Smith cultivates relationships, takes helm of Anteater program

Paula Smith, who was named athletic director at UC Irvine in June, worked in the NMSU athletics department as an undergraduate student for four years, which established a foundation for her career in collegiate athletic administration.

Smith celebrates commencement with UC Irvine student-athletes.

When Paula Smith ’88 was named athletic director at the University of California, Irvine in June 2019 she became one of only 40 women and seven African American women to currently hold the title. 

“It’s been a rewarding opportunity to serve UC Irvine where I’ve worked for the last 14 years,” Smith says. “The student-athletes, staff and community have been very welcoming in this new role and supported me 100 percent. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

After serving two stints as interim athletic director at UCI in 2007-2008 and 2018-2019, Smith was the deputy director of intercollegiate athletics prior to accepting the permanent position. The Alamogordo, New Mexico, native spent 12 years at the Big West Conference, where she started as intern and became an assistant commissioner before she was hired at UCI in 2000. Smith went on to spend five years at University of California, Riverside, before she returned to the Anteaters in 2006. 

Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing, credits a change in majors from accounting and her four years as a student employee in the NMSU athletic department as helping prepare her for a career in athletics. For those interested in following in her footsteps, Smith believes building relationships is a key to moving up the ranks. 

“One of the things I felt that was key in my growth is staying connected with people in the business and being proactive about expressing your interest in the career,” Smith says. “With any form of business you have to network. It’s important to have the experience, knowledge and education as well as any work experience you can get, so don’t be afraid of volunteering your time. A lot of times that will get you in the door.”

After 30 years of experience in collegiate athletic administration, Smith says understanding the reason for working in the field is vital. 

“We are helping young people have a quality athletic experience, while they are getting their education, and it’s about furthering our student-athletes as a whole person and what will be the next 40 years of their career.”

Tiffany Acosta