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Sophomore guard Kendall Grasela transferred from the College to Nursing ahead of her sophomore season, but found support from her team. 

Credit: Zach Sheldon

For student athletes, some things are more important than the Xs and Os.

For women’s basketball’s Kendall Grasela and sprint football’s Griffin Fitzsimmons, a former staffer of The Daily Pennsylvanian, their athletic challenges have been supplemented with changes to their academic career paths, a theme that every Penn student can identify with. 

Grasela’s sophomore year at Penn has not only required her to work to repeat a stellar freshman season complete with Ancient Eight hardware, but she’s also had to do it while transferring from the College of Arts and Sciences into the School of Nursing.

An unprecedented feat in itself. No one under coach Mike McLaughlin’s basketball program has played all four seasons while attending the School of Nursing.

“When I applied to Penn, I was debating whether I wanted to do a pre-med track, or a nursing track,” the Huntingdon Valley, Pa. native said. “This past semester I wanted to try to take more nursing-based classes, because I already took my pre-med classes, and I really, really enjoyed them. I enjoyed the professors, I enjoyed the super intense focus on learning about the human body.”

Having already taken a Nursing 102 class during her freshman spring, Grasela was swayed enough to complete the transfer over the past winter break. While the 2017 Ivy Champion was able to complete this switch successfully, it left her with a new concern: whether or not to redshirt so she would be able to play during her last semester at Penn. 

The way her eligibility works out, her last season as of now would coincide with her penultimate semester at Penn, during the spring of 2020. As such, by redshirting at some point, she could play in games in the fall of 2020, but she expressed hesitance to do so.

“You do have five years of NCAA eligibility [to play four seasons], but since I played a certain number of games my freshman year I would have to redshirt,” she explained. “Because of that, maybe I could volunteer [in the fall of 2020], but I don’t think I could actually play. I’m definitely going to help out in any way I can, maybe as a mentor.”

Fitzsimmons’ story is a little different; the sophomore not only began his second year as a walk-on for Penn sprint football, but the network and social systems engineering major decided to enroll in the Wharton School, becoming a dual-degree student.

“I applied at the end of my freshman year, and found out before my sophomore year, over the summer,” he said. “[Wharton’s] such a great resource, you know, I wouldn’t want to pass that up.” 

Fitzsimmons’ year has been about taking advantage of Penn’s opportunities, both academic and athletic. As one of only eight schools in the nation with a collegiate sprint football program, let alone a championship-caliber one at that, Penn sprint football exemplifies yet another unique collegiate experience for the sophomore. 

New school, new team, no problem. 

“Something I realized is that I’m a little better of a time manager when I’ve got more things going on,” the dual-degree student joked. “Having that regular practice every night made me use my time more effectively during the day.”

Fitzsimmons noted that sprint football is one Penn sport that hosts a variety of different students with differing majors and other commitments. He cited his teammates’ examples as a main source of inspiration for his commitment to balancing a new athletic and academic experience.

In fact, both athletes note that it is the support of their teammates that has eased each of their respective transitions.

“I remember the first time, last spring, when I had a clinical observation, and I came in in scrubs, and they were all so happy,” Grasela recalled. “The coaches have been awesome with scheduling practices around my classes, and my teammates, I’m always studying but they’re always willing to study with me.”

Fortunately for Grasela, McLaughlin’s own daughter recently graduated from Rutgers’ School of Nursing. It's clear that the veteran coach understands not just the ins and outs of the game, but the intricacies of handling student athletes as well. For both Grasela and Fitzsimmons, it is these support systems that facilitate these academic transitions.

So that way, they can get back to focusing on those Xs and Os.