For Torero Athletes, Victories Can Happen On, Off the Field

City Championship at Petco Park

When Mary Grabowski first arrived at the University of San Diego, it was understandable to believe that it would be an adjustment.

“I really wasn't sure what to expect,” she admitted. “I had a very stereotypical view of what a student-athlete was, based on mainstream stories you hear. I think I expected it to be a lot of softball, a lot of school and not a lot of anything else.”

Four years later, Grabowski, a senior catcher and liberal studies major working toward an elementary teaching credential, is playing her final season at USD. She's in her last semester of classes and will fulfill a student teaching requirement in the fall to complete the credential.

But the “not a lot of anything else” part? Completely false.

“I realized I had an opportunity to make a difference on campus and in the community outside of whoever watches me play softball,” she said. “I'm a real social person. Freshman year I had a lot of athlete friends, not just on my team, but every team. Becoming a sophomore, I wanted to branch out. My journey from freshman year to senior year has been about opening myself to different leadership roles.”

Grabowski is a fully engaged Torero, on the field and off. She is president of USD’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), is part of the MENTOReros program and leads a student Bible study group. She participates in student-athlete networking events via the Career Development Center and has entered the 2016 Social Innovation Challenge.

Her commitment to community service is palpable. “I came from a high school where 100 hours of community service was the minimum to graduate and I'm from a family where giving back to the community is highly valued. I’m on a team where my coach wants us to give back, care about Linda Vista and the elementary school kids who come to our games, care about their lives and what's going on in the community. We end up leaving not as just a student or a good athlete, but really understanding we have a big impact and influence on those who watch us.”

As SAAC President, Grabowski’s message to every Torero student-athlete — especially first-year players — is creating a healthier reality. "You have four years that go by way too fast,” she said. “If you want to do something, you can make time to do it. There's so much USD has to offer. Don't limit yourself to the idea that you don't have time. Don't limit yourself to thinking you can only have friends within your circle. Don't limit yourself to just being a student-athlete. There's so much more to each of us than just our sport and major."

Students, Athletes, Changemakers

A young man stands at the three-point line, holding a basketball in both hands and sizes up the shot. All eyes are on him as his arms rise and he jumps to launch the ball through the air. The result is the sweet sound of a swishing net, followed by true happiness. The basket sets off an eruption of cheers, high fives, hugs and smiles, both for him and his teammates, the USD men’s basketball team. It’s one of many special moments during the team’s annual clinic with Poway Youth Basketball League’s Challenged Division players at Meadowbrook Middle School.

“I love the relationships and getting to know the players,” said junior forward Brett Bailey. “The (PYBL) players just have so much fun with it as well as we do.”

Ron Valenzuela, assistant director of athletics for academics and student development, marvels at USD’s student-athletes.

"We have high functioning, high achieving student-athletes who compete at the highest level in Division I athletics, but also have a sense of pride and commitment to academics. A student-athlete comes to USD because they want the best of both.”

Add USD’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus designation and it’s a recipe for even greater potential. "As a university, we've adopted the word Changemaker and I think it can be put into the collegiate student-athlete description. Student-athletes are Changemakers. They are Changemakers in the community, in the classroom and they’re driven to want to make an impact, not only in their sport but also in their personal interests and endeavors."

Valenzuela facilitates opportunities to connect USD student-athletes to community partners such as Bayside Community Center, PRYDE/Mission Valley Family YMCA after-school program, Autism Tree Project Foundation, Miracle League of San Diego, St. Vincent de Paul Village, Feeding America San Diego and local elementary schools. He ensures participation in the San Diego Martin Luther King Day Parade, Linda Vista Multicultural Parade and Fair and the Junior Seau Foundation’s Shop with a Jock.

"Community service is a fundamental part of our identity, part of our culture as a university, something we support and believe in as an athletics department," Valenzuela said. "We feel our student-athletes can have a positive influence on San Diego’s youth. We want to expose a student-athlete to an experience that maybe has not been part of their life to this point. Nothing can duplicate the positive feelings and inspiration you receive when you give back. Experiencing the impact of community service, social awareness and responsibility can increase one’s sense of community connection, social consciousness and perspective-taking."

Finding avenues to prepare student-athletes for life after the University of San Diego is Valenzuela’s goal. Grabowski's desire to be outside her comfort zone and her Changemaker mentality are powerful leadership traits she’s developed.

"It starts at orientation when they’re exposed to the university’s mission and values and learn what we’re about as an athletics department, our goals and objectives," Valenzuela said. "Everyone in athletics loves to win games and championships, but it's more than that for us. We're about developing exceptional Torero graduates for life."

— Ryan T. Blystone


Video by Mason Shoultz, USD Athletics

Brett Bailey photo shot by Anna Scipione