On April 21, Bulldog Athletics welcomed four student-athlete alumni—Jessica Fields '20, Billy Pope '01, Alex Strand '07, and Lauren Villanueva '16—to speak at an event, "Bench Strength: Alumni Playbook." The virtual panel discussion focused on the importance of the Bulldog student-athlete experience and the influence of these and other parts of the U of R on the panelists’ personal and professional lives.
Following an introduction from Associate Director of Athletics Rachel Roche about the importance of support from the Bulldog Bench, which raises funds for Athletics, the panel was moderated by Kelly Dries, executive director of the Office of Career and Professional Development.
The panelists began by discussing how integral athletics was to their overall U of R experience. "We were fighting for something bigger than ourselves," said Pope, a baseball player during his U of R years. "Our purpose was bigger than our individual contributions." Fields, a track and field athlete, and Villanueva, a Bulldog tennis player, talked about the lifelong friendships they formed, while Strand, who was involved in water polo and swimming at the U of R, reflected on his experiences at the Thompson Aquatic Center, which "gave me a physical place on campus."
During the discussion of the impact of their U of R experiences on their careers, Fields highlighted the time management and organizational skills she learned from being involved in athletics, which have been helpful as she applies to medical school. In her current work in the medical field, she also draws on knowledge from liberal arts classes. "I learned about different cultures and religions, for example," she said. "This has helped me in working with different types of patients and will continue to help me when I am a physician."
An Air Force Colonel and chief of the future operations division for the United States Cyber Command, Pope recalled the pressure he felt at the pitcher's mound during an incident he had while serving in Afghanistan. "I've been here before," he thought as he was stuck on a traffic convoy.
Strand, now a producer at Amazon Studios for live sports and NFL coverage, says his experience as a Division III student-athlete at Redlands allowed him time outside of his sport to dedicate to academics, services, clubs/organizations, and other U of R commitments. "Students who select to be part of Bulldog Athletics do it for a real purpose," he said.
Villanueva enjoyed taking classes outside of her global business major and appreciated playing tennis and studying abroad in Spain while still graduating in four years. Reflecting on her experience, she commented on the importance of mentorship. "I had great coaches and mentors," she said. "It makes me want to give back by mentoring others and supporting the tennis program. I want future generations to have this same great experience."
The other panelists also expressed their continued desire to give back to their alma mater, whether through gifts of time, talent, or treasure. Pope, who has hosted Hunsaker Scholars in Washington D.C. as part of their cohort class trips, said. "I always want to help in some way," he says, "And I am happy to give back financially because our University needs it."
The panel ended with thanks to specific U of R mentors who helped the speakers, with shout-outs to Pani Chakrapani (computer science), Scott Laverty (former Bulldog baseball), Geoff Roche (Bulldog tennis), Linda Silveira (biology), and Tom Whittemore (Bulldog aquatics).
The group also shared advice to current students as they prepare for life after Redlands.
"Do your best," says Villanueva, "Take it one step at a time."
"Persevere," says Fields. "You can do whatever you put your mind to."
"Steer clear of mediocrity," says Pope. "Take chances. If your highs are high and your lows are low, you are taking your swings."
"Be memorable," says Strand. "That looks different for everyone, but make your lasting impact."