Becoming a college athlete is not an easy process, and there is a different path for every star.
Some athletes start playing when they are in diapers.
For Michigan State junior middle hitter Rebecka Poljan, the path to volleyball stardom started when she was 12.
There is a rule in the Poljan household, that children can’t start playing competitive sports until 11- or 12-years-old. It is an interesting approach, given that both parents, Amy and Rick Poljan, both were college athletes: he played football at Central Michigan, while Amy played softball at Indiana University and is in the Hoosier Hall of Fame,
Poljan’s three brothers have played college football. Tony is currently a grad transfer at Virginia after playing at CMU, Richard at Michigan Tech and David at Hillsdale College.
Athletic success clearly runs in the family, and the seven Poljan children are reaching high levels despite the less-than-conventional late start.
“My parents always had a focus on character development versus competing in sports,” said Poljan, who is fifth out of the seven kids. “How you can learn more about yourself, communicate with a team, work within teams to better understand yourself and be a leader for people.”
The Poljan family wants to keep a focus on service, more than sports.
“There are so many other things in life to do,” said Amy, about her parenting philosophy. “From my perspective, the service component is a big part of the whole person.”Amy said that service projects are important family events, as they provide opportunity for each of their seven children to get involved – even when they were small growing up in Bath, Michigan.
“As much as it may seem service is for other people, the intrinsic-ness of just doing the service itself and being outside of yourself. They gain so much more from that,” Amy said.
At Lansing Catholic high school, Poljan took multiple trips to Montgomery, Alabama with Rebuilding Together, a nonprofit organization with the mission of “Repairing homes, revitalizing communities, rebuilding lives.”
“I kind of fell in love with it,” she said. “It was always really fulfilling for me. It’s humbling for the situation I’m in versus other people’s situations.
Her activism on mission trips did not stop when she came to Michigan State.
Poljan, along with two of her teammates, seniors Alyssa Chronowski and Lauren Swartz went to Tupelo, Mississippi for spring break in 2019. There, they spackled, put up drywall, and painted for struggling homeowners.
“It’s always fun to do things with teammates,” Poljan said. “I brought something that I loved and invited them into it. A team can only get stronger when you invest in your teammates.”
Poljan described her trip to Costa Rica, in March 2020, as the most impactful experience of her life. She visited La Carpio, a Nicaraguan refugee slum home to over 30,000 residents, according to The Borgen Project.
“It’s cinder blocks and sheet metal houses,” she said. “There’s only one road in and out.”
Poljan and her group paved a sidewalk for a physically impaired boy who before could not reach the road without being carried by his parents.
“I feel like my actions speak louder than my words so if I can go down there and spend a week, that would mean the world to me,” she said.
Amy feels that service projects and community outreach teach valuable lessons that translate to real life and success on the court.
“The lifestyle of service is very similar to the lifestyle of being an athlete,” she said. “You’re always trying to look for those opportunities to be more.”
Being grateful is the one value that Amy said she instilled into her daughter. With her service projects experiences, that value shines through.
“I’ve been given so much,” Poljan said. “To give back just even a little bit means the world to me.”