‘What they need is guidance and direction.’ SquashBusters celebrates 20 years of developing young people to prepare for college and beyond

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SquashBusters is much more than a fitness center on Northeastern’s Boston campus. It’s a university-sponsored community organization that has helped send hundreds of urban students to college while inspiring similar programs throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The facility—which uses the sport of squash to leverage academic, career and life skills—is celebrating its 20th anniversary under the leadership of Greg Zaff, its founder and chief executive officer.

“It was one van and him—that was how it started,” says Michael Davis, Northeastern’s vice president of campus safety and chief of police, who serves on the SquashBusters board. “He was the coach. He was the transportation coordinator. He was everything.”

Zaff was a former professional squash champion who realized the sport’s potential as he traveled to tournaments throughout North America in his 20s. In 1996, retired from competition, he began driving middle-school students to the squash courts at the Huntington Avenue YMCA and Harvard.

“I was a privileged kid,” says Zaff, who was All-American in both squash and tennis at Williams College. “It really started to bother me that here we have this unbelievable sport and it’s available to almost nobody unless you went to prep school or Harvard Business School or you work at a hedge fund. I’m overstating it, but you get the gist.”

He believed this sport of strategically hitting a ball against walls could help bring down societal walls—that squash could and should be applied to an after-school program of youth fulfillment that includes an hour each of homework, enrichment (including college prep) and squash practice on the upstairs courts each day. He also knew his nascent program needed a permanent home.

Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern at that time and a squash enthusiast, negotiated the plan for a shared space in 1998. Zaff raised funds to build the squash courts on Northeastern land near the Columbus Garage. The university paid for the facility’s fitness center, locker rooms and overall maintenance, enabling members of the Northeastern community to share the facility with the SquashBusters program. The partnership is similar to nearby Carter Playground, which the university has refurbished and maintained for the city of Boston.

“The idea [of SquashBusters] is that you’re using squash as the focal point because it’s such a difficult sport,” says Davis, who plays squash at the facility once a week. “The better you get at it, the more complex it is. It’s been described as ‘physical chess’ because you just can’t mindlessly hit the ball. The way I describe it is that it’s a metaphor for life.”

Opening the two-story facility on Columbus Avenue enabled Zaff to triple enrollment while adding high school students, which enabled SquashBusters to help guide young people throughout the process of preparing for and applying to college. 

Middle-school students spend 90 minutes per week on homework (often working with Northeastern tutors) as part of their after-school visits to SquashBusters. College-readiness workshops are added to the program for students in high school, along with SAT preparation, college visits, support for financial applications and college mentoring for every high school senior. SquashBusters staff stay in touch with program graduates to help them remain on track to graduate with college degrees.

“SquashBusters not only provides young people with the opportunity to learn and play squash, but also to receive academic support and engage in community service,” says John Tobin, vice president for city and community engagement at Northeastern. “SquashBusters is helping to shape the future leaders of our city and its impact is felt not only on the court, but also at Northeastern, our local neighborhoods and beyond.”

In all, more than 1,000 students have gone through the program with 98% of its graduates advancing to college. More than 120 SquashBusters alumni currently attend colleges, including Northeastern, where 22 have enrolled over the years.

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