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By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
Kirsten Tilleman grew up under the blue skies of Montana, and the open spaces around her hometown of Bozeman shaped not only her world view but also her life’s goals. A UC Santa Barbara student studying environmental sciences, Tilleman spent her childhood outdoors, camping and hiking with her family or just playing with her two brothers.
Those experiences were crucial to her development and led to her passion for conservation and natural resource management.
“I don’t know if I’d feel fulfilled as a person if I was working on something that didn’t try to ensure that those open spaces of my childhood would be there in the future, so that not just my children, but other people’s children, could have a similar experience,” Tilleman said.
Tilleman is a second-year graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. She’s using her remaining athletics eligibility playing basketball for the Gauchos after having played only two season at her previous school from which she graduated in just three years.
She had the unique opportunity to spend last summer interning for the Project WET Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on water resource education for a variety of constituencies. The opportunity was unusual for a number of reasons: Project WET CEO Dennis Nelson has never before taken a summer intern, and basketball players usually stay on campus over the summer to take classes and work out.
Nelson said he’d never been interested in hiring interns because of the amount of time and energy needed to develop a program and give the interns a beneficial experience. Tilleman, he said, was different. Her passion for the work, the way she lived what she believed and her competitive spirit set her apart.
“You can be competitive on the basketball court, and you can also be competitive in a nonprofit format. The way she operates in both is with elegance and grace and a drive to get the best results,” Nelson said. “I see big things for her. Her experience as an athlete, her performance as a student and her wonderful personality … I am 100 percent sure that whatever pathway she takes in her career, she’s going to do a great job.”
Tilleman’s internship was not about filing papers and getting coffee. She spent her summer working on education projects for young children, including developing a “Chutes and Ladders” type board game that allowed children to move forward or backward on a board depending on an urban water action like “planting a garden” or “organizing the community to clean a city block.” She also spent time at a preschool, fashioning rainmakers and leading the children in the creation of a “rainstorm.”
“That was a really good experience,” she said, “because I got to see some of the materials I was working with all summer actually out there in the classroom. I knew (that what I was doing mattered), but I really got to see for myself how this material can make a difference.”
Tilleman’s passion for conservation and the environment isn’t lost on second-year coach Carlene Mitchell. She sees that same passion and commitment on the basketball court. When Tilleman’s graduate program required an internship between her first and second years, Tilleman’s fulfillment of her academic responsibilities wasn’t even a question to Mitchell.
“I feel incredibly fortunate with coach Mitchell,” Tilleman said. “Players usually go back for summer school and work out with the team, but she fully supported me, no questions asked. She can see the bigger picture. She knows I’m going to give basketball everything I have, but I won’t be able to do that if I can’t pursue what I need to do – and want to do – academically.”
Mitchell said supporting Tilleman’s choices was easy – she’s just the type of student-athlete she wants on her teams.
“I understand that academics are her priority and basketball is her passion. At the end of the day, she’s going to do some special things. A lot of times coaches can say (they support their student-athlete’s academic priorities), but I want our players to know that I mean it,” she said. “To me, it’s really important. And Tilleman exemplifies what it means to be a true student-athlete.”
The balancing act that is life as a student-athlete doesn’t come easy to Tilleman – she admits that sometimes she has to fight the impulse to do other things when she should be studying or going to practice. But she also believes in looking at the bigger picture and understanding how that homework assignment or that drill will help her get where she needs to go in life.
“As student-athletes, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short. I am a firm believer that what we do on the basketball court or the soccer field or in the pool really can teach you such valuable lessons that you can transfer academically, professionally, socially and personally,” Tilleman said. “It’s about making that commitment and surrounding yourself by people who support you.”
Tilleman’s got that down pat.