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Getting to Know... DJ Lawson

Oct 14, 2020

The ninth installment of "Getting to Know..." features Cross Country and Track & Field runner, DJ Lawson, who enters his senior season with the Bruin distance program. He discusses his time at community college and how that experience helped prepare him for the athletic and academic rigors of UCLA. He also provides insight into how his Hispanic Heritage fuels his desire for success.

Q: When did you start running competitively and when did you know that track and cross country would take you to the next level?
A: I started running competitively my junior year of high school. After that first season, I did pretty well and went to state, which is not the easiest thing to do in California. After that, I realized my potential and I kind of wanted to pursue it and see if it could take me far in terms of just being able to go to college since I'm first generation. Before running, I actually played football and soccer. I did track, but I was more of a sprinter and hurdler. I didn't really do distance until my junior year. I wanted to transition into something different because those are the sports that were more of a hobby rather than something I could see myself pursuing further after high school.
Q: How did switching from sprinting and hurdles to distance come about?
A: That came about when one of my old coaches wanted me to run the 800m after doing the 100m just in like a dual meet, so it didn't really mean much. I just ended up running pretty well and I beat all of the distance runners, so that's when the distance coach came up to me and he was like, 'Hey maybe you should run cross country and track.' Initially, I didn't want to because I was still playing football in the fall. But then, I really thought about it and thought about where football was going to take me going into my junior year and whether it was something I was going to do after high school. So I figured I would just give running a shot and it ended up being the appropriate decision.
Q: As a transfer from community college, what was the recruitment process and transition like for you?
A: The recruitment process was very similar to high school, but the recruitment process for me was a little bit different just because I had barely started running, not until the end of my high school career. I didn't get as much spotlight as compared to other runners in California, but since I had already made all of those previous relationships with coaches, it wasn't too difficult to reach out to them again and try to reconnect with them. That's what I did with [UCLA Track & Field/Cross Country Assistant Coach] Devin Elizondo, but he was at a different college at the time. Things just kind of lined up pretty well.

In terms of the transfer process, for me, it was overwhelming initially because I am from a small town and my community college space was basically everybody from high school. All the class sizes were very small. The biggest class I had was probably 100 people. Coming from a community college, you just had stronger relationships with processors and some of your peers because we were all in the same boat. When I came to UCLA, everything is a lot more competitive and everyone's in it for themselves. You are able to connect with your professors, but it depends on what department you're in. Initially the transition was a bit hard for me just because I wasn't living in a big city, all the living expenses, and just being around so many different people. But now I'm used to it, and I don't see myself going back home just because I enjoy L.A. so much and I enjoy this type of environment.
Q: How has community college prepared both academically and athletically for UCLA?
A: I feel like academically, I had a lot of professors that went to "public Ivies." One of my English professors who I was really close with, he graduated undergrad at UCLA. So, when I told him that I was going to be transferring here, he was really helpful and gave me a lot of insight. He even graded me a little bit harder because he wanted me to be prepared. A lot of people have that assumption that community college classes are easy, but I wouldn't put it that way. I would say they're simpler just because a majority of community college students are low income, diverse backgrounds, and work part time jobs like I did. It's not easier; it's just simpler. A lot of professors I did talk to that knew I was a student-athlete and knew I was going to a pretty well-known institution prepared me in a different way compared to other students just because they wanted to help me transfer and make that next step, which was different coming from a community college rather than going to a four-year university right away. I feel like I was pretty well prepared in my opinion, but it just depends on which community college you go to. In terms of athletics, there's a huge gap between [attending] community college and going to a Division I institution. But a lot of the coaches I did have, they had a lot of connections and had their own experiences at the Division I level. They kind of gave me further insight of what to expect coming from a lower tier level of competition to the Pac-12.
Q: This month is Hispanic Heritage Month. How has your Chicano heritage shaped who you are today?
A: For me, it's more about the societal norms and values that are really held on and presented in my community. Ever since I was very young, my parents and the people that raised me basically told me that if I want something, I have to work hard for it just because of societal setbacks that we have because we don't have as many resources or familial wealth. Essentially, if I wanted something in life, I was just told that it was not going to be easy, but I could do it. That's been engrained in my mind ever since I was five or six years old. It's really helped me because being first generation as well, I've had a lot of family members tell me, 'I wish I would've done this.' So, they've tried to teach me based on their past experiences and setbacks and helping me along the way so I can be able to make my own personal career path.
Q: What does it mean to you to represent your culture/community here at UCLA as a member of the Track/Cross Country teams?
A: It's a really amazing opportunity just because I'm able to show students like myself back home that they can do it -- that it's not impossible, even though it may be difficult. I'm able to go back and talk to a lot of cross country runners at my high school or at my junior college and help them along the way and give them the resources. Basically, what my community college processors and coaches did for me, I want to pass that along to the younger generation. I'm just very grateful for this opportunity to be at UCLA because we are pretty underrepresented in terms of athletics, so I'm just really grateful all in all.
Q: Following the Pac-12's decision in canceling the fall 2020 season, what's your mindset heading into the school year?
A: For me, just personally being a senior, my outlook on it is that since I only have that one remaining year of eligibility, I'm able to further use that for graduate school, which is the next step. So, for me, personally, it wasn't a huge deal and more so concerned about the country's safety. Our season is already short as it is. We race about five times before nationals, so trying to compact that into two or three races just isn't as meaningful for your last year being able to compete. So, postponing it, I thought, was a great decision to make more so because I am a senior and I want to save my eligibility.
Q: What are you studying at UCLA and what are your goals post-graduation?
A: I'm currently studying sociology for my major and I'm double minoring in Chicano studies and labor and workplace studies. Furthermore, I do want to get my masters in the education umbrella, primarily I want to focus on student affairs or student development. My career goals are that I want to be an academic mentor or counselor within an athletic department. I just really want to work with student athletes to help them find their career path post athletics or helping with their current situation in college. I'm not too set in stone yet for what I want to do, but essentially, I want to go into education while pertaining to student athletes.
Q: How were you able to stay in shape during quarantine and what is the "now" for you?
A: For me, I would owe that to my teammates. We help keep each other accountable. We are able to run on our own and there aren't too many setbacks in terms of the postponement since, with our sport, we can train wherever we want. But having your teammates by your side and keeping you accountable, that's what helps not only myself but the entirety of the team to stay fit and to motivate us to continue to train even though we're in a weird state and there are a lot of gray lines of when we are going to be able to compete again. Having that team aspect, which is something that is very important and something that we've always had, has helped me keep being motivated and be able to train during this weird time.

Favorite thing to do outside of running?  Painting, photography
If you could live anywhere, where would it be? Los Angeles
Favorite music artist? Current Joys
Favorite movie? Waterboy
Favorite TV show? The Office
Go-to post-meet meal?  In-N-Out
Favorite pro team to follow?  Los Angeles Chargers
Why UCLA?  Just the significance of the four letters

Previous "Getting to Know..." Publications
Obi Eboh -- Football
Carlie Dorostkar -- Cross Country
Sam Feit - Men's Tennis
Sam Baron - Swimming and Diving
Kengo Aoshima - Men's Golf
Aislynn Crowder - Women's Soccer
Kevin Diaz - Men's Soccer
Frida Esparza - Gymnastics