ideal program includes components that bridge the student-athlete experience to life-long success in a broader sense. “At times, things can be hard for everybody,” he says, “but if you have quality mentors — not just opening doors but helping you when you’re down and giving you encouragement—that goes a long way and stays with you your whole life.”

Zecariah Johnson
Zecariah Johnson in action

All three alumni hope the mentorship program will solidify a community of support around UBC Men’s Volleyball. One of those standing to benefit is setter Zecariah Johnson, a fourth-year commerce student. Despite only participating in the mentorship program for a few months, he says he’s already gained a lot.

Zec Johnson
Zec Johnson

“My mentor Ben Feist, BSc’03, through telling the story of his own journey, has helped me understand that there are so many different paths that will get you to the goal you want,” he says. “[He showed me that] life is too short to be putting your time and energy into things that…don’t give you happiness and fulfillment.”

He sees himself continuing the legacy of community and character-building fostered by generations of volleyball players before him.

“This is a community that has given so much to me during my time here, that I cannot wait for the chance to graduate, enter that next stage of life, and give back in any way that I can.”

Published July 21, 2021.