It was called one of the greatest basketball experiences of all time.

The 2016 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

Reporters, athletes and fans converging on the city of Houston and NRG Stadium.

The excitement. The anticipation.

And that’s before the thrilling championship game between Villanova University and the University of North Carolina even began, providing a breathless final five minutes of play and a buzzer-beating, three-point bucket to seal the win for Villanova (77-74!).

The journey leading to that game was as thrilling as the destination for students from the Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) and the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. They were selected for a new kind of experiential learning program that spans four semesters and two big games.

The Super Four Experience puts students in planning, management, execution and event logistics meetings for the Final Four and the upcoming 2017 NFL Championship Game.

Sania Ahmed is majoring in hotel and restaurant management with an emphasis on event management. Being center court (figuratively) as the Final Four events unfolded was a lesson in keeping up and being prepared.

“The typical day was hectic, yet exhilarating. In the fall, I worked on ways to market the Final Four to audiences in Houston and its suburbs. The following spring semester, we had additional duties, and things were extremely fast-paced,” she said. “I was a part of the Street Team. Our goal was to inform our fellow Cougars of the event and encourage them to volunteer in this amazing opportunity.”

Part one of the Super Four Experience was two semesters working with the Houston Local Organizing Committee and the Final Four host committee. But it’s not over yet. With one large scale sporting event under their collective belts, students have two more semesters of planning and preparing for the 2017 NFL Championship Game. They’ll now work with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee. The playbook includes at least 10 hours a week on event projects and classroom discussions.

“As a sports administration major, I wanted to get involved in as many aspects of the sports industry as possible,” said HHP student Shane Nebeker. “This is exposing me to the events management aspects of the business, which is invaluable.”

Both Nebeker and Ahmed point to communication and flexibility as essential tools for taking on a project of this caliber.

“Issues are always going to come up—it isn’t ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ Sometimes you just have to put on a smile and roll with the punches,” Nebeker said. “I felt very proud about our team’s accomplishments. Seeing the event unfold and knowing that you had a part in it was a pretty cool experience.”

The experience also has taught educators about internships and the amount of time needed to create a meaningful experience. Traditional internships require about 300 hours in only one semester, but one semester may not allow the full experience to play out.

“Educators need to ensure their students have active opportunities in their internships and more support to ensure they have the tools to negotiate the challenges of the experience that also translate into a work environment,” said David Walsh, HHP clinical assistant professor and faculty advisor for the Super Four Experience. “This is the role of education.”