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JoJo Huczko running with pole on field
JoJo Huczko prepares to jump during a pole vaulting competition as a member of the women's track and field team.

Student-Athletes Excel In and Out of the Classroom

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

Becoming a successful student-athlete is not just about sports. It’s about developing life skills that will serve an individual well beyond their college years. Successful student-athletes at Carnegie Mellon University say the journey requires determination, discipline and a willingness to grow personally.

JoJo Huczko, a pole vaulter with a 4.0 GPA who will graduate with a degree in ethics, history and public policy(opens in new window), was one of five recipients of the Dr. William Brown Academic Athletic Achievement Award at the Department of Athletics(opens in new window) annual awards banquet held May 1. The award is given to students who have earned the highest grade point average while participating in intercollegiate athletics.

“At CMU, we tend to be very accomplishment-driven,” said Huczko, who admits she had a difficult time replicating her high school success. “I wasn’t hitting the marks that previously gave me fulfillment, and I had to remind myself why I do what I do. I don’t jump now for accomplishments; I jump for the success of my team and for the fact that I love jumping. Anything else is just a bonus.”

Huzcko has been able to apply that same philosophy to her work. She served as a legislative intern on Capitol Hill where she was part of Congressman Mike Doyle’s office, and later got to be part of the Washington Semester Program(opens in new window), during which she worked for a major newspaper and a journal, and helped with midterm election coverage.

“Public policy work is often disheartening and frustrating. You don’t always win,” she said. “But I really love the people of Pittsburgh. I want to serve my community because I love my community. I want to make it better.”

To get the most of their college experience, Huczko advises younger student-athletes not to put too much pressure on themselves.

“It’s stressful to always be thinking, ‘I have to eat this much food every day so I can be fueled, I have to be able to drink this much water each day, and I have to be able to get to the weight room each day at this time.’ It was all pressure I was putting on myself to make sure everything was running perfectly, and I don’t think that’s the best way to gain fulfillment in your athletics and college experience,” she said. “Don’t try to force things. It’ll all be fine.”

JoJo Huczko standing in front of Capitol Building

JoJo Huczko served as a legislative intern on Capitol Hill and later enrolled in the Washington Semester Program.

Left pic Kevin Cooke in uniform on field, right pic Kevin and brother Sean holding award

Kevin Cooke and his brother, Sean, pictured far right, both played Tartan football.

Tartan linebacker Kevin Cooke is a Chicago Bears fan who enjoyed watching Brian Urlacher play defense for his favorite football team, but his real hero is his older brother Sean, who also played football for CMU.

“Sean was always the person I looked up to on the football field. He was a running back, but I was able to learn so much from him,” he said.

Cooke, who will graduate with a degree in business administration and finance(opens in new window) with a minor in public policy and management(opens in new window), said he chose CMU because “it offered me the incredible opportunity to get a phenomenal education and play the game I love for four more years at a high level. The fact that Sean was also a member of the CMU football team at that time, and the opportunity to play a season with him, was another factor that I couldn't pass up.”

Cooke said playing three seasons in high school with his younger brother gave him so many good memories that it made him want to have a similar experience with his older brother.

“Unfortunately, it didn't end up working out as hoped, due to the pandemic, but I have loved everything about my experience at CMU,” he said.

Cooke attributes much of his success as a student-athlete to developing routines. 

“It was important for me to be able to be fully present whether I had free time or I was focused on schoolwork or I was focused on sports, and for me developing routines was the best way for me to manage my time wisely,” he said. 

Cooke has learned a lot as an athlete that will help him in his career, but what will be most memorable for him is understanding how to work in a team toward common goals.

“On the football team, people from different backgrounds from all over the country were able to come together to achieve our shared goals,” he said. “Everyone was able to understand their roles and perform them to the best of their ability, and being able to apply that to jobs and teams moving forward is something that I will definitely take with me.”

Breana Valentovish kicking soccer ball on field

Staying organized helped keep Breana Valentovish successful on and off the field.

Breana Valentovish knew the moment she wanted to pursue soccer.

“It was when I played in a recreational soccer league at about 5 years old. It was meant to be friendly and fun, but if my team didn't win, I would cry and pout for the remainder of the day,” she said. “I think I still carry that same competitiveness to every practice and game.” 

Her best piece of advice for balancing schoolwork and sports is to stay organized and plan ahead.

“During soccer season, I would plan for assignments and exams weeks in advance to avoid unnecessary stress. This was especially helpful for travel weekends when I would be gone with the team and missing class and lectures,” she said.

Valentovish will graduate with degrees in business administration and statistics and data science(opens in new window).

“I chose CMU because it is one of the top universities in the country with countless opportunities for research, class curriculum and career paths,” she said. “When I visited campus, the soccer team was so kind and hardworking, it motivated me to attend the same school as those amazing women.”   

“I think my leadership role as a captain on the soccer team will help me in my career,” she added. “Someday I hope to be a great leader and mentor in the business world.” 

Derek Wong hitting tennis ball with racquet

Derek Wong believes the patience he developed on the tennis court will be an asset in the corporate world.

Derek Wong has loved traveling as a member of the tennis team, and being able to go to practice after a long day of classes was something he looked forward to mostly every single day at CMU.

“Being on the court is very mentally challenging, and I’m still working on it to this day,” said Wong, who said he was basically born into playing tennis as his mother, father and sister also play.

“When I was younger, my sister, who is six years older than me, was taking lessons, and I would go around the court and pick up balls for her. Now, I just really enjoy how the sport brings my family and me closer. When I’m back home, we play together a lot.”

Wong, who will graduate with a degree in business administration, thinks the most important lesson he has learned through tennis that he will take with him into the workforce is patience.

“In tennis, it often comes down to being stronger than your opponent mentally to win the match,” he said. “I think just being patient and putting in the work will be super important.”

senior student-athletes pose wearing stoles inside Tepper Building

The Department of Athletics(opens in new window) hosted its annual awards banquet on May 1 to celebrate the year and the accomplishments of the senior student-athletes. 

The event was hosted in Simmons Auditorium followed by a reception in the PNC Foundation Room located in the Tepper Quad.

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