Career studies student shines in field hockey

Career Studies student Maggie Kutz smiles in the equipment room at Penn State Harrisburg

Penn State Harrisburg Career Studies student Maggie Kutz is completing a career practicum with field hockey coach A.J. Misselhorn this semester. Kutz meets with Misselhorn once each week and helps with various tasks, from assisting with field hockey mailings to helping produce social media posts or helping with equipment inventory.

Credit: Oscar Cartagena

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — A video captures the moment Maggie Kutz was called up to take a penalty stroke for Penn State Harrisburg’s fledgling field hockey team in the fall.

Kutz, a student in Penn State Harrisburg’s career studies program who has Down syndrome, readied herself, took the shot and scored.

“It was a really good stroke play,” said field hockey Coach Amanda Janney "A.J." Misselhorn. “She’d been practicing that, too … sometimes you practice and it doesn’t happen in a game. She stepped up there and made an awesome shot.”

After the shot, the video shows Kutz run toward cheering teammates who tap her stick with theirs.

Kutz said scoring the goal was exciting. When asked what she likes about playing field hockey for the college, Kutz said she liked being on the team and “part of the family.”

“I like how I made good friends,” Kutz said.

Kutz is breaking barriers by participating on the college’s field hockey team and showing what inclusion on a college campus can look like along the way.

“She really is opening up doors for herself and other people, which is exciting,” Misselhorn said.

“The Career Studies Program that began at Penn State Harrisburg in 2015 has enabled students to break through traditional barriers to be included in college programs and activities. Maggie and her coach A.J. took her talents to the next level,” said Linda Rhen, director of the Career Studies Program.

Field hockey roots

Kutz began playing field hockey when she was around 5 or 6 years old and attended a field hockey camp with her babysitter. It was the start of what her mom, Meg Kutz, said was a “tremendous experience” participating in field hockey through her high school years, when she played for Lower Dauphin High School.

The Kutz family has always believed in treating Maggie just like everyone else. Field hockey always provided an inclusive environment where people believed in Maggie and what she could do, her mom said, and allowed her to participate in a way that made sense for her and for the team.

“Field hockey laid a tremendous groundwork of her believing in herself because other people did,” Meg Kutz said, adding that Maggie has now found that same support at the college level.

Kutz’s parents always wanted her to go to college, and the Career Studies Program at Penn State Harrisburg was close enough that she could attend and live at home.

The Career Studies Program is a U.S. Department of Education-approved Comprehensive Transition Program, where individuals with intellectual disabilities can obtain a high-quality, individualized post-secondary education. The inclusive post-secondary education program includes academic and social enrichment, career exploration and practical work experiences.

Maggie Kutz started her second year in the Career Studies Program in fall 2023, which is when Penn State Harrisburg launched its field hockey program as a club team, with plans to begin NCAA Division III competition in fall 2024. A mutual friend in the field hockey community connected Misselhorn with Maggie Kutz.

Meg Kutz said Misselhorn had no hesitation about asking her daughter to play.

“That tells us about who A.J. is as a person,” Meg Kutz said. “She didn’t think twice about it.”

Inclusion on campus

Being part of the field hockey team aligns with the mission of the Career Studies Program, which emphasizes social inclusion for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“We want our students to get involved on campus,” said Sandy McBride, Career Studies Program coordinator. “We want our students to be like typical college students.”

Career Studies Program students spend time with peer mentors who are traditional Penn State Harrisburg students. Peer mentors support career studies students in activities and events on campus, and they eat lunch and attend classes together. This semester, Maggie is studying art therapy and swimming; last semester, she took a scuba course.

When Penn State Harrisburg student Izzy Cox served as Kutz’s peer mentor in the fall of 2023, she frequently took Kutz back to her dorm to hang out with friends.

“She’s just one of the girls,” Cox said, adding that Kutz is confident and independent.

The program allows students like Maggie “the ability to be included on campus and participate in a way that makes sense for you academically,” said Meg Kutz, adding that it’s great for the whole campus. “It’s good for the rest of the world to see what people can do.”

Career practicums are one part of the program, and this semester, Kutz is completing one with Misselhorn.

Misselhorn calls it a coaching internship. Kutz heads to Misselhorn’s office once each week and helps with various tasks, from assisting with field hockey mailings to helping produce social media posts for the team. Misselhorn crafted a document setting out objectives for the semester.

“She has me doing a lot of different things and I am learning so much,” Kutz said. “I especially like helping with social media posts and anything to do with pictures.”

Kutz will play field hockey when the team enters DIII competition in the fall. McBride worked with Misselhorn and the Penn State Harrisburg Athletics Department to ensure Kutz was eligible. Because the Career Studies Program meets certain criteria set out by the NCAA — including being an officially recognized comprehensive transition and postsecondary program by the U.S. Department of Education — Kutz can play.

“I am so excited to stay at (Penn State Harrisburg) next year and be a part of the first season,” Kutz said. “I have made some new friends and look forward to traveling to games with them and winning a lot of games.”

Meg Kutz said she feels the same pride watching Maggie play that she feels watching her other kids tackle their own sports and passions.

“She’s just awesome out there,” Meg Kutz said. “She’s the best version of herself.”

Kutz’s participation in field hockey has drawn attention from local news and the USA Field Hockey organization — and even a cosmetics company that reached out about a potential sponsorship. She’s the first athlete Misselhorn has had to look into name, image, likeness deals for.

Asked what it’s like hearing herself called a trailblazer and inspiration, Kutz smiled.

“It’s awesome,” she said.