A month ago I graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in English. Now that the whirlwind of celebrations and moving and unpacking and repacking and traveling has passed, I’ve begun to reflect on what the closing of this Stanford chapter means to me. Every person graduating from college experiences a host of similar emotions, fears, and expectations, but at the same time, each of us has had a unique experience and is headed down a unique path. For some, their college years were heavenly, fun, or full of opportunity. For others, they were arduous or traumatic. And for me they were, in sum, unexpected. I went on my first college athletic recruiting trip when I was in eighth grade. From age fourteen onwards, college was a very palpable and nearly certain reality. While I recognize that this was an unusual experience and I am the first to retrospectively criticize the need for middle schoolers to be thinking about college, I was not a typical teenager. I had my sights set on the Olympic Games in 2020 long before Tokyo had even been named the host city. So when I went on my first recruiting trip now nearly ten years ago, it didn’t feel early. It felt just right. And, I went into high school on a mission with college at the forefront of my mind.
When I arrived at Stanford in 2015, I had spent my last two years of high school training and competing with the USA Women’s and Junior National Teams. I had also spent my last two years of high school taking online classes, enrolled in an online high school that gave me the freedom to train and travel while continuing to take a full schedule of AP classes. So, when I arrived at Stanford I felt prepared in every sense of the word. I had spent most of my high school summers away from home traveling and competing internationally. I’d spent two years teaching myself more often than not and had become accustomed to the process of reading to learn and writing papers that counted for most of my grade. I had been training with women up to seventeen years my senior and was genuinely excited to finally be surrounded by peers. What could go wrong? I was ready for every challenge I could possibly face, I thought.
When a hit to the head in practice followed by a hit to the head in a game two weeks later cascaded into a series of devastating and confusing symptoms during the winter and spring of my freshman year, I found myself battling an invisible injury that would take me over a year to have properly diagnosed. Yes, I’m talking about Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Skipping over the minutia of my medical journey for now, in short, for eighteen months I struggled to reconcile why the body I’d trained and fine-tuned and knew so well wasn’t responding to treatments the way it always had.
I struggled to make sense of migraines and fatigue and concentration issues that began to manifest after I had been cleared to return to play. I did not know that concussions could have delayed onset symptoms. I did not understand what depression was really like nor that depression and concussion often go hand in hand. I did not understand that each hit to the head fundamentally impacts your neurology. I did not know that irritability, insomnia, and inflammation might be the result of TBI (traumatic brain injury) rather than of some mysterious illness I couldn’t put my finger on. When over a year later, at the end of a seven month leave of absence from both school and volleyball, I heard the words “Post-Concussion Syndrome” for the first time, things started to make sense. By then, I had already lost most of my muscle, any chance of having a "normal" college experience, had lost friends and a volleyball community that had long felt like family, and had begun to get comfortable speaking out about issues that tend to make people uncomfortable. It was at about this time that it hit me--my college experience was going to end very differently than it had started and very differently than I had thought it would.
After seeing doctors both at Stanford and in Southern California, it became clear that I’d need to medically retire from the sport I’d given my whole heart to. While letting go of my volleyball career has been a process of mourning, it has also been a process of finding hope and relying on faith in the face of adversity. When I medically retired in the spring of my sophomore year, I knew that I had a choice: I could either let what I had lost paralyze me, or I could stand up and start again one baby step at a time. I asked myself, “What have you always wanted to do or try that you didn’t do because you were busy, or in training, or considered it a distraction? What were the things you pushed aside because of your dedication to volleyball?”
I had always told myself I wanted to make films and write screenplays. At the same time, I realized that I hadn’t done those things not because of volleyball, but because I was afraid to do them. I had worked hard to become an elite volleyball player, but I certainly didn’t start out that way. I was terrible, at first. When I realized that I was scared of being twenty years old and a total beginner at pretty much anything I was going to try my hand at, I knew I had to suck it up and go for it. It didn’t matter if I was terrible, I just needed to try something new. What I had to face on the other side of volleyball was not fear of failure, but a fear of being bad at something I really cared about. But, I felt lucky to still be a student and have the opportunity to fail and explore and learn something new with relatively low stakes. I felt grateful for the time I’d spent playing for Karch Kiraly in the USA gym where the growth mindset (see Carol Dweck’s book Mindset) was drilled into the way we trained, recovered, and competed. So, I signed up for an Arts Intensive at Stanford, a three-week long narrative filmmaking course taught in September before the regular academic year began.
I had not anticipated getting a brain injury in college nor having to re-learn things that had once been second nature to me. And, I certainly did not anticipate losing the sport I loved and excelled at. For the entirety of my junior year, I forced myself to find new ways to study, new tactics for focus and concentration, and new reading strategies in order to progress academically. I took fewer classes strategically scheduled in order to accommodate my unpredictable brain. Studying in Oxford was oddly helpful. They have what is called the tutorial system where for each course you are enrolled in you meet with a tutor (a.k.a. an Oxford professor) once a week for an hour and then spend the rest of the time reading and writing an in-depth essay. Because of this, I didn’t have to switch gears as often and could take my time diving deep in one or two topics each week. I could do my homework whenever I felt best and could take breaks whenever I needed. It wasn’t easy, but it was a system that worked for my still-recovering brain. I didn’t have to be in loud classrooms with lots of people every day. For me, my Post-Concussion Syndrome cocktail of symptoms included all sorts of vision, mood, sleep, processing, and concentration issues. I could learn, and I could write, but I had to re-train my brain to do such things efficiently and effectively. It was exhausting and difficult. Cognitive FX helped me regain a lot of acuity in my mental processing, but it was a long, ongoing, imperfect process that is, in fact, going to be a lifelong project.
I’ve started saying that I will never be the same, that I will never be the “Old Me”, the me that arrived at Stanford in 2015. I have also, however, started saying that I think I have developed a new baseline, that I am now more functional than I was a year ago but that this new baseline does not by any means mean I am “healed.” Brains adapt, they don’t heal the way a bruised knee does. A concussion is not a sprained ankle--it is brain damage. Nevertheless, I have found a way to keep pushing forward and over time, have discovered new interests and passions that excite me. But nothing comes easily anymore. It is hard work holding it all together. And, I fall apart often. Whether that be in the form of a migraine, or a near hibernation-level night of sleep, or a complete emotional unravelling, I am still adapting to the realities of an injured brain. But in light of recently graduating and recognizing that I did somehow finish college despite taking a medical leave of absence and battling a brain injury, I have also become acutely aware of my shift in language.
For over a decade, I would say, “I am a volleyball player.” In high school once I committed I would say, “I will be going to Stanford.” When I arrived at Stanford, I would say, “I am on the volleyball team.” And, for the past four years, I have often said, " I go to Stanford.” But, a few years ago, I started saying things like, “I was on the volleyball team, I was an athlete.” And it has taken me a while to adjust to that past tense. One month ago today, I graduated from college and for the past month, I have been saying, “I went to Stanford, I was a volleyball player," when asked. The latter part now sounds more normal. It sounds like I am another former student-athlete who graduated college and did not continue playing.
This past month of putting college in the past tense has made me realize that for the last two years as I would relate, “Yes, I played volleyball, yes, I am still in college, no, I am not still on the team,” that I felt this need to explain what had happened to me. I didn’t want to be thought of as a quitter, because I was not one. I did not want others to assume that my status as a non-athlete was by choice. But, now that I am a college graduate, “I went to Stanford and I was an athlete,” sounds all too normal. It sounds like I played all four years. It sounds like I had it all. It sounds like the dream of so many high schoolers. But what this past tense statement leaves out, what is written in invisible ink, is the dream I used to talk about constantly, the dream that no one wanted to hear about once I medically retired, the loss that I am still mourning. It is the should-have-been, would-have-been, could-have-been that I have tried so hard to forget. It is the camaraderie, the community, the being a part of something bigger than oneself that I will never not miss. It is my dream of being an Olympian. My plan to play professionally. My love of wearing red, white, and blue. So when I graduated from Stanford a month ago it was not what I had expected at all.
When I arrived at Stanford back in 2015, I was planning on graduating early so I could go play professionally beginning in January of my senior year. I never even considered that I would actually attend graduation. I just assumed I’d receive a diploma by mail at some point. On the other hand, given the realities of Post-Concussion Syndrome and brain injury, for the past two years, I genuinely thought I would not be graduating on time. I thought I would maybe get to walk at graduation, but that I would still have courses to take and credits to earn. So, having jumped through all sorts of hoops this past year to graduate on time and be eligible to attend graduate school in the fall, when I received my diploma in person last month, I just kept thinking, this is not how this was supposed to go. It wasn’t how I’d thought it would go when I arrived at Stanford and it wasn’t how I thought it’d go once I was diagnosed with PCS. And I felt numb. Numb because having that diploma in hand was at once a reminder of all I’d lost, all I’d hoped, all I'd dreamed and worked towards, and at the same time, a reminder of all I’d overcome.
As I look forward now to a future in law school at UCLA and trust the Lord with whatever He may have in store for me, I have not forgotten my past nor the hopes for the future I once had. I don’t think I ever will. It is the loss of those dreams that inspires me, inspires me to fight for change so that what happened to me won’t happen to others. It is the loss of those dreams that reminds me of God’s sovereignty, that He gives and takes away, that He can turn that which is meant for evil into good. The loss of those dreams pushes me to dream new dreams. And the loss of those dreams is still traumatic. So while I may talk about Stanford and about volleyball in the past tense, the unfulfilled dreams that once felt so reachable will stay with me in my heart. I don’t think dreams ever die. Even dreams fulfilled live on as dreams. They are a part of who we are. They are the stuff of the soul. And so even as my Olympic dreams, my volleyball dreams, dreams of what might-have-been live on as reminders of what is lost, they live on as reminders of ambition. When I’ve felt as if I could not possibly go on, I have found strength in remembering that deep inside me is the drive of my fourteen-year-old self on her first recruiting trip determined to achieve her dreams.
As I begin this next chapter of my life, a college graduate and not a professional athlete, I will hold tight to these lost dreams. The realities of those dreams may be in the past, but the hope, the drive, the faith that they were built on is still alive. No matter how much you lose, how often you fail, how much has changed, remember how you started. Not why, but how. Were you afraid? Were you dedicated? Were you ambitious? Were you reluctant? I think we can learn a lot by looking backwards, by remembering our pasts. We are creatures of experience. We adapt. We are who we are because of all we’ve been through. And, that’s not necessarily always a pleasant thing to remember. I used to be so optimistic, so full of belief that I was able to create my own future. While we certainly influence our futures and our choices impact our lives, we are not in control. God is. We live in a world full of both beauty and ugliness. We are not untouchable. We are fragile. But we are also resilient. I’m afraid this post has devolved into preaching, so I’ll wrap it up.
The past four years were not what I thought they would be. At all. In some ways, that has been good, but in a lot of ways, it has been devastating and really, really hard. But I am grateful. I am grateful to be alive, grateful for all I’ve learned, and grateful that the Lord has showed me grace, and mercy, and restoration in the midst of hardship. I’ve made some amazing friends, seen some incredible places, and learned so many important lessons. I am blessed beyond belief. And I know now that you can be both blessed and wounded, and you don’t have to pretend like those wounds aren’t there to enjoy and be thankful for what you do have. Alright, that’s enough for now. If you made it to the end of this, kudos. If not, well, I don’t blame you. I was an English major after all—I get carried away when I write sometimes.