College independence: Easy for some, not so much for others

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By Steve Smith

Part 3 of a three-part series


About a dozen former high-school athletes have spent the last two weeks talking about their experiences and basic adjustment to life in college while involved as a college athlete.

This week, the topics are how hard the balancing act between social needs, educational needs and personal needs (such as laundry) was and whether they think the experience was what they anticipated when they got to school.

Overall adjustment difficulty

Adams City graduate Carlos Barrera, who played football and ran track at Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, said it was definitely a struggle.

“Morning weights and classes all day, then meetings and practices. It often seems like you have to try and fit things you never realized took so much time to do, like getting a good meal in or showering and homework,” he said. “Late nights doing homework are often a thing, as night is almost always the only time off. You stay so busy that when you do actually have free time, it almost feels guilty as if you should be doing something else.

“But the stress of it all is good stress,” he added. “You know what you sign up for.”

Brighton High graduate Nathan Baca wrestled at Minot State in North Dakota this year. He finished with a record of 15-12 as a true freshman.

“Balancing all the needs of college was made easier for me because I am in athletics,” he said. “My typical day looks like this. I go morning weight lifting, then to the cafeteria afterwards for breakfast, then back to my dorm to clean up get ready for my classes. After my classes, I eat in the cafeteria before practice starts at 4 p.m. Then after practice and showering, I go to the cafeteria to eat dinner with some of my teammates, then to study hall or my job coaching younger kids at one of the local wrestling clubs before going back to the dorms.

“The balance is made easier because the cafeteria is very close to here the academic success center and all of our athletics facilities are,” he added. “So it makes for a schedule that makes sense.”

Prairie View High School alumna Brooklyn Trujillo-Quintana, who pitched for NCAA Division I Rider University this spring, said it was a struggle adjusting to college.

“I had always been a really good student with good grades in high school and I never really had to study,” she said. “Going into the science field in college changed that immediately. So that was hard for me to adjust to. But throw softball into the mix of academics, and then you’re playing with a whole new beast. You learn time management quickly.

“Also, I’m 27 hours away from home so I was forced to be pretty independent,” she added. “Having to buy groceries and do laundry and everything else was a lifestyle adjustment I had to make as well. Being a student-athlete in college changed my lifestyle in a lot of ways.”

Eagle Ridge Academy graduate Lexi Cox, who played volleyball at Peru (Nebraska) State College, said transitioning from a high-school athlete to a student-athlete in college was “extremely tough.”

“Having to do homework on a five-hour bus ride to a volleyball game was very hard to get used to. Since I’m a science major I would miss labs as well, and the labs aren’t fun to make up by yourself because they take up to almost two hours to get done,” she said. “Cafeteria food is nothing like a home-cooked meal. I would gladly eat leftovers at my house any day. Doing laundry was never a struggle for me because my mom made sure I knew how to do laundry in my house.”

BHS graduate Hannah Day, who played soccer at Trinidad State Junior College, said the overall transition wasn’t hard for her.

“It hasn’t been too difficult to balance everything together because, honestly, I’ve been playing soccer for all my life. It’s always been a part of the balance,” she said.

Her classmate, Dylan Selph, who played football at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, said the time management aspect of college life was “super tough.”

“Laundry gets done late at night between homework bursts, and food is eaten whenever possible between classes,” he said. “After a few weeks, you have the process down to a T, and the flow of things becomes so much better, you learn what times to do homework, catch a 20-minute power nap, snack, and prep yourself for practice.”

Frederick High School graduate Lorenna Hernandez, who played softball at Fisher College in Boston, said she had to learn the art of a good schedule fast.

“First semester, the first few weeks were very hard. I was overwhelmed and wasn’t used to having a jam-packed schedule,” she said. “I wasn’t used to being on my own. The number of times I did laundry started to add up. The number of times I went out started to add up. All the times I went shopping added up. When second semester came around, I was able to balance everything easier and had more time to do things I wanted to do while still playing.”

Seanna Conklin, who played volleyball at Frederick High School and spent this season playing volleyball at Blackburn College, in Carlinville, Illinois, said balancing her needs was “highly challenging.”

“My college is small, and our dinning hours are not user-friendly for athletes,” she said. “They are never open when you have time to eat. Sometimes I didn’t have time to eat until after practice, which would mean 8:30 at night. You can’t run into town and get food. We don’t have coffee shops or stores inside the college open at all hours. Laundry is always done while I sit down and do homework. I put a timer on once I start it, and I run back down to move it when the timer goes off.

“Staying organized and having a great roommate who is clean and has the same study habits is a must,” she added. “When you fill out your roommate form, you better ask for someone who is into academics and not playing video games till 3 a.m.”

Brighton High School alumnus Jacob Wilton, who played football at Colorado State University, said the adjustment was hard at first.

“You’re adjusting to being on your own for the first time. You don’t have your parents around to help you with everything,” he said. “But if you stay focused and don’t get distracted, then you get used to it quickly. You just have to prepare every night for the next day. It’s easy to just have a schedule written out to help you remember everything. But after a while, it all becomes normal because it’s your daily routine.”

“Balancing everything hasn’t been that hard,” said Prairie View graduate Mikhail Sands, who ran track at Wayne (Nebraska) State University. “It just depends on your schedule and how determined you are.”

Worthwhile experience?

Helwick had the simplest answer.

“Yes it has. Everything I was told or mentioned about college has come true or I have experienced,” he said.

“Before going to college I had always thought that it would be harder, with more stress, and more responsibilities,” Baca said. “And so far it’s lived up to that. But what I didn’t take into account was the independence you receive in college. The independence is liberating, but it can also be a burden if you aren’t on top of things.”

Trujillo-Quintana was the experience was different from high school and not necessarily what she expected.

“I didn’t have much expectations coming in. I knew it was going to be hard and a lot of work,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily know it would be to the extent that it is. I absolutely love what I’m doing at Rider. I love the softball experience because I have met some of my absolute best friends. You kind of learn to grow up. Little things in life that you thought would affect you no longer do, and that is an amazing breakthrough I discovered through my first year there.”

Hernandez said her first year in college was exactly what she expected – hard work and dedication.

“At the same time, I didn’t expect to have as much as I did,” she said. “Going to college has been a dream come true. I’ve experienced more than I thought I would have and excelled in academics more than I would have normally due to the amazing resources. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But at the same time, college is a time to live life and find out who you really are. That’s exactly what I got coming to college.”

“The experience is a little together than I thought it would be, but I’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” Day said.

“The experience has been a little bit more strenuous than I originally thought it was going to be,” Selph said. “I expected a little more free time than high school, and all of that free time gets filled up with football, football and more football. Other than that, I have loved the experience. I have grown as an athlete, scholar and a person in general.”

“The experience wasn’t what I thought it would be because of the movies blowing it out of proportion,” Sands said.

“I thought college was going to be a blast coming in, but I didn’t realize how stressful homework and studying for exams would be,” Cox said. “Also, I wish someone told me before I came to college to never be someone else and to always stand up for what you believe in, no matter how hard you want to fit in with others.”

Conklin said she knew college would be hard but that she didn’t know what to expect, nor how she would handle it.

“All I knew was that I worked extremely hard to get there and I’d do anything to put in the work to keep playing the sport I loved and have a passion for,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of wonderful people who have become amazing friends on and off the court. I never knew the professors would be this amazing. That was surprisingly a bonus for me.”

“In the weeks before I had to report for summer workouts, I was stressing a lot because I really didn’t know what to expect,” Wilton said. “I knew workouts were going to be rough at first, I knew school was going to be a challenge. But everything was 10 times harder than what I thought it would be. I was able to push through it and start as a true freshman, which was my goal coming in. Once you decide that you don’t want to be just an average college football player but that you want to be great and you put your mind to it, then it becomes easy because you learn to love what you’re doing every day.

“It makes it easier to see the end goal and when you see the progress that you’re making it just motivates you even more to be great.”

Words of advice

Selph encouraged future college athletes to not turn down the chance to play sports in college.

“It makes you a more well-rounded person, and you’re only able to play for so long. Embrace it,” Selph said. “If you need to learn a new position to help the team or need to get a tutor to better your grades, do it. Do not shy away from these opportunities as they will only make you better.”

“In college athletics, you just learn to put faith in coaches and teammates and enjoy all the hard work that goes into it,” Barrera said. “It hurts, but it feels good. And it’s a blessing to be able to continue my athletic career when many can’t after high school.

“College athletics teaches you to trust the process and put 100 percent into everything you do. If not you’re wasting your time your coaches’, professors’ and teammates’ time and, more importantly, an opportunity someone else is wishing they had.”

“Take your time and research. Talk to past students, see the transfer rate during the first semester,” Conklin said. “It is crushing to do everything right and have it all possibly end because the school drops majors due to funding or lack of incoming interest in that major.”

She’ll be able to transfer to another school that recruited her. She hasn’t decided which one.

“There is one thing my coaches taught me though, and that was never settle, always go for broke and never deny yourself the best education,” Conklin said.

“Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,” Wilton said. “Because if you have a passion for the sport that you are in and you’re willing to put in the work to be successful, then you can do it. You just have to put your head down and push yourself beyond your limits.”

“One little tip I have for future college student athletes is to work your butt off in all aspects – school and athletics,” Trujillo-Quintana said. “Also don’t forget to call your family back home. That is what kept me going when the times got hard.”