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2015 Woman of the Year finalist: Zoë Scandalis

The University of Southern California athlete found herself by helping others

Zoë Scandalis loved Wednesdays.

That was the day her schedule differed from her teammates on the University of Southern California’s tennis team. After practice, when they would return to dorms or apartments or study halls, she would venture to a nearby magnet school in Los Angeles. Armed with lesson plans and activities, she was greeted by a pack of seventh- and eighth-grade girls. Scandalis started a mentorship program with the school after reaching out to see if there was a need for additional support.

“The program was truly all about learning about each other – how to be a friend, respond in (tough) situations, mesh and compromise, to help each girl learn more about herself and grow,” she said.

Why did she volunteer to take on such an important – and daunting – responsibility? Scandalis realized that the help she had gotten along the way to becoming a Division I athlete had been invaluable, so she wanted to provide the same for them.

“I was lucky with my support systems, but it’s easy to take for granted what you have,” she said. “I wanted these girls to have a small support system in me.”

Scandalis geared the program around goal setting, values and ambitions. Each week, the students delved into a different topic within that framework. She helped the girls create step-by-step benchmarks for daily, weekly, monthly and yearly tasks along the way to reaching a larger goal. Each action they took, she told them, could be small first steps in a journey toward writing a book, getting into college or becoming a professional dancer – whatever their ambitions may be.

As she taught them, they taught her. Working with the girls showed her the rewards inherent in her own lifelong goal of helping others, a feeling that was reinforced when her students watched and cheered Scandalis during a match against UCLA.

“I won’t ever forget the day they came; I can feel the joy I felt in that moment right now,” she said. “I created this mentorship group to help them, but I didn’t realize that they would help remind me what kind of woman I wanted to be.”