Fresno State women’s soccer player Kayla King is driven to help others — and she has shown it throughout her college years. 

When she started her postsecondary education, she began working as a tutor for school-aged children. Tutoring came naturally to King and created an opportunity for her to work directly with children.

While earning a degree in liberal studies at Fresno State, King excelled at juggling both academics and athletics.

“Being a student-athlete really teaches you a lot about, not only yourself, but how important managing your time is,” said King, a Hollister native. “It teaches you great life lessons that people end up taking with them for the remainder of their lives.” 

Being a student-athlete provided King with a variety of opportunities to partner in the community. In April, King and other student-athletes spoke virtually at a College and Career Day at Wawona K-8 School in Fresno Unified School District. This annual event encourages students to think about their future and what opportunities lie ahead.

“We want local heroes for our kids,” said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified. “We want our kids to see student-athletes who came from their neighborhood and who will inspire them.”

At the College and Career Day, King connected with 15 seventh and eighth graders and shared her story of how she became an athlete. She remembers them asking many questions about what it’s like to be a student-athlete. 

Fresno State is fully immersed in the community and continues to find ways for increased collaboration. In just one year, student-athletes volunteered 4,000 community service hours at 460 organizations. In addition to serving the community, the athletics department had a collective 3.30 GPA in spring 2020. This marked the 19th consecutive semester of over a 3.0 departmental GPA. 

“We’re always looking for opportunities to impact our community, and specifically the youth in our community, in a positive manner,” said Terry Tumey, Fresno State’s director of athletics.

With over 6,000 new undergraduate students overall enrolled in fall 2020, 52 percent are from Fresno County. 

“Our staff, coaches and student-athletes understand the important platform we have, and we all collectively consider it an honor to give back and inspire the next generation of Bulldogs and leaders in our Valley,” Tumey said. “Partnering with local school districts to help encourage the importance of education is a privilege for us.”

Bulldog Buddies

Kendall Boliba, a Fresno State athletics academic adviser, grew up as an athlete and remembers engaging with the community in a pen pal project when she was younger. The program was impactful for her, and she wanted to create something similar in the Valley. 

In fall 2019, Boliba partnered with Prince Marshall, then principal of West Fresno Elementary School in Washington Unified School District. She pitched the idea of creating a pen pal program with Fresno State student-athletes. 

With support from Marshall and West Fresno Elementary teachers, Boliba organized for the women’s water polo team to become pen pals with a second-grade class in 2019. She called it the Bulldogs Buddy program. 

This program was powerful for West Fresno Elementary, not only by directly connecting students to collegiate athletes but also by positively reinforcing the power of reading and writing.

According to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (2019), 53% of third-grade students in Fresno County didn’t meet the ELA/Literacy standards. And 83% of West Fresno Elementary third graders didn’t meet the standards.

West Fresno Elementary worked the Bulldogs Buddy program into its curriculum. The second graders wrote back-and-forth with their Fresno State pen pals and worked on incorporating open-ended questions and weekly writing prompts. Marshall said he saw a direct impact on the students’ eagerness to read and write.

“Writing is one of the most difficult tasks for our students, especially second-language learners,” said Beth Liberta, second-grade teacher at West Fresno Elementary. “When we write narratives, informational or persuasive stories the students struggle to develop proper sentences and those sentences are often very short and without details. However, when my students write to their Fresno State Buddies, their sentences are endless and so full of life.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily paused the program, Boliba plans to expand the Bulldogs Buddy program across multiple school districts in the Central Valley.

While this program provides a way for Fresno State student-athletes of any major to engage with and positively impact Valley youth, some decide to make a career out of teaching.

After King graduated with her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, she immediately enrolled in Fresno State’s early childhood education graduate program. She is eager to get into the classroom and begin directly impacting Valley youth. She hopes to become an elementary school teacher and one day work with students with special needs.

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