I spent my first two years of college at Villanova University and have no regrets, despite the huge financial burden on my mother to pay out of pocket. My decision to go to Villanova University was one of the first decisions I ever made for myself without the approval of others. For years, I aimed for good grades to make my family proud. I did certain extracurricular activities to impress my friends. No one approved of Villanova University. The school was expensive. However, I did not care.
My time at Villanova University was fairly boring. I was the obvious underdog on the team, especially being a walk on. My freshman year roommate, Shaniqua*, was a 400m runner on full scholarship. Most of my teammates were high school state placers or high school and college All-Americans. Then there was me coming onto the team running 59 seconds in the open 400m race, which is not great and an official time of 1:04 in the 400m hurdles and unofficial summer track time of 1:02, also not great for the level of competition that I aimed to be a part of. Not only was I this no-named underdog, I was also an awkward caterpillar. I would say awkward butterfly, but I was nowhere near as graceful as a butterfly. I was still awkwardly skinny with large eyes and had a habit of saying too much about myself too quickly when I meet people. Not to mention, I come across as abrasive in introductions, which is a habit I developed from high school. In other words, I was the complete opposite of my roommate. Shaniqua was slim built like me, but was at least a B Cup in bra size. She had a slight, sexy southern accent which stood out from the majority of team’s northern backgrounds. Her skin glowed at any point of the year. Her eyes were a pretty almond shape. She had a commanding personality. She was upfront but in a way that was often comical. If she wasn’t the center of attention, she was close friends with the person who was. From freshman year, she stole the attention of many college boys, athletes and non-athletes. I was the opposite. Regardless, people’s expectations of me were likely low at this pint in my life.
As a wildcat athlete, I enjoyed most of my time at Villanova, except towards the end of my time there. Coming into Villanova, I had a lot of untapped potential. Considering I started my track career in a small private school and being a part of the first MHCA team to be a part of NJSIAA, I had done very well. I was also persistent as hell. I emailed the head coach, the women’s head coach and the sprints coach during my senior year. I visited the team and spoke with the sprints coach on an unofficial visit. I might’ve left a couple of voice mails as well. Maybe annoying was a better term than persistent. Either way, my times might’ve just made the walk on standards and the sprints coach, Coach Anderson*, gave me a chance that I am grateful for to this day.
My freshman year was okay. I improved greatly, but my standards for myself were so high that I rarely appreciated my improvements each race or practice. I was still not the best on the team, but I was consistent. I consistently gave my all in practice, and my times were consistent when I competed. If you needed a solid leg just to maintain the team’s place in a relay, I was the girl. If you needed bodies at conference championships for points or to break up the competition, I was the girl. In fact, sometimes I was more consistent than the girls who were on scholarship. This statement is not to tear down or discredit these girls’ contributions to the team. This is to acknowledge my progression in the program and how I began to value myself. Having competed at Big East conference and being a part in the coveted distance medley relay team, I started to realize I was more than just a walk on. During the summer of my freshman year, I remember talking to Coach Anderson on the phone in m hotel room during a competition in my last summer track year with Transy East. I remember discussing possible scholarships and getting the response summarized as I would not get a scholarship util my senior year. Despite this disappointing news, I came back the next year. However, my mindset was a little different.
My sophomore year a little more stressful. Realizing the financial burden this decision had on my mother and realizing I was not valued on the team the same way I valued myself, I constantly debated whether running at all or for Villanova was worth it. I went back and forth on the right decision for me. What I have learned is in times with tough decisions, God will be there to give you the right push. Two weeks before Penn Relays, one of the largest track meets held in the United States, the choice of who would run the 400m leg in the distance medley relay was between me and a recruited freshman. Villanova is based on tradition, so what can be more traditional in determining a track position than a classic run off.
I wanted to win this run off badly. Throughout the entire season, I wanted to prove I was as good and deserving of a scholarship as this freshman. She had already beaten me in indoor conference in the 500m. Tensions were high, at least in my mind. Stakes were high, high enough for me to choose to run this run off over a phone interview for a summer internship with Iron Man in Florida. I believed in putting it all on the table for track. I wanted to win, and I did, sort of.
The run off was supposed to be an all out 350m run. My sprints coach and the women’s head coach were there for the race. My coach started us at the first 50m mark and placed a cone at the final 50m mark. He yells “Set.” We get down in three point stance, which looks like the position sprinters have when in starting blocks, but with one hand down. He yells “Go” and the race is on. I was out. I got ahead and stayed ahead. As I approached the cone, the lactic in my legs built to a slow burn. My legs felt like they were moving in quick sand. The cone was approaching, but so was the freshman. I run past the cone barely ahead of the girl, but I did win.
To be honest, I did not feel great about the win. That lactic was serious. My legs were heavy and on fire long after the run was over. Immediately after the race, I talked to one of the seniors on the team and explained how I actually didn’t want to run the relay leg, especially if I was already running the open 400m hurdle race. However, I kept that thought or fear to myself. About ten to twenty minutes after the run, the sprints coach and women’s head coach approached me in the bleachers. I am not sure why, but I was conveniently alone at the time. The sprints coach explained, in his normal low volume, that first, the marks for the run off were off and I had ran a 300m race, not 350m. Second, despite winning the run off, the coaches thought it would be best to let the freshman run in the relay that’s almost guaranteed a top 3 finish in Penn Relays. I went to one of my teammates, standing on the track close to the gate entrance to the field house, almost immediately after the conversation and explained what the coaches told me. Her response was eye opening, “If they knew they weren’t going to give you the spot, they should’ve just said that.” I realized no matter how many internships I give up, workouts I complete until my legs hurt, personal records I run, I was the walk on. The spots, particularly scholarship spots, on the tam were taken and set, and although my efforts are appreciated, there was more stress caused than benefits reaped trying to fit into a program that had no room for me.
That same night, I texted Jesse. Jesse was a summer track coach that had a business of also being a college recruiter. At summer track meets, he would walk around to the various Jersey summer track teams and speak with the juniors and seniors on the team. He had a large black wallet filled with college coach cards from all types of schools. He had HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) schools, schools ranging from DIII to DI, small private school and large public schools. Not only did he have all of these schools’ contact information. He also had close kinship with a lot of those coaches from his years as a track official for summer, high school and college track meets. He was well connected in the track and field world. I caught a glimpse of his talents the summer of my senior year when he presented a list of schools willing to offer me a track and field scholarship in order to deter me from going to Villanova. Of course I rejected his options at first. Despite the rejection, he continued to root for me and celebrate my track accomplishments. However, I was not as hard headed the night I texted both him and Dwayne after the run off. I remember first texting Dwayne “Even when I win, I lose. I’m done”. I then remember the next few weeks having informal conversations with Jesse about possibly transferring.
Of course, I kept this decision to myself. Before Penn Relays, my best time in the 400m hurdles was 60 seconds, which was okay in my eyes. My internal decision to transfer did not ease a lot of the stress. Instead of placing pressure on myself to beat my teammate and training partner, I felt pressured to run as best a time I could to be recruited by the most competitive schools possible. I still knew very little about other options. I just knew I wanted the best option for me. Transferring is a tactical ordeal, especially as a walk on. I told few people about my decision out of fear of one of the coaches hearing and cutting me from the team before the end of the season. Instead, I counted the days until the end of the season. I ran a personal best in the 400m hurdles of 59 seconds in Penn Relays, placed in outdoor conference and ran 59 seconds in NCAA East Regionals first round. All the while, I was making my list of ideal schools to transfer to.
Like every year, I was indifferent and partially disappointed with my season. It is always frustrating to perform below your expectations. It equally frustrating to get small glimpses of your potential but not quite reaching it. Despite my opinions about my times and quality as a runner, Jesse worked his magic that summer as I worked mine. I had spent the entire school year searching for jobs and internships. I was proud to have gained a paid hourly internship in the USA Track and Field New Jersey office. I won’t talk too much about it because to be honest it was a lot of boring office work in a second floor turned office in a mid size suburban two story home. The office consisted of two desks on either side of the floor and a back section with a printer. Although a lot of the work was mundane, it was nice to see the world I love from the administrative side.
As I mentioned, Jesse was working the summer to find a school for me. In between driving to and from my internship, I had colleges calling my home and cell phone every week, sometimes everyday. I had school calling me from California to New Jersey. It seems as if Jesse sent my information to every coach in his overstuffed black wallet. One phone call I remember was from the University of Florida. The University of Florida is a part of the Southeastern Conference, where many of the top athletes in the country compete. The conference receives a lot of money and a lot of exposure. Although I was not offered a scholarship, nor was I expecting a scholarship from a Southeastern Conference school, the fact that the coaches were even remotely interested in me put my times and my performance as a student-athlete into perspective. University of Florida saw in me what I was beginning to see, a girl who’s really not great but there’s just something there with possibility. However, I denied the offer to join the Gator team quickly because I did not want the financial burden I had at Villanova.
To be honest, the process was about four years ago, so I do not remember the name of the schools that reached out to me. I remember the last remaining school choices were University of Pittsburgh, Jacksonville University and University of Connecticut. Pitt was an option because I was familiar with the coaching and the school had a freshman or sophomore 400m hurdler that I would have loved to train with. There was also a guy at Pitt that I was close to, J. Larson*. At the time, Larson was a graduate student that still competed in the 400m hurdles for Pitt. I’m pretty sure he was interested in one of my Villanova teammates first but somehow landed on me later. I don’t mind. He was incredibly fit, over six feet tall (not knocking my short men out there. You guys are fine too), full lips and classy. He also obviously loved track as much as I did and supported my hustle to athletic greatness. Finding a guy who is truly supportive of my athletic dreams is difficult because a lot of men like the fit chick (and I don’t blame them. I mean, our asses are amazing), but they appreciate it in the same way a guy appreciates a sports car, great to look at or show off but the goals of the car ultimately are based on whatever the driver wants it to be. Finding a guy appreciative of not just a fit but also a competitive and driven woman is more difficult than it should be. But, Larson was one of them at the time. I rarely got to see him in person because of training, competing or just the distance between Philly area and Pittsburgh, which is why I wanted to run for Pitt.
Jacksonville University was opposite Pitt in many ways. First, the school was small. Second, the school was in warm Florida. Third, Pitt’s conference, the ACC, had a much bigger name. Regardless, I like talking to the Jacksonville coach, an average height white guy with dark hair. I don’t why, but there was some air of familiarity to him. I am not sure if it was his appearance or the way he spoke. Another significant difference, was Jacksonville was offering a full ride. Pitt was back and forth. I knew Pitt wanted another 400m hurdler who was transferring from University of South Carolina at the same time as me. The other girl also happened to be one of my former teammates from my summer track team, whom I knew had better times than me. Although, Jacksonville had some noticeable benefits and is a good school, something about it didn’t quite get me.
Finally, there was UConn. The first time I considered UConn, I didn’t even know it was UConn. It was outdoor Big East Conference my sophomore at Rutgers University. My team, like many other schools, usually do morning shake outs, which is a quick warm-up, in or around the hotel. One of those days we were sharing the hotel hallway with another team. By this time, I had decided to transfer but quietly eyed other schools as potential choices. Of course, I would not dare ask the other coaches or athletes anything. I remember this tall, skinny black guy in sunglasses meticulously watching this line of black girls of all shades doing drills up and down the hotel hall. I did not know that was UConn at the time, but I remember thinking, “I should be with them.” I wanted to be with this coach that looked so invested in his athletes. I wanted to be with this big group of black girls looking like a black sorority line.
When my season ended, I remember Jesse giving me a preliminary list of schools interested in me. One of which was UConn. I remember the first time speaking with Coach W. I don’t remember much of the conversation other than him asking where I was from. I have a strange accent of putting on this slight botched southern/ Caribbean accent when I talk talk on the phone to people I am familiar with. The second time I spoke with him was during my official visit to UConn. Coach W told me UConn was in the middle of nowhere and he was correct, very correct. UConn was in a part of Connecticut I didn’t even know about. The road off the highway towards the school was fifteen to twenty minutes of off road gas stations, and trees. As soon as you enter campus, there is a farm to the right, a real farm with a pasture, cows and a barn, which explains why UConn’s agriculture program is well known. I remember wearing my curly hair in an a fro hawk and wearing a form fitting long, black and green striped, sleeveless summer dress that was supposed to fall to the floor, but my legs were so long, the dress fell to my ankles. My mother dropped me off on my official visit. We pulled up to the front of the field house, a one floor old red brick building attached to a two floor red brick building which was the recreation center where non-athletes work out. Coach W met us in front of the field house and brought us through a hallway. To the left were four large blue doors that led to the indoor track. Directly ahead was one blue door that opened to a white hallway lined wit coach offices. His door was the second door to the left. The head women’s coach, Coach Matthew*, was across the narrow hall. It was a small office, enough for a long, white metal desk and a hard blue couch. His walls were lined with framed photos of his athletes in action. In the corner was a grey, metal file cabinet with this small TV on top that played non-stop hazy, shaky videos of various track meets. You could hear the murmur of girls cheering for their teammates in the background.
It was a typical recruiter visit. It might have been more boring than others because my visit was during the summer when most students have gone home. My mother and I came into his office, we talked about how UConn is great blah blah blah and my mother left the office to get me tomorrow. I remember sitting stiff on his couch watching him sort of speak to me but also stare at his Mac computer screen. He was tall, skinny and glowing brown skin. He wore a Nike fit cap with a small part of his black curly hair poking in the back. When I first met him, I couldn’t tell how old he was. He looked no older than his thirties and spoke with this youthful excitement. Even today, people who don’t know him have difficulty determining his age. On the wall closest to his desk hung a framed photo of him in a Jamaica speed suit running. The only indication that he was older than I thought was when I asked if he continued to run today and his response was “Yeah my mouth.” Knowing him, he was probably very proud of that comeback. To this day, he is corny as all else.
I left with my host, a then sophomore named Milan*, who was a 400m and 800m runner. She was also a fireball of personality, very similar to my freshman year roommate but without the summer accent and shorter. I remember hanging out in one of the summer dorms with her and her roommate, Keisha*, an unbelievably gifted 200m and 400m runner. Like Milan she was diva, one of the cool girls that typically would never cross paths with me. She was tall, thick and fit with flawless make up. To be honest, I remember little of the conversation I had with them that night. I mostly remember my time with Coach W. The next morning, Coach W gave me a tour of the campus and the School of Business. I don’t know why, but I remember telling him one of my more embarrassing stories of how when I was younger I jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool even though I didn’t know how to swim. Somehow I expected a more sentimental response from him, but no. He just laughed at me. This is how our conversations usually went. I say something sentimental, and he has some callous response. Out of the three schools, UConn and Jacksonville were the only schools I actually visited. Pitt was playing and the scholarship conversations were up and down. I visited UConn first, but wanted to see Jacksonville before I made a decision.
To be honest, the decision was not clear after visiting both schools. Both coaches wanted me on the team and promised me a full ride scholarship. The decision became clear as I was sitting in the Jacksonville airport going hoe from visiting the school. I didn’t know which school to choose and pulled my phone out to call Coach W from Uconn. I wanted to get his opinion about which school I should go to because I trusted his opinion and believed he would tell me the right thing that’s best for me. Once I had that thought, I knew Coach W was the right coach for me. I called him in the airport to tell him I chose UConn. I remember him saying “Yes!” He seemed more excited about just the unofficial announcement of my coming to UConn than the Villanova coach ever seemed while I was on the Nova team.
Around this time, I had a dream where I and a three other girls were at a track meet. The stands were full and the competition was tense. At the 100m starting line on the track, the officials were lining the teams by their heats for a relay race. I remember sitting with my teammates yelling “Put Your C’s up!” as we waited for our heat to run. That dream solidified my decision to go to UConn. It also was a fairly accurate premonition of some of my best moments as a Husky.
By the age of seventeen, I believed dreams could be premonitions, including this one. All I remember from this dream is speaking with my Aunt Fanny, who had died almost ten years prior. For some reason, she had purple hair. The only thing I remember her saying was April 28 was the end of the world. Clearly, that did not happen in the literal sense or any sense. In fact, I don’t recall any tragedies occurring April 28 to the this day.
I do recall calling my then ex boyfriend, Damian* at 2am explaining this dream and being afraid. Today, I realize I must’ve sounded psychotic and paranoid, but then, it felt real. It felt real because I still believed, from my freshman year, that I was not going to live to see the age of eighteen. Again, there was still no reason to feel that way, but I did. Because my high school was a private school that excepted girls from various towns and cities, the school had buses for those that qualified. I remember sitting by the window and quietly tearing because I was afraid I would not survive long enough to make it home. The possibility of enduring a deadly accident seemed too real and highly plausible. There were some days I was afraid to leave my house because of what or who was on the other side. If a car drove too close to me, I was convinced it was someone stalking me. I sometimes sat on my bed and imagined my funeral. What would my coffin look like? Who would be there? I was preparing for the end without thinking of the positives that could be in my future.
April 28 came and went numerous times. I enjoyed my eighteenth birthday and am writing this at 23. The end is likely not known for anyone so preparing for it just makes you lose today. This was relevant for life in general and track and field. As a track athlete, I was never great. I was never the All-American that people wanted to meet and run against. When listing the greatest high school, college, and post collegiate athletes, my name was never in that conversation. Locally, people were aware of me, but nothing beyond that. For this reason, I thought my running career was over many times.
I ended my senior year of high school barely running the 400m hurdles any faster than when I started. By then, I was strongly interested in running in college, but I knew nothing about the recruiting process. My school was a small school and did not have a track team my first year. We were a track club. By sophomore year of high school, my school became an official member of NJSIAA, basically the state track and field association. Because we were so new to the sport as a team and I was the only runner on the team with any chance and desire of getting some sort of athletic scholarship or recognition from colleges, the athletic director and track coach had no idea how to even get schools to look at me.
After running in state championships senior year, I competed for my youth summer club team Transy East in Paterson. This was my second to last year competing for this youth team, but I new the natural end was coming. By the time I had reached the young women’s 15 to 18 age group of summer track, I realized a significant number of girls I compete with had stopped competing. By then, high school seniors have either received a college scholarship or decided to quit running. Regardless, by the end of the summer as qualifying rounds for youth nationals approached, conversations about school choices became more frequent. I was fixated on going to Villanova University. The first year, I ran for Transy East, the summer of my junior year of high school, I met Nicholas*. Nicholas was a former member of the team who was also a 400m hurdler. By then, he attended Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Doing research on the school, I noticed the school had a notable reputation in the track and field world and at the time was top 10 in the country for its business school, my intended major. The school was located close to Philadelphia with easily accessible Septa train lines from the campus to the city. I loved Philadelphia. The murals on the walls showed so much culture, and it was nice to be in an area with a large black population. The tall, connected homes reminded me of scenes from Harry Potter and black history oozed from the streets. The Nova campus itself reminded me of my high school. I visited the campus with my mother during my senior year of high school. We drive through a suburban yet concrete area to reach the front of campus which hid behind a large, black gate, like MHCA. Once we enter a gate, there is a small, grassy area to the left and a the athletic facilities, including the notable Pavilion which hosted home basketball games and the Jake Nevin fieldhouse where the track was located. Directly ahead was the Nova church. Like St. John’s Episcopal church, the building probably dated back to the 1800s or earlier, beautiful grey brick with two steeples. Based on what I saw and new about the campus, I was fixated. I had to attend the school no matter the cost, and this small, private institution of about 6000 students had a large tuition cost. I was determined to work and have numerous personal bests the summer of my senior year to get a scholarship to go to my dream school.
That did not happen.
I ran decent times. I barely hit the walk-on standards for the team. To be honest, I might not have even hit the standard at the time. My summer coaches, Ronald* and Wayne* and the man who helped me look into other schools and coach of Jersey City Gladiators, James* all tried to get me to choose a more affordable school willing to give me an athletic or academic scholarship. I was not interested. Even when Wayne* felt I belonged in a division II institution, I was not changing my mind. By seventeen years old, despite my times, I knew track was my sport and I have the possibility to be one of the best in the country. However, all that conviction did not help me improve my times and this was the first time I was afraid I would not make it onto the team and my track career would be over.
Spoiler alert, I did compete with Villanova as a walk on, but it did not ease my fears for long. By sophomore year, I decided to transfer. Despite improving significantly during my time at Villanova, my times still didn’t seem fast enough to get a full ride to another school. Regardless, I was as fixated on leaving Villanova as I was for going. My mindset was, “I don’t care what is next. I just have to go. God will get me through this”. This was a second time where I believed my track career was over. What if no school wanted me? What if Villanova decided to retract its 50% offer? Where would I go? What if my new coach isn’t good? I was afraid that this decision could end all of my goals of being a world class athlete.
Spoiler alert, I was offered a full ride from Coach Kyle* at the University of Connecticut, but it did not ease my fears for long. By senior year, despite no longer running the 400m hurdles, I ran well. I was Second Team All-American on the team’s 4×400 relay. I was conference champion in the 800m. I competed in NCAA East Regionals in the 800m and missed the second round by .004 seconds. I had other accomplishments as well. Despite these accomplishments, my times still weren’t world class level. I was angry and frustrated. By the end of outdoor season, there were a lot of emotions brewing within the team between the athletes and the coaches. It was overwhelming and not how I wanted to end my track career. Despite these times, I still wanted to run professionally. However, the same questions and others came to my mind. What if no coach wanted me? What if I couldn’t afford to train pro? Where would I go? What if my next coach isn’t good? Again, I was afraid that this decision could end all of my goals of being a world class athlete.
Spoiler alert, I was accepted into the UCONN Department of Communications Graduate Program as a full time student and teaching assistant which waived my tuition and provided a stipend large enough to pay to live. In addition, my 800m coach from UCONN, Coach Mark was willing to continue to train me. However, my fears were not eased for long. In fact, since running post-collegiate, my fears constantly loomed over my head. These fears manifested itself in anxiety levels strong enough to have thoughts of suicide and go to counseling on campus. They also manifested in my dreams. Some of my dreams involve the white car and my identity and the broken school.
I am an avid Harry Potter fan. As a boring, middle class girl with overprotective family, the idea of escaping to this magical world was wonderful. At twenty years old, I went to the Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios, and I felt like my life was complete. My constant need to escape the loneliness of reality led me to often blend fiction and reality. For years as a little child I believed the cartoons on the television were real and I only needed to find a way to access the world through the television to be with Jimmy Neutron and others.
I always wanted to be a witch. My dreams reflected that. This dream is one of the few storylines I remember. I was in my backyard in New Jersey with some girls from my high school. My house was deceptively small, and my yard was actually small. I was learning magic for the first time, trying to levitate something with my wand. Fast forward to the end of the dream, I was standing on a diving board high, at least two stories high, above this pool in this dark natatorium with dark wood paneled walls.. The pool was so blue, the water glowed. This woman reminiscent of the flamboyant host in The Hunger Games movie series explains the task. I needed to jump into this pool to prove my magical capabilities. In my attempt to jump, I end up leaping to the wooded walls and running along the walls on some Spiderman shit. On this journey I ran past some African masks hung on the walls. Then I woke up. I don’t know if I actually made it to the pool.
I was about thirteen or fourteen years old but still believed in magic. I believed in the experience of learning. I believed in taking small leaps of faith and excepting where I landed. Like my dream, like most people, magic started at home. It starts on our blocks, in our backyards, or in our basements. I loved Harry Potter because the books always started in the mundane muggle world where some random magical moment unleashes an entire magical adventure. I loved the books because there was a character for everyone. We are or have a Harry Potter, Malfoy, Hermoine, Ron and Voldemort in our lives. We definitely all have a Dumbledore, some caring wise person who is a positive influence, in our lives. Dumbledore is a family member that always throws bible verses at us in every family function. Dumbledore is the teacher who saw a special talent in us and noted it in club recommendations, encouraging comments on coursework or blatant compliments. Dumbledore is a pastor or even a friend.
Today, I believe less in magic but more in this inexplicable human capability to exceed expectations. I believe in this natural human inclination to never be stagnant, either physically, emotionally or intellectually. Think beyond your backyard and take leaps.
Dreams can be a replay of things that happened in one’s waking life. They can also be premonitions. Based on the people I remember in this dream, I was about ten years old. Some of the supporting actors and actresses in this dream include some children from the summer camp I went to during a time when my mother was working as a child psychiatrist in two different hospitals. From what I remember, I was one of few black children in this camp, thus I did not enjoy myself for the usual reasons of feeling ostracized and judged that many black kids in predominantly white environments felt.
I like to think of this dream as destiny. However, it was before I learned some symbols in dreams have specific meanings. This was one of the first dreams where I was me and not a viewer of me for most of the dream. All I remember, because I am digging through about fifteen years worth of memories, is the dream starting with the ending of a kids movie. I am sitting in an elementary school classroom, similar to the type of rooms in the building where the camp was held. The lights were off and end credits appeared on a large screen in large letters, similar to the type of credits seen at the end of a nineties children’s movie. When the lights turned on, a white boy, assuming to be the popular kid in camp whose name I do not remember, with a Backstreet Boys’ haircut, popular in those times, gets up and walks towards the door. He looks at me and asks “Are you coming with us or are you staying with the birds?” I turn around and four giant cartoon blue birds that are reminiscent of today’s Twitter icon with giant round heads were sitting in a row playing flutes. When I turn to respond to Backstreet Boy kid. I notice the boy and his friends were out of sight. My legs begin to turn like Sonic the hedgehog or the Road Runner from Looney Tunes and I run around the building full speed and catch up to the kids and walk into the sunset with Backstreet boy kid and his squad, whose names I also do not remember.
This was one of the few dreams I can recall sharing with my mother. I love my mother. She is a strong support system in many ways. When I was younger, she was a huge source of knowledge for me. Almost six feet tall, she seemed like soft friendly giant to me and a glimpse into the future. However, I never reached anywhere close to the six foot mark like her. To this day, because I look so much like her, but am physically much smaller than her, people think I am much younger than I am when I am with her. Today she tells me, “You look like an underdeveloped version of me.” Because Dreammoods was not a thing for me, my mother was my dream interpreter. She explained how running in a circle full speed represented the year that would pass until I saw my then summer camp friends again and how fast the year will pass. However, we never fully explained the blue birds or the flutes.
I like to think the blue birds were a small premonition. Around the time of the dream, I had started to play the flute during my fifth grade for my elementary school, Mario J. Draco School #3. I was awful. My first recital was terrible. In the elementary school gym, the school band was seated in front of the stage. The flutists were on the far right of the ensemble. If I can remember, the song was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a classic used in movies when something gets completely demolished. For the majority of the song, I merely held the flute to my mouth and moved my fingers to the beat of the song. When I was feeling extra confident, I would just blow into the flute loud enough to make a sound then continue faking the finger movements. On a positive note, I grew to love the flute; and, with the help of the music teacher that replaced the old one during my sixth grade, my private instructor, and my mother’s relentless nagging to get me to practice at home, I excelled in the instrument. Towards the end of my music career, I could play in harmony with other flutists and for the school talent show, in either the sixth grade at Mario J Draco or during my two years at the small Catholic school in the town over, I played the theme song to Harry Potter. You can imagine the level of nerd emanating from me. I was stick skinny and a huge Harry Potter fan. So much so, that I wanted my first pair of glasses to be round just like Harry Potter. However, I stopped playing the flute when I started high school at Mary Help of Christians Academy, a small all-girls school.
I learned about MHCA during my eighth grade year at St. Claire’s School. SCS was so small, there was one class per grade from pre-K to eighth grade with about thirty children per class. Because the middle school in my neighborhood had a bad reputation of school fights and pregnant pre-teens, my mom enrolled me into this school located across the street from the scenic view of a large cemetery (note the sarcasm). I spent seventh and eighth grade at SCS and did not enjoy my time. Again, I was one of few black children in the school which was a culture shock for me. My small home city, Passaic, is predominantly latinx and working class, not counting the orthodox Jewish community that bordered the division between Passaic and the next town over. Although I was often one of few black children in my classes in Mario J. Draco, the majority of the students in my classes were children of color. MJD also had a number of students who were immigrants and new to the school or kids who moved from one side of Passaic to another. There was always a new kid or two to meet. SCS was the opposite. The school was small and many of the kids had stayed in my seventh and eighth grades classes from kindergarten to eighth grade. I was this dark, afro-haired outsider thrown into a cult. I disliked the classes. I disliked being in a school so small that I often ate lunch in the classroom where the small class divided among themselves into their respective cliques while I ate at my desk alone in the middle of the classroom. I disliked most of the people in the school. Some of the few great things that came out of SCS included: the realization that I was faster than the other kids in running activities, my good friend Maria, spending another year with my oldest friend Avril, and learning about MHCA. There were other good moments as well, to be fair. The uniform consisting of a maroon top and grey bottoms, either grey pants or skorts or a plaid maroon and grey skirt, reminded me a little of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry uniform from the Harry Potter series. I enjoyed performing in the school talent show with Avril and Maria as the girl dance group, FAM. I also played on the school’s basketball team and enjoyed the sport. However, we sucked and unlike my flute career, we did not get better with time.
Regardless, I remember when the sisters of MHCA came to St. Claire’s. The eighth grade girls were brought into a different classroom where the sisters talked the usual “come to our school” talk and played their recruiting video. To this day I do not know why I was driven to go. This was a shocking interest considering I was always boy crazy. I loved the idea of love and having crushes. Every year of school I’ve liked someone. St. Claire’s was the first time in my life where I thought some of the Italian boys were somewhat attractive, but I had no interest in any of them. Regardless of the source of the drive, I liked the sisters who came to St. Claire’s and I liked the school more after the visit. The school stood behind a large, black gate. When you enter the gate, there was an open grass, area to the right, more road an open part of the campus with large trees to the left, and you needed to drive up a hill to get to the main entrance of the school, which was a large orange building similar to Mario J. Draco School #3. The orange, brick building, consisting of classrooms and the cafeteria, was only part of the school campus. Connected to the orange building, a little further up the hill, was the church and connected to the church was another building where classes were also held. I don’t know if it was the campus that reminded me of the hilly school of Hogwarts and my old elementary school, the girls who were a mixture of girls of different races, or the mascot which was of course, the blue jay, but I had to go to MHCA.
Spring 2016 semester has started. I have completed syllabus week and am now officially starting my second semester as a graduate student. Being a full-time student, being a TA and being a full-time athlete was a difficult balancing act in the fall semester. One would think that if someone could survive being a student-athlete for four years, there should be no difference to being in grad school for two years. Here is the difference. I am no longer a student-athlete. I am a student and an athlete. Being a student-athlete in undergrad came with accommodations that made balancing my studies and my sport possible. Because I was running for the school and using school facilities, the school in return provided resources to student-athletes that allowed us to better explain to our instructors and peers why we would miss certain classes or wouldn’t be able to hand in certain assignments on time. The Athletics Department also provided academic assistance more readily available to help student-athletes.
Buzzfeed sums grad life best with 21 photos that even now bring me anxiety to what entails in the upcoming 15 weeks, give or take. In graduate school, your social life in non-existent. Of course, I understand those with complicated majors, as I like to call certain majors, probably are already living the grad life just without the title. But there is a different mindset when coming into grad life.
It’s really that mindset that distinguishes the difference between being a student-athlete and being a student and an athlete. As a student-athlete, there is an understanding, depending on your reputation and/ or sport, that academics may not be your passion and sports may very well be the one and only reason you go to school. A former student I taught as a TA argued that college athletes should not get paid by NCAA because students go to college to hone their skills not just play sports. There is so much to say about that statement, but what I will focus on this. For a student-athlete, going to college includes honing their skills as an athlete. During my undergraduate years, I didn’t just improve in times while on the track team. I learned persistence and proper running technique and grew as an athlete. I also learned and was successful in my undergraduate classes, but it the lessons I learned as an athlete were equally as important in directing my career path.
But going back to being a student-athlete, you CANNOT be one without the other. You do not perform to the academic standards that the athletic department, your coach and/or the school sets, you do not compete and/or train. That simple. For some who are on scholarship, if you do not compete or train to the best of your ability and follow the rules of the sport (I leave that open to interpretation), not taking into account injuries or emergencies of course, you were not guaranteed the same amount of scholarship thus affecting your ability to pay for school thus affecting your education. As a student-athlete, education and athleticism are valued equally.
As a student and full-time graduate student, especially one with a teaching assistantship, these values and standards change dramatically. This scenario gives a better idea of what I mean. Last semester, I told one of my professors that I was an athlete, and although I did not plan on missing assignments, I did want to let the professor know in case I missed any classes for competition. The professor was understanding and told me that it is good that I was a runner because it is important to have a “hobby” outside of grad life. I cringe hearing the word “hobby” in regards to my running. But I understood why my professor would say that. In graduate school, at least my specific department, there is an assumption that those who attend graduate school share a passion for academia similar to how athletes share a passion for their sport. You come with the commitment to dedicate your time and energy to your assignments in class. You enjoy academia to an extent where research and reading educational articles are enjoyable. Anything not connected to what you are studying or does not directly benefit from your studies is a side attraction. It is something to break the monotony of studying. It is a hobby. Also, and this is merely an assumption, I don’t think professors teaching graduate level courses encounter athletes as often as they would at the undergraduate level. This means that the obligation, for lack of better words, to be more understanding and considerate of athletes’ competition and training schedules does not exist. This is not a critique of graduate school, but merely an observation.
This is where the balance of academia and athletics becomes difficult. When both aspects of my life requires a heightened amount of my time and dedication, it sometimes feels like I am being pulled in two different directions. As a student and an athlete, I can be one without the other. My athletic capabilities no longer affect my ability to afford school. If I decided right now to hang up my spikes, my academics would not be affected. My academics no longer affect my competition or training. If I failed out of school or quit school, I could still run and train. Of course it is not that simple. Graduate life also comes with the reality of bills and living expenses that need to be handled.
I knew that this balancing act would not be easy, but I didn’t quite expect why it was difficult. The limited time and extensive work was expected, but the expectation from my professors and colleagues that academia is this passion burning in you was not what I anticipated. How do you explain that, although I still value academics as a student-athlete who was consistently on the dean’s list, my heart is not in academics in the way they expect? Of course, I value everything I learn in grad school, but not to an extent that I would make a career in academia. How do I explain to someone in academia who may have never played a sport in their life or spoken to an athlete, why it is worth spending a year or years of your life to pursue goals of athletic excellence? There are many questions about dealing with this dichotomy and explaining this dichotomy to someone who does not share your goals. Although many times I am frustrated, I am also excited to have this unique experience. I don’t want this to be a discouragement to anyone. It is simply one of various realizations I have had and will have in this track journey.