Focusing on the Future
Fall training was out of the question for the USC women's lacrosse team. COVID-19 raged through Los Angeles and the rest of the country, and gatherings, including group workouts, were strictly prohibited. The players didn't have access to the fields or the weight room. All training had to be done individually, and team culture meetings happened over Zoom.
Junior midfielder Erin Bakes said that with a full load of college courses as her only responsibility, those months from August to December were shaping up to be her lightest schedule since preschool.
"I wanted to find a way to make the fall productive and fulfilling," she said.
Bakes decided to reach out to the Surfrider Foundation in O'ahu, a volunteer-run organization that serves to protect the ocean, with chapters all over the country's coastal regions. She soon found herself on a flight to Hawai'i to work for three months as a Policy and PR intern for the non-profit.
Bakes had spent her summer as an intern on Capitol Hill with her home district's congresswoman Donna Shalala, and when the opportunity to take a break and have an easy semester presented itself, Bakes filled her schedule in a new way. She would wake up at 5 a.m. Hawai'i time for lacrosse team meetings, spend the morning hiking or surfing, then return home for class and work at the Surfrider Foundation. She wrote testimonies heard at Honolulu City Council, blog posts to educate the public about local issues, and emails to media outlets to gain coverage.
The job got physical at times, like cleaning up the beach every week and maintaining an ocean-friendly garden that grew fruits and vegetables for the volunteers and locals. Bakes is still working for the foundation remotely as she is currently drafting the first annual water quality report for O'ahu's chapter.
"Our staff believes in controlling what we can control," head coach Lindsey Munday said. "We did not have control over whether we could practice last fall, but what we did have control over was what we did with our time and seeking out the silver linings during a difficult situation. When Erin Bakes called to tell me about the opportunity she had in Hawai'i, I'm not sure I even let her finish before saying, 'Go for it! That sounds like a great opportunity!'"
Even though the rest of the lacrosse team couldn't move to Hawaii for the semester, many players took advantage of the unexpected free time and found ways to explore their career paths. Seniors Riley Hertford and Izzy McMahon spent their fall semesters as PT aides at Evolution Physical Therapy in Beverly Hills. Former defender Morgan Kuligowski sought out an internship at NASA, which turned into a full time job that she is now pursuing.
"I think it would feel pretty unnatural to me to have a break. I was ready to get to that next stage of my career and prepare for that next step," Kuligowski said.
She has always been curious about human space exploration since childhood, and Kuligowski fostered her interest through classes and professors at USC, such as former NASA astronaut Dr. Garrett Reisman. Her undergraduate degree in neuroscience led her to a Masters degree in Cinematic Arts, Media Arts, Games, and Health –– a multidisciplinary program that allows her to study future applications for emerging technologies, such as virtual reality, augmented reality and gaming. Specifically, she is interested in applying her graduate degree to space exploration.
Kuligowski spent the fall semester working remotely for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for NASA's Exploration Medical Capability element on the systems engineering team. She helped design medical software for long duration lunar missions when astronauts get sick. Now she works full time on the operations side for NASA's International Space Station.
"Having all that preparation with Athletics through the years really prepared me well for doing the work with NASA, especially in a remote environment, with such complex time management schedules," Kuligowski said.
Senior midfielder Emily Stallings echoed a similar sentiment after her eight-week summer internship with J.P. Morgan was condensed to five weeks. She worked at the LA Private Bank in Wealth Management, helping wealthy families and individuals allocate their assets.
"USC both academically and athletically has really taught me to step out of my comfort zone and be comfortable being uncomfortable. I'm usually a pretty quiet, soft-spoken person, however both in lacrosse and in the classroom, you have to take advantage of the opportunities you're given and really step up to make the most of them," Stallings said. "In lacrosse you have to be really coachable, adaptable and learn on the fly. That was definitely the same environment I had at J.P. Morgan."
Stallings secured a post-graduation full-time position in the same department where she will begin working in May.
When senior defender Courtney Hutchinson's summer volunteer trip to the Philippines was canceled due to the pandemic, she was left with an empty schedule. 90210 Surgery Medical Center in Beverly Hills originally hired her to take temperatures and screen patients for COVID symptoms. Eventually, they moved her back to take vitals, do EKGs and care for post-op patients.
With aspirations of becoming a physician assistant, Hutchinson collected hours for her graduate school application and even shadowed a PA during surgeries and daily tasks. She still works at the Center two days a week while taking classes and attending practices.
"At USC, we have athletes from different areas and who all have different interests," Munday said. "We encourage our players to find their passion, whatever that may be. I think it shows that our student-athletes have the confidence they need, and they know that they do not have to all be similar. They can all be different and support one another regardless of their interests."
The athletes' fall internships reflect their diverse fields of study. Senior attacker Sophia Donovan spent her semester as a marketing intern at Oracle, but she found her passion in the one hour per week she spent tutoring a seventh grade lacrosse player in math and Spanish. Now, she hopes to pursue a Masters in speech pathology and work with children.
"What I'm most proud of is how passionate our girls are about their careers beyond the playing field," Munday said. "Our student-athletes do a great job of being all-in on lacrosse, but also all-in on their career paths after they graduate. As an athlete, it is easy to be so focused on your sport that you let other areas slide. Our players do a tremendous job committing fully to everything that they do, both on the field and off."