Taking a stand against bullying

* This story appeared in the March 2013 edition of Blue White Illustrated, printed and mailed to our subscribers Friday.
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By Matt Herb
Gizelle Studevent insists she wouldn't go back and undo it, even if she could. Not the insults. Not the threats. Not the taunts about her basketball skills or the ethnic slurs.
As painful as it was at the time, the bullying she endured served a purpose in her life.
"It opened my eyes to a lot of the issues out here, a lot of things that we put under the rug," she said. "I want to make a difference and bring things up that are uncomfortable for people. Because that's the only way, I feel, that you can progress."
Studevent is a senior guard on the Penn State women's basketball team. A native of the San Diego area, she is averaging about 10 minutes a game and has helped the Lady Lions at several key points in the season, including victories over Michigan and Minnesota in which she came off the bench to knock down critical jumpers. "She doesn't take a lot of shots, coach Coquese Washington said, "but she makes the ones she takes."
And as important as she's been to the Lady Lions, Studevent's impact at Penn State has by no means been confined to the basketball court. She has started a student group called Penn State Athletes Take Action whose purpose is to combat bullying in schools. Using a curriculum supplied by the Centre County Women's Resource Center, Studevent and a number of other athletes from the women's basketball, football, soccer and cross country teams, as well as cheerleaders and members of the Lionettes dance team, visit Mount Nittany Middle School each month to talk to sixth-grade classes about bullying.
"I knew going through my experience and having overcome it, that I wanted to do something. It was just a matter of figuring out what I wanted to do," Studevent said. "So I picked up an independent study with a professor who I have a great relationship with. She's a criminal justice professor. You can do research and write a paper, but I told her I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something to make an impact on the community. She knew about my story, so she said, 'Why don't you use your story as a way to help kids out there in the community.' "
That story is chilling. The trouble began when she was in eighth grade at La Jolla Country Day School. She was an aspiring athlete, and although she wasn't officially a member the girls' basketball team yet, she would tag along on road trips because she knew the coaches and looked up to the players.
But after returning from a trip to a tournament in Oakland, she found a note tucked in her travel bag addressed to "Senorita." It was written anonymously, and it demanded answers. Why are you around us? Why are you working out with us? Why are you getting gear? Go back to Mexico, you taco bitch.
Studevent, whose mother is Mexican and whose father is of mixed ethnicity, got another letter containing more ethnic slurs after the team played a tournament in Arizona. It wasn't signed, and the return address on the envelope was the school's address. But the stationary was from the hotel where the team had stayed, and the letter had an Arizona postmark.
A third letter warned that two students were planning to plant marijuana in her backpack so that she would get caught in a drug sweep the school was conducting. It turned out to be an empty threat, but after finding profane notes taped to her locker and seeing her name turn up on pornographic material posted to websites, Studevent was frightened. "I didn't know what was going to happen next," she said. "I didn't know if they were going to poison my Gatorade. It was scary at that point."
The bullying continued intermittently. Just when she thought it had finally stopped, it would start up again. Concerned about what might happen next, and dissatisfied with the school's response, she and her parents decided it would be best for her to transfer from Country Day. For her junior year, she enrolled at the Bishop's School, an independent college prep school in La Jolla, Calif. She shined as a guard on the girls' basketball team, averaging 18.2 points and 4.1 rebounds her senior year and winning recognition as the California Division IV Player of the Year.
Studevent's play attracted the attention of Washington, a Notre Dame assistant coach at the time. When Washington left South Bend to become Penn State's head coach, Studevent decided to check out the Lady Lions. She and her father nearly turned around and went home when their flight out of Southern California was delayed. But when they approached the gate agent, they were told their bags were already on the plane and couldn't be retrieved. So they waited out the delay and flew to Penn State. Studevent hit it off with Washington during the visit and signed with the Lady Lions.
A two-time Academic All-Big Ten choice, she's been a boon to Penn State ever since, on the court and off. "Gizelle is just an outstanding young woman," said Jody Althouse, director of outreach and communications for the Women's Resource Center. "She keeps a low profile. She's not seeking fame and fortune; she's seeking to make a difference in the lives of children. Because what she experienced was so real and so hurtful, she wants to prevent this from happening to other children. And if it has happened, she wants them to know that you can get past it, you can make a difference, you can learn from it, grow from it - which is what she's done."
With her college basketball career about to draw to a close, Studevent doesn't dwell on the torment she endured before heading to Penn State. When she does think about it, it's with a sense of detachment. "You don't necessarily ever forget how you felt," she said, "but you move on. And when I say 'move on,' I mean using what I remember to help these kids. I remember how I felt, I remember feeling down, crying, all those things. In remembering that, I want to use that to help them. That's the important part for me."
Athletes Take Action developed its program last fall. The athletes met with Althouse weekly to plan their presentations to the children, and in December they made their first trip to the school. Sixth-graders are the perfect age for the program, Studevent said - old enough to grasp the message and young enough to be receptive. January's lesson focused on name-calling.
"I brought up the fact that I was bullied and that I was told I wasn't good enough to play basketball and that I couldn't play basketball in college," Studevent said. "I didn't go into the specifics… but I got reactions from the kids. They were really tuned in. They were raising their hands, saying what kind of things they've heard, what people have called them. You could tell from the tone of their voices that it's affected them."
According to the National Education Association, one in three schoolchildren in sixth through 10th grade has been affected by bullying. The vast majority of students - 83 percent of girls and 79 percent of boys - say they have been harassed.
The Penn State athletes have instant credibility when they step into the classrooms. They wear their team apparel, and when they first met with the students, they all brought something from their respective sports. The football and basketball players brought balls, the cheerleaders brought megaphones. "It got a nice connection going," Althouse said. "It was something the sixth-graders could grab onto and relate to with the athletes. This wasn't an unknown college student in the classroom; it was an athlete in the classroom. They could ask questions about the sport, about practice, about how hard you have to work, about how you still have to study. It gave the sixth-graders an ability to relate to them immediately."
Studevent's goal is to keep the organization going after she graduates in May. She's hoping to arrange a golf fundraiser in San Diego modeled after Coquese's Drive, an annual summer golf tournament that raises money for the Women's Resource Center.
She's motivated in part by the stories of others who were bullied. Anti-bullying campaigns have gained momentum nationally following a string of tragedies, including the suicide of 15-year-old student Phoebe Prince in 2010. Prince's death touched Studevent deeply. "I knew that something needed to be done about this, because people were hanging themselves," she said. "It was getting to that point, and it needs to stop."
The campaigns have pushed back against the notion that bullying is just another adolescent rite of passage. Studevent is pleased to be a part of the movement, and she has every intention of continuing.
"I'm really big on being positive and turning negatives into positives in my daily life," she said. "Especially with this. With my story, even though the things that happened to me were bad, I have the ability to turn them into something that could change lives and potentially touch these kids. I'm definitely glad I did this."
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Men's Basketball
Blue White Illustrated hoops writer Nate Bauer reveals the inner turmoil of star point guard Tim Frazier following his season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon just four games into the 2012-13 season.
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Women's Basketball
Blue White Illustrated editor Matt Herb has the latest on the Lady Lions and their quest for a Big Ten Championship under head coach Coquese Washington, plus, a special look at guard Gizelle Studevent's unique fight against bullying.
Blue White Illustrated assistant editor Tim Owen sits down with senior Quentin Wright, who is en route to yet another NCAA Tournament appearance and, if all goes well, his third consecutive spot in the finals. That, and a complete update at the Nittany Lions' progress toward backing up their National Championship of a year ago.
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