Alyssa Grogan was a four-year letterwinner for Gopher Women's Hockey from 2008-12, and was a part of the 2012 national championship team. Suffering a career-ending injury during her Gopher career, Grogan found a different path in life as a teacher. Read about her University of Minnesota experience, how she's continued to give back to others and become a role model in her profession and the sport she loves, and advice she gives to current Gopher student-athletes in this latest Gopher Backpack to Briefcase.
Describe your experience as a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota.
Being a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota was the culmination of many years of really hard work and my wildest dream come true. Growing up, my dad and I would spend Friday nights going to Mariucci to watch the Gophers play. I remember crying some nights when it was my brother's turn to go instead of mine. We always watched and listened to Doug Woog announcing for the Gophers. Growing up in Minnesota, I never fully believed I would play for the Gophers until the night Laura Halldorson and Brad Frost sat in my parents' kitchen with my family and I and offered me a position on the team.
My student-athlete experience evolved into far more than I ever thought. The hockey, coaching staff, teammates, and memories are things I still think about all the time today. I have memories that cannot be matched as a Gopher athlete - we traveled all around the country, won a national championship and a couple league championships, had a day on the calendar declared 'National Champions Day' by the governor, threw out a first pitch at a Minnesota Twins game, got interviewed between periods at Wild games. I was truly blessed with all the unique and fun memories we have.
Outside of the rink I was supported far more than I ever thought when I first moved onto campus. We spent many hours at the athletes' study center where we met athletes from all the different sports. As an athletic department, we spent significant time developing our character and working in the communities. The M.A.G.I.C. (Maroon and Gold Impacting Community) program, lead by Anissa Lightner, at the time was ultimately the program that led me to where I am today. They helped me discover, aside from being a good athlete, that my character mattered more than anything and that underneath the jersey my heart was in serving others.
You graduated in 2013 and later became a teacher. Can you tell us your process of how you've shaped your career path?
As I approached my senior year of college, I had suffered a pretty serious brain injury. I was still on the team but no longer able to play and had medically withdrawn from three consecutive semesters of school to allow my brain time to heal. During that time, I was a double major in Business Marketing Education and Management. I loved my business classes but struggled with what I wanted to do "when I grew up." Through my injury, I was really stripped of my identity, which had always been previously tied up in being an athlete. I spent many hours tagging behind Anissa Lightner to multiple community service events. As I began to process that I would never be able to play sports again, I found a new identity in the service of others.
In a lame attempt to finally put an adult resume together as graduation loomed, I was encouraged to apply for the Teach for America program by Anissa Lightner. She believed I would make a really good prospect. I believed I was desperate to finally force myself into the real world and the first step was to put a resume together. About half way through the interview process (a series of five interviews), I really fell in love with Teach for America's mission "to serve children who are traditionally underserved." When I was accepted into the program, I knew it was going to be one of the most challenging things I ever did.
I graduated on May 16, and moved to South Carolina the next day to serve in the 2013 South Carolina Corp for my two-year commitment to the Teach for America program. I had moved across the country for the first time in my life and was dropped into a classroom of up to 30 very scary teenagers in a Title I school. Through many referrals, dozens of terrible days, many teary "I can't do this anymore" phone calls back to Minnesota, and a couple textbooks thrown at me, I totally fell in love with every single one of my students at Jerry Zucker Middle School in Charleston, S.C. We worked hard and achieved the district's highest ever pass rates on the algebra I EOC -- a high school level course taught to low income, traditionally underachieving Title I middle school students. We had a 100% pass rate for three consecutive years. We also played really hard -- we brought 30 kids on an overnight camping trip, to local colleges and a aircraft carrier, amongst other things.
After fulfilling my two-year commitment to the Teach for America program, and teaching one more year in Charleston, I made the difficult decision to leave the school I had grown to love and move to Tampa, Fla. There I found an incredible school called Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy -- an all-boys college prep middle school. With my competitive spirit, athletic background and heart to continue to serve, the fit could not have been more perfect for me. I am now in my second year at Franklin. I always have my two business degrees in my back pocket if I am ever led to leave the classroom. But for now, God has me exactly where He wants me -- continuing to serve others and act as an important role model in the lives of many who may lack that at home.
You recently were nominated for Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year, the first time a first year teacher at a school has won. What was your reaction when you received the news?
This award is voted on by the staff each year. I was very surprised when my administration told me I had won. My principal told me it was the first time a first year teacher at a school had won this award. I was very humbled and a little speechless. I am surrounded by many teachers who would do anything for their students' success, and it's a great honor to be recognized for my work. The first person I called was my mom because she has known just how much time and effort I put into my job. I am excited to represent Franklin Boys Prep Academy as Teacher of the Year.
How did the Minnesota student-athlete development help you on this career path?
Student-athlete development and the M.A.G.I.C. program provided me with a lot of different opportunities to explore different careers. I went to multiple local businesses in Minneapolis to shadow and learn about different careers, and I tried to narrow down my majors and what I wanted to do with my majors. They provided me with dozens of networking events to meet and build relationships with people in our community. They helped me navigate the time management and responsibility it took to be a full time Division I student-athlete where grades and athletics were both set at an equally high level of importance. Most importantly, they helped me transition out of being a student-athlete and into being a real adult. It's an inevitable but very hard transition for a lot of high-caliber student-athletes who have always had sports occupy a large part of their lives.
What tools did student-athlete development give you to reach this goal?
Student-athlete development devoted time to sit with me and write my resume as I prepared to enter the work force. They provided me with plenty of opportunities to explore different careers through visits to businesses in Minneapolis like Target Corp, Cargill, 3M, and Land O' Lakes. They hosted mock interviews where we were provided with immediate feedback on our interview skills. I appreciated the networking events where we were able to meet with former student-athletes who were now in the real world and talk about the parallels between the work ethic, teamwork, and dedication of being a student-athlete and a working adult.
What did you take away from your student-athlete experience and how have you applied it in your profession?
I never would be where I am in my career without my work ethic, perseverance, and ability to work as a team. I learned to work harder than I ever had at the University of Minnesota. I worked very hard in the classroom, on the ice, in the weight room, and eventually in the rehab of my brain. Today I work just as hard and show just as much dedication in my classroom. I had to overcome a lot and persevere through plenty of trials and bad days as I retrained my brain to see, read, and process again. I have had to use that same perseverance to scrape myself off the ground on multiple occasions in the classroom as I learned to be a teacher through plenty of trial and even more error. We never would have won our WCHA or national championships without the ability to work as a team. There was never a time when all 20 of our players were not valued for their specific role on our team. The same goes today in the classroom -- our students are not successful without the unique skills that each individual teacher brings to the table. These character traits I learned as a student athlete are things I hope to teach and model for all my students and athletes now.
Where do you hope your career will take you in the years to come?
Right now my desire is to keep teaching at my current school. I would, someday, like to use my business degrees and possibly change careers into business. For now, my business brain is satisfied through the creation of a new hockey organization in Tampa, Florida. It is currently the only all girls travel program in the state, and I have players on my roster from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Finland. It has taken a lot of time and effort to create this, and I foresee myself here for a few years to come as we work to make this into a sustainable program. I have been called to serve others, and I don't foresee that changing anytime soon -- I am very pleased with the doors God has opened and led me to exactly where I am right now.
How have you been able to use your skills as a teacher and love for hockey?
I cannot play hockey anymore due to my injury and never will again. But three years completely away from the game in Charleston, S.C., were great for me. I continued to value and rely on my identity outside of being a former hockey player. When I was offered the position to start a girls hockey organization in Florida, I knew it was a great way for me to get back involved in the game I loved and I saw it as an important opportunity to be a life changing role model in a lot of girls lives -- like many I had alongside me in my years of playing. It's a natural fit for me, and, amongst plenty of stress and setbacks in starting program, it has been a ton of fun to provide opportunities for girls that I grew up with back in Minnesota.
What advice would you give to student-athletes who are getting close to entering the work force?
Take advantage of all they have to offer you! Student-athlete life is very busy and time can be hard to find. Whenever you have an opportunity with M.A.G.I.C. or student-athlete development, do it. You will not regret it. There is value to be taken from all those events. One of the biggest keys to my career success is relationships and networking. Everyone always told me, "Network, network, network," and the biggest piece of advice I can give is, "Network, network, network." Minneapolis is jam-packed with big corporations, and the job opportunities are there for you if you're willing to take it. If you get the opportunity to travel, do it now. Moving away from home has always been extremely hard being disconnected from all family, but has been one of the very best things I've done for myself -- it has forced me to be more independent than ever before and has allowed me to see parts of the country, learn about people very different than I, and be involved in other communities that I would never have had the opportunity to do if I hadn't moved away. And most important, Ski -- U -- Mah!
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University of Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics celebrated National Girls and Women in Sports Day with a variety of events held throughout the week.
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Not only has Portillo been a leader within her team as a member of SAAC, she's already made an impact on the University of Minnesota campus and beyond.
Gophers Recognized for Outstanding Community Service
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A few of our University of Minnesota student-athletes were honored this year at every football game this season.