Sitting knee-to-knee in a circle around a plate of homemade cookies (courtesy of Octavia Cordes ’26) on my too-small-for-five-people dorm room floor, Caroline Siekman ’26 (women’s basketball), Cailan Baker ’26 (men’s soccer), Eli Schair-Rigoletti ’26 (men’s rugby) and Lily Brigman ’26 (women’s soccer) provided me with honest insights on what it is like to be a first-year athlete on campus.
Playing sports at the college level is the dream for many high school athletes. If getting here requires immense discipline and hard work, playing at the college level demands more. “The people here are the best of high school and club soccer,” Brigman admitted when I asked about the difference between her high school sports and college sports careers so far. “You aren’t the best on the team anymore—it’s weird,” she continued.
Entering your first year of college alone is a daunting task. On top of the sports they play, first-year college athletes must adjust to the sometimes daunting parts of college, such as living alone, an increased workload and the pressures of socializing.
Thankfully, athletes find that they have a strong community to lean on. “A senior, the captain and a freshman who may not play get the same treatment, which in itself is inclusive. It makes a stronger team,” Baker said. As someone who has never played a team sport long enough to understand team spirit beyond the superficial level of a shared jersey design and appreciative high-fives, Baker’s description made me feel like I was truly missing out.
“Our season hasn’t even started yet, but each week we have a ‘buddy’…who is an upperclassman who checks in [on the first-years] and takes us to go get coffee or lunch,” Siekman added. “We also have weekly meetings with our coach. We don’t even need to talk about basketball; he’s just always there and making sure we are all doing okay.” Siekman also mentioned how the upperclassmen, having taken many of the same classes as her in their first year of college, are willing and ready to help her with any academic challenges she may face.
After being Siekman’s roommate for only a few short weeks, I found her schedule to be a ridiculously tight squeeze. Watching her still meet her deadlines every week with early morning conditioning and hours of practice left me with no excuse to not do the same. But it made me curious: if and when these busy schedules inevitably lead to a paper or problem set that can’t be finished on time, do these athletes think they can get support from the academic staff at Vassar like they do with the athletic department?
“I do get the feeling that since you signed up to be on a team, there is an expectation that you are going to take responsibility for your work. I think they might be willing to have a little bit of leeway, but I don’t think we’ll be treated any differently,” Schair-Rigoletti replied.
With such rigid time constraints taking up a majority of their time, athletes often miss out on participating in the numerous clubs and organizations at Vassar. “We as athletes have a different college experience than everyone else, but coming into school we accepted that and I enjoy it. It has structured my time,” Baker explained.
“I did sign up for about a million clubs at the club fair, but I haven’t gone to any of them. I figure off-season I can get more into that,” Brigman said in agreement, laughing.
It is also apparent that on top of everything these athletes have to face, stereotypes can sometimes be thrown into the mix. “Someone asked me the first couple of days into school, ‘Are you like an aggressive person?’ after I told them I play rugby. I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I mean, I don’t play rugby because I’m an angry person. It’s just a fun sport,” Schair-Rigoletti shared with the group.
While some may harbor preconceived notions about what it means to be a “jock” in college and distance themselves from athletes, others are able to relate to them and form friendships. “I was worried it would be difficult to make friends outside the team, but it’s been pretty easy,” Siekman offered, when I asked the rest of the group if they felt like these stereotypes isolated them from the Vassar community at large.
The one big question I had for my interviewees was what they hope they can take away from their experience as athletes at Vassar. What is the end goal of wearing burgundy and gray jerseys for the next four years of their lives?
“I want to win a championship,” Schair-Rigoletti answered without hesitation, earning nods of agreement from the rest of the group.
“Yes,” Baker affirmed. “Short term: make the NCAA tournament. Play and play well. Have fun. But long-term, though, make lasting friendships, bonds and even develop relationships that could help you get into the workforce in the future.”
With that remark, as the athletes reached for the last few cookies on the plate, I came to the conclusion that I was conversing with incredibly ambitious, kind and talented peers. Balancing grueling academics with rigorous practice, all while navigating the most confusing and tumultuous part of their lives so far, is no easy feat. And yet they are fully determined to succeed. I have no doubt that the future of Vassar athletics is in safe hands.