Scholar-athlete: Jessica Pahkala attributes success to friends, family and coaches

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Jessica Pahkala

Jessica Pahkala races at the NCAA Track and Field: GNAC Track and Field Championships at McArthur Field on the campus of Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon on May 13, 2016. (Photo: Christopher Oertell)

Jessica Pahkala, a May 2016 cum laude graduate with a degree in legal studies and a competitive running career, humbly attributes her college success to the good people she grew up around.

That would be her Finnish great grandfather, who imparted a streak of never-quit stubbornness. A determined work ethic came from her parents, she says; mom enjoyed a long career as a pre-school teacher and her dad, an IBEW lineman for Matanuska Electric Association, seemed always to be heading out into stormy weather to climb a pole and restore power.

"My parents are the best thing that ever happened to me," she says, unabashedly. They made sure their three kids-Jessica, her twin brother and an older brother- grew up capable and self-reliant. As soon as they were able, they were doing laundry, she remembers, and "we were making our own lunches since the second grade."

High school coach suggested college competition

Her older brother ran in elementary school and even set some school records, so by fourth grade, Jessica decided she would, too.  But by her own admission, she wasn't all that fast.

It wasn't until high school in Wasilla, when coach Gary Howell and assistant coach Leslie Varys began to guide her running. "Coach Howell ... he took me under his wing and showed me that hard work can pay off."

By the time Howell was training her, Jessica had learned to truly love running. "A lot of people think running is boring or they lose interest. For me, it is a way to clear my mind and think about what my problems are for the day."

To her, putting feet to track or trail is the antithesis of boring. "You can explore new trails. You don't always run the same pace. There's always something new to do. Running allows you to really focus on just running and being happy." And most significantly: "What you put into running, you get out of it. That's what I really like."

Coach Howell planted the seed for a college career. Her senior year at Wasilla High, he asked her if she'd considered running in college. It was a totally new idea for her. "Without him, I never would have thought about UAA and what that could bring me," she said.

Step by step at UAA

On the brink of college, she had already left her two fast brothers in the proverbial dust. They never competed after high school, but Jessica's freshman year at UAA, she ran well enough to earn a scholarship to pay for her books. That set the baseline. "Each year, as I got a little bit better, I was offered a little bit more." She also enjoyed several scholarships for her strong high school academics, including an Alaska Performance Scholarship.

UAA was really an easy choice for her, she says. Besides being just an hour from her home in Wasilla, UAA had the advantage of in-state tuition and the chance to graduate debt-free. She anticipates graduate school, perhaps in law, so saving money on her undergraduate degree just seemed prudent.

UAA turned out to be a great place for Jessica. For one thing, the running team gave her an immediate group of college friends. For another, small classes and access to faculty helped shape her ambitions. Besides the degree in justice, she earned a minor in a favorite subject, history.

Finding her way

As Jessica tells it, after completing her GERs, she was still unsure of her direction. "My junior year, I was still undeclared. I had no idea what to pursue."

On a whim, she took an intro to law course. Listening to Professor Jason Brandeis explore nuances of the law with his classes instilled a new fervor in Jessica. "I got this weird feeling that this is where I belong and what I need to pursue," she said. "I'm still working on exactly what I want to do with it, but I know I really enjoy studying law. When you look for a career, it should be something you know you'll enjoy. And for me, that will be law."

Jessica said she appreciated UAA's small class sizes, and the willingness of professors to work with her year-round athletic schedule. But don't think they made it easy for her. "They don't cut you any slack. You still have to get all your assignments in on time. But if you have to take a test late or miss a class, they'd work with you."

She also appreciated the kindness of classmates. "If I had to miss a day, they'd share their class notes with me," she said. "I had a really great experience at UAA."

Her appreciation extends beyond academics to the athletic coaching staff.

"Coach Friess did not let us get away with much," she said. "He made sure we all knew the importance of keeping our grades up and staying on task and focused." She said he made it clear that their success was up to them. "He'd lay out the workouts-always challenging-and it was up to us to meet that challenge."

She also enjoyed the support of the other coaching staff-T.J. Garlatz, Ryan McWilliams, Tony Tomsich and especially the addition of a female coach, Erin Alewine, during her junior year. "She was so helpful and understood what it was like to be a female athlete."

Not always a sure thing

As her running career progressed, Jessica found lessons in adversity. She sorely missed her twin brother when he joined the Marines after high school. Anchorage was much bigger than Wasilla-she considered it a pretty big move. Then there was adapting to the rigors of college. "My freshman year, it was tough to figure out a balancing act" between academics and athletics. She tried and adapted many systems that supported her goals.

Jessica Pahkala

Jessica Pahkala races at the 2016 GNAC indoors relay. (Photo/UAA)

"I learned having an agenda is really important. Write down every assignment and when it is due. Give yourself reminders. Spend plenty of time in the library." There, she'd see and be inspired by the many other athletes, getting their work done. She was a steady participant in team meet-ups at the library and homework nights.

Her persistence paid off. Her grades were high, and, as her Seawolf indoor track and field and cross-country bios attest, she was a strong and steady competitor, earning valuable points for her team and qualifying three times for NCAA championships and GNAC All-Academic teams.

And while running cross-country and track always lured and rejuvenated her, not every race was a success. She learned to live through the occasional but inevitable disappointing performance.

Paying it forward

"A bad race is really hard. You know it costs money to travel, and the coach can't take everyone. If you run poorly, you feel like you let the team down. That really bothered me."

She had to work hard at reconciling disappointment, but came to understand that some failure is "just a part of life. Sometimes it's just not your day, or the weather is tough, or you traveled the night before. There are so many different factors. Still, you hope that you bring the best each time you line up."

She said she learned to be patient with herself her freshman and sophomore years. "The juniors and seniors are really fast, and you're still developing," she said. Later, she made sure to share that same important lesson with underclassmen.

"Running is hard and it hurts a lot," she said. So it's important to learn to enjoy the challenge, and then apply that to other parts of your life. "Try and find the joy in everything" is a mantra she lives by and shares today.

Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement

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