Balancing Act: Thriving as a Student Athlete

Q&A with Katelynn Jankowiak '20

Katelynn Jankowiak at the potters wheel

All the underclassmen are kind of like my little siblings! It makes me feel more responsible and I want to be a good role model for them.

Katelynn (Kat) Jankowiak is a fourth-year student on both the cross country and track teams who has been named a Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athlete by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for maintaining at least a 3.5 cumulative GPA over her college career. Additionally, she was selected as a Junior Scholar by the Pacific Basin Research Center (PBRC) in May 2019 and awarded a grant to conduct scientific research. 

She loves ceramics, dances with an on-campus club, and is passionate about the research she is conducting on invasive fish species in Peru. 

We asked her to reflect on her experience at Soka: 

What made you want to come to Soka?  

“I learned about Soka from a friend, and then reached out to an admissions counselor and the head coach of the cross-country and track teams. Soka was just really responsive and I really liked that. All the other colleges I talked to were not very good at that… [I loved] how willing people were to come up to me. I felt like they really wanted me to come here. I had dinner with Rick Daily [a former admissions counselor]. He got together all the prospective students in the Chicago area and took us out to dinner.” 

“I applied, came to Experience Soka, met Gigi [former head coach], went on a run with one of the runners, and signed the commitment form by the end of Experience!” 

What’s the best part of being a student athlete?  

“The team! The track and cross-country teams are kind of small, so I like when new people come in and we do team bonding events. Since we’re all from different [graduating] classes, usually it’s people I don’t see during the day or hang out with after school, but being at meets we goof around and have fun. All the underclassmen are kind of like my little siblings! It makes me feel more responsible and I want to be a good role model for them.” 

What is one thing you appreciate about Soka?  

“I really like the unrestricted access to my professors. When I have a question, I just go in and say ‘Hello, I have a question.’ And at other schools you couldn’t do that. Here the professors have office hours but you have time to talk to them during class or at lunch, too. You know the professors more personally and they are all busy with their own projects, but they will make time for you. You build a relationship with someone and they say ‘Hey, are you interested in this?’ and sometimes that turns into something bigger.”  

“[Soka] teaches you a lot of soft skills too, like interpersonal skills. When I go to conferences, I find myself going up to people I’d normally be scared of. For example, I talked to one of the chief scientists at Esri, which is one of the main GIS companies. I just went up to her at the last conference and started asking her questions. Before, I’d be really afraid of that, but at Soka you get a lot of practice talking to people who are of a higher position.” 

You were the recipient of the PBRC summer grant last year. What did you do through the program? 

“I went to Peru and learned how to catch fish, identify all the species, throw back all the ones that weren’t invasive, and then keep all the ones that were. It’s now my Capstone because it was just a project I was really interested in: learning about invasive species. I was studying the Blue Gourami. We just wanted to see where they were, in what parts of the city, what conditions they survived in.” 

“In January, we collected water samples, which we’re sending off to a lab and they’re going to analyze it for DNA to see if the invasive fish we’re studying are there in the places we sampled. We’ll see how it affects the communities, what the future implications of that are, etc. It’s a really big problem because the aquarium trade is a big industry. It introduces a lot of exotic species that have the potential to be invasive and really wreck the local ecosystems, which a lot of people depend on for sustenance farming, fishing.” 

How have the PBRC summer grant and other research opportunities at Soka been beneficial to your academic career?  

“Coming straight from a liberal arts school, it’s harder to get jobs in the sciences, because you kind of get overlooked, but when you have actual field and research experience, it kind of just adds an extra layer to show how rounded you are and that you’re capable of doing what they expect. I don’t think that as a liberal arts student, you should have any disadvantage.” 

“I wish I had known about the PBRC stuff before my junior year because as soon I learned about it, I applied for it, but I didn’t know about it my freshman or sophomore year. If you know about it for longer, you can work with the same organization for longer.” 

Outside of school and sports, what do you like to do?  

“I spend a lot of time in the ceramics lab. I’m also a part of Sualseros [an on-campus Latin-rhythm based dance club]. Other than that, I study, spend time with friends, take photos, and take care of my fish and my plants in my room. I also love to hammock, nap, hike, and there’s also a group of students that like to go rock climbing sometimes and I like to go with them.”  

Any advice to students who are thinking about coming to Soka? 

“Get in touch with anyone who you think would be a big part of your life here. I got in touch with students on the cross-country team, the coach, the administration, and some professors. Just ask a lot of questions to make sure it’s a good fit for you. And make sure you’re OK with being at a school with 400 people. But definitely ask lots of questions.” 

—by Nagisa Smalheiser ‘21