University of Arizona student-athletes’ passions and pursuits are as varied as their sporting strengths and talents. They experience the rigors of training while balancing academic and personal lives. Many live structured lives, heading from workouts to class, back to practice, and then to dedicated study time. The schedule repeats day after day, mixed with competition, personal time and pursuing career interests.
Arizona volleyball player Jaleesa Caroccio spent her summer as a Nike intern. Track and field thrower Grace Hala’ufia researches neurodegenerative diseases as an undergraduate student researcher. Volleyballer Kamaile Hiapo shares her passion for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) culture. And international swimmer Amalie Mortensen, from Denmark, has overcome language barriers to find success in the classroom.
They are all supported by the academic, personal development, strength and conditioning, medical, and sports psychology resources found in the Commitment to an Athlete’s Total Success (C.A.T.S.) programs. And thanks in part to the C.A.T.S. programs, Wildcat student-athletes have collectively surpassed a 3.0 GPA for 13 consecutive semesters.
Caroccio, a business management major in the Eller College of Management, worked closely with C.A.T.S. to prepare for her Nike interviews and eventually land an internship in sports marketing at Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
Nike has offered a summer internship to two student-athletes from Arizona each year since 2014. After several interviews, Caroccio was chosen for a 2022 internship, along with Arizona softball’s Carlie Scupin.
“The Nike internship is incredibly competitive, including a rigorous application process for students,” says Sofia Read, associate director of C.A.T.S. Student-Athlete Development. “Students have to be on top of their game for all interviews. Nike does a great job matching students to areas that will be challenging, yet also allowing them to excel and thrive.
“The whole experience is hugely impactful for each student’s current and future careers.”
Caroccio says she chose a sports marketing internship at Nike to take advantage of her background in athletics while also learning about corporate business.
“I wanted to get the experience and the feel for what it was like to be working in a corporate company and the fact that Nike pairs its corporation with athletics,” she says. “I knew being a sports marketing intern would be something that I would enjoy learning about and being a part of.”
At Nike, Caroccio worked with fellow interns on a team focused on Nike’s brand in Asia, the Pacific and Latin America, a region known as APLA. She also learned valuable leadership and communication skills that she shares on the volleyball court.
“I learned so much about so many different cultures being on the APLA team, but I am also learning about many different sports, not just the mainstream sports,” Caroccio says. “I learned to be patient with tough situations and think through finding the best solution for an issue, not just the quickest solution. Playing on a team brings different perspectives and ideas, and I learned at Nike to make sure to appreciate everyone’s perspective.”
Now she’s bringing those lessons back to the court. “Someone might have more pressure than another on a team,” she says. “So, you should always be there to lift your teammates up and support them.”
Thrower Hala’ufia takes the drive and focus honed in her sport to the lab, where she works with university researchers to decode the makings of neurodegenerative diseases.
Hala’ufia is part of the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. She plans to earn a doctorate in neurobiology after completing her undergraduate degree so that she can one day teach and run a lab of her own, uncovering the biological formation of neurological disorders.
“She has the curiosity, the drive and the talent to become a successful researcher, and it’s a pleasure to work with such a talented student. She gracefully juggles her academic efforts with her activities as an athlete and her research in the laboratory,” says Daniela Zarnescu, a professor in molecular and cellular biology and neuroscience.
Hala’ufia may manage gracefully, but her daily schedule is packed: practice in the morning, class in the afternoons, and evening lab time maintaining fly stocks. After homework, she works on data analysis. How does she handle it all? She says communication is key.
“Balancing academics, athletics and lab work can be very overwhelming. However, it isn’t impossible,” Hala’ufia says.
“I have learned that being open with my coaches, lab mates and professors allows for flexibility in a seemingly rigid and demanding schedule. Whenever another part of my life requires more of my attention, I try to let the right people know, and they’re always understanding and adjust accordingly.”
Hiapo’s success as a libero — a volleyball defensive specialist — came fast. She was the first freshman starting libero in program history and set the Arizona freshman record for digs in a season (378). Today, she’s a senior leader and the Wildcats’ main libero, and she has turned her focus to something bigger than sports: inclusion.
Hiapo comes from a family of collegiate volleyball players, and her mom was a member of the U.S. national team. Her grandfather, Fred Hiapo, was a 30-time outrigger canoe All-American. A Pacific Islander, Hiapo views it as her role to pave the way for other APIDA athletes.
“I just want to keep bringing recognition to the islands and let others have the same opportunity that my mom and I had,” Hiapo says. “There’s a lot of talent there, and all we need is to get noticed and be given the chance. I was given an amazing chance to come here, and I’m proud to represent my culture.”
Hiapo has shared her experience during APIDA Heritage Month by exchanging stories with other APIDA student-athletes and Arizona Athletics staff as way to connect and share similarities and differences. For example, she remembers listening to swimming’s Sam Iida talk about his culture and how proud he was to be a member of the APIDA community. “Having our names out there is how we show our pride,” she says.
Hiapo looks at the pride that she, Iida, and others like softball’s Dejah Mulipola and football’s Donovan Laie share as important for representing APIDA athletes and their cultures. As a Pacific Islander, Hiapo describes her pride as “love and aloha. I love my culture and my people. We call everyone our 'ohana, our family. I love that culture of family, love and unity.”
Hiapo has always felt at home with Arizona Athletics. “I feel very noticed and included. I’ve never felt excluded here, and I like that people take an interest in my experiences.”
Inclusion — harnessing the power of diversity — is part of the Arizona Athletics Strategic Plan. It’s important to Hiapo because, as she says, “it makes us feel united despite our differences.” She says her culture of family, love and unity is exactly what she hopes to see in the world, and she knows she can be part of that change.
“One thing we emphasized last year was ‘Together We Bear Down,’” Hiapo says. “Everybody experiences different things, but it helps us come together. I know that I can learn from other people, and it can make me a better person. We can use our differences to come together and unite as one.”
Mortensen is as quick to adapt as she is quick in the pool. She found success in her first year as a Wildcat, earning College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America All-America second-team honors in the 200-meter freestyle. She also held the fastest time on the team in the 100 free.
Although Mortensen learned English as a second language from a young age in her native Denmark, she might still have found language differences in the way of her academic success if it weren’t for the support she’s had from the Wildcat community.
“My biggest challenge was following along in my classes if the professor spoke a bit fast,” she says. “But having an instant community that I belonged to with the swimming and diving team definitely made the transition easier. I always had teammates, coaches and supporting staff around me to help with things I didn’t quite understand. Immediately being a part of that family made a huge difference with my acclimation here in the States.”
Being so far away from home can take a toll on athletes and make them feel uncomfortable, but for Mortensen it’s just the opposite at Arizona.
“Arizona Athletics has an amazing supporting staff, so not only do we excel in the pool but also in the classroom,” Mortensen says. “They have always been available to help, no matter what the challenge has been. Being foreign, there automatically occurs some different struggles that domestic students and athletes don’t experience to the same extent, and the surrounding staff has been so understanding and helpful with solving them when needed.”