Studevent takes on bullying

Penn State coach Coquese Washington was blown away by Gizelle Studevent's "level of idealism." Jeff Golden/Getty Images

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Gizelle Studevent could have done a research paper and been done with it, but the Penn State senior already twice honored as an academic all-conference selection in the Big Ten didn't want to spend hours simply wading through footnotes and staring at a computer screen. To fulfill an independent study requirement, she wanted to do something that made a difference.

Even though that meant revisiting an experience many people in her position would have gladly left in the past.

She labeled the idea Penn State Athletes Take Action. As many student-athletes as she could recruit would receive instruction, go out to local middle schools and talk about bullying -- why it matters, how to recognize it and how to deal with it. She had been on the other side of such presentations in school and knew how quickly kids tuned out teachers and counselors, however well-intentioned, as out of touch, out of step and, well, dull.

Studevent believed that hearing the message from college students not much older than them, from athletes competing for the school that dominates the sports scene in State College, might keep a few more eyes from drifting into space and a few more hands from surreptitiously fiddling with phones.

"I feel like when we go out into these schools, they look up to athletes," Studevent said. "I want them to see that this can happen to anybody."

There could hardly be a better messenger.

Studevent knows bullying can happen to anybody because it happened to her. Yes, she is good enough to attend Penn State on a basketball scholarship. She is physically striking. She is bright. But she was also bullied. Bullied for so long as to have little choice but to change high schools in hopes of salvaging her spirit.

She grew up in a family of modest means in San Diego, far enough south in Southern California that she was only half-joking when she said she could see Mexico from her house. She was a child of mixed ethnicity, her mother Mexican and her father not.

While still in middle school, an opportunity arose to attend an affluent private school known for both its basketball prowess and strong academics. She was excited, even though she wasn't sure she was good enough to be there. She looked up to the girls on the school's basketball team, wanted to be like them.

Then came the day, not long after she had a chance as an eighth-grader to travel to a tournament with older girls, that she found a letter addressed to "Senorita" in her bag, spelling out in no uncertain terms that she wasn't welcome in her new surroundings. More letters followed, always anonymous, calling her a "taco bitch" and far worse. Emails spread, intermingling her name with pornographic videos. She was even tipped off that a girl, whose identity she never learned, planned to pay two classmates to plant marijuana in Studevent's bag. All of this because she was different, because she didn't come from the same place or look like other students, because she was easy to single out.

"It wasn't so much what was said; it was just the fact that it was said from the people I looked up to," Studevent said. "I've always been proud to be Mexican. You can say I hopped a fence, whatever joke you want to make, but I'm always going to be proud of who I am."

The harassment came and went in waves. She and her family never got the response they hoped for from the school, but she stayed through her sophomore year in hopes the lulls would last.

They never did. Her parents were supportive. Her father would leave cards under her pillow or in her car, small surprises for her to find in low moments with messages telling her that things would get better, that she had to hang in there. But it took its toll.

"It really put a shot to my confidence as a girl, as a basketball player," Studevent said. "It changed a lot about basketball for me, just because it happened in that reality, that world. It almost ruined it for me. I feel like I didn't become the player I could have been.

"Sure, good things came out of this situation; I'm stronger, I'm this and that. But I feel like it really put a shot to my confidence as a basketball player and who I was."

Studevent eventually transferred to a new school to finish her final two years and was twice an all-state selection on the court. Things were better, but it wasn't a miracle cure. She said she feels she repressed a lot of the pain when she transferred, intent only on earning a college scholarship. It wasn't until she got to Penn State, about as far from Southern California as a person can get, that she realized how much confidence had gone missing.

"Gizelle is a very, very sweet girl," Penn State teammate Alex Bentley said. "She's obviously been through a lot. It stinks that the world is like that and people in it are like that, but I think it's definitely made her stronger as a person."

Strong enough that she didn't lock her experiences in a box, bury it and throw away the key. At a time when Penn State's name had become synonymous to much of the country with the worst excesses of unchecked athletic culture and Jerry Sandusky's horrifying abuse of the powerless, Studevent looked at her place in the world of college athletics as a means to alleviate for others some of the misery she experienced at the whim of bullies.

Penn State Athletes Take Action is set to run through the spring, but Studevent hopes it will live on beyond her graduation. Ideally, the leadership reins will pass each year to a new athlete, more local schools will participate and more athletes will get involved.

Jody Althouse, director of outreach and communications for the Centre County Women's Resource Center -- a State College organization that primarily serves victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and related issues -- spoke to the Penn State women's basketball team last season at the invitation of coach Coquese Washington. When Studevent needed a liaison to help train her volunteers and implement the program, she reached out to Althouse and the center.

"Gizelle is probably one of the most stable young women I've ever met," Althouse said. "She's calm, focused, and she's just the whole package. She's beautiful, she's athletic, she's smart, she knows herself."

Throughout the fall, a group of about a dozen student-athletes from a variety of sports met regularly with Althouse to learn about bullying and harassment and discuss ways to talk about it with middle schoolers. Studevent and Althouse coordinated schedules for the student-athletes and met with the administration of a local middle school to map out a plan. In the weeks ahead, they will visit middle school classes in pairs, one male and one female.

When the members of the group met en masse with students at an assembly in December, the athletes all brought tokens of their sport -- a football helmet, a basketball, etc. -- to identify themselves. Many of the questions that came from the middle schoolers had to do with what it took to become a college athlete, what it was like playing in those games.

"Just the fact that athletes were coming into the school, they were all excited," Althouse said. "They couldn't wait to find out who the athletes were, what sport they were connected to, how they could be an athlete someday, how they could go to Penn State someday. That was really pretty cool. I mean, it was funny, the faculty felt the same way, and the administration. They sort of saw them like superstars -- not just people, but these superstars coming in."

If that connection opens the lines of communication, it's a starting point. Because there were also questions about bullying, about whether any of the athletes had been bullied or could really understand what it was like.

Coming from someone like Studevent, the message resonates differently because it comes from personal experience.

"It brings awareness to the fact that you don't have to be the stereotype person who is bullied or that you have to be a certain way to be bullied," Studevent said. "Anybody can be bullied. A bully is insecure about themselves, so they'll find somebody who, I guess they feel the need to bring them down."

Studevent -- who hopes to complete a book about her experiences, less a memoir than a series of letters to teachers, parents and young people to start a dialogue about bullying -- isn't a star for the eighth-ranked Lady Lions. She averages just more than 10 minutes and two points per game this season, meaning it might be easy to miss her in the midst of a key Big Ten game Sunday against Nebraska (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 2 p.m. ET). Her coach is adamant that the senior has game and that she won't hesitate to call on the 5-foot-11 guard if the team needs a scoring lift. But there are other attributes that matter beyond a good first step.

"We don't recruit kids just for their GPA or to sit on the end of the bench," Washington said. 'We recruit everybody to play. But we also recruit kids that fit the culture of Penn State, and that's a lot of things off the court. When you talk about team chemistry and being a good teammate and having a selfless and a giving spirit, Gizelle might embody those ideals more than anybody else on our team. She's just a really caring, caring individual. …

"I was really blown away by that level of idealism, to want to do more with this experience than just forget about it, bury it, 'I got over it,' and let it go. She wanted to use it to do good and to impact others."