Putting the “Student” in Student-Athlete
“Dumb jock,” “you’re just a racket,” “they don’t deserve to be here,” … these are all quotes that student-athletes unfortunately hear on a regular basis. However, what is seen on the surface is not always true. Student-athletes have many different passions, hobbies, and qualities that go beyond what is shown on the team roster. I had the privilege to interview and get to know five underclassman student-athletes at Cornell—Ondrej Psenicka ’25 (Men’s Ice Hockey), Gia Graziano ’26 (Women’s Tennis), Aishwarya Khubchandani ’26 (Women’s Squash), Ryan Johnson ’26 (Cross Country), and Finn Boyle ’26 (Track & Field)—and hope to share what makes them more than just a student-athlete as they embark on their collegiate careers.
I started touching on the student part of being a student athlete. Psenicka talked about how he transferred to ILR because it combines economics, psychology, and law which combines all his interests way better than his past major, information science. Likewise, Khubchandani is transferring to computer science from information science after discovering her love for coding during her gap year, which turned out to be one of the most enriching years she has experienced. Khubchandani traveled across the country to Delhi, India to live and train there. Her time there allowed her to train with the coach of her dreams and she reflects on this being a time of growth with both self-discovery and squash.
Aishwarya Khubchandani ’26 (Women’s Squash)
“I learned more about squash in that gap year than I have in the past 10 years. When I was not training, I learned and tried to code. I doubled up a whole new front in squash and found what I really wanted to study in college,” said Khubchandani.
Ryan Johnson ’26 (Cross Country)
Johnson and Graziano both found their passions through familial ties to their fields. On the other hand, Boyle explained how he is using the various opportunities at Cornell to explore his interests: “There are a lot of opportunities at Cornell, and so many ways to explore interests. There is so much depth here that you can discover random topics, and it can become your life trajectory. I am taking a class in screenwriting, and it has become one of my hobbies. I really enjoy reading scripts and am considering filmmaking as a possible career.”
We then touched on how each athlete began participating in their sport. Khubchandani explained how she felt like the black sheep in her family because no one was athletic and because of that it acted as a catalyst for her athletic career.
“I was a very sporty kid—I was always super athletic and energetic, but my family had no athletic background. One year, my brother was given a squash racket, and I decided to pick it up. Fast forward to today, I use that racket daily, and couldn’t be happier with my decision,” Khubchandani remarked.
I wanted to learn more about each athlete and what they dedicate themselves to outside of athletics, so we then discussed what their passions are outside of athletics and school. For Graziano, she had to mention her love for music.
Gia Graziano ‘26, Women’s Tennis
“One of my earliest memories with music was with my grandma. She used to push me on a swing while singing me classical Italian songs,” Graziano recalled. “I always remember that music being played around the house, and it became such an important part of my identity. Eventually, I taught myself how to play classical piano, and that’s something not a lot of people expect from me,” Graziano said.
Similar to my conversation with Graziano, Psenicka and I discussed what interests him outside of hockey, and we ended up bonding over our mutual love for traveling. He talked about how every summer he goes to Croatia and the Canary Islands to windsurf and play beach volleyball, a drastic change in environment for an athlete who lives and breathes the cold.
Ondrej Psenicka ‘25, Men’s Ice Hockey
In fact, I learned a lot more about each athlete than I would have expected. Khubchandani is also an international student like Psenicka, so one thing she took upon herself is to start collecting magnets from every U.S. state she visits. Meanwhile, one of Boyle's bucket list items is taking the Mauritanian Iron Ore Train, which is the heaviest and longest train that travels along the Sahara Desert!
My favorite moments when interviewing these athletes were simply the ones where I got to know them on a personal level beyond what we see on highlight reels, box scores, and news articles. Whether it was bonding over Game of Thrones with Psenicka or laughing with Johnson and Boyle in their dorm, I found things I had in common with each of them. I remember debating with Johnson about whether New Jersey is 90% a beautiful state and cracking up in laughter when Boyle (a redhead himself) joked that “Gingers are people too.” Getting the opportunity to connect with each athlete allowed me to realize how labeling someone solely as a “student-athlete” can truly stifle one’s sense of community at Cornell. So far, my chats with these athletes have been one of my favorite memories in BRSN.
Finn Boyle ‘26, Track & Field
“I feel like it doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete or not,” Psenicka explained. “Cornell is one big family and I feel like everyone can talk and have fun with each other. At other schools, being an athlete means not interacting with non-athletes. But here, it seems like everyone sticks together and we don’t have a big distinction between the two.”
Similar to Psenicka, Graziano explained how she feels supported at Cornell and enjoys how connected everyone is.
“The first day I got here, everyone was so welcoming and open. They all made themselves available and easy to talk to. I am most grateful for my teammates, coaches, professors, and friends. I am so grateful to have so many helpful and supportive people around,” Graziano shared.
Our conversations discussing each athlete’s sense of belonging at Cornell led to another important aspect of being not just a student-athlete but also as a student overall here: mental health. Psenicka explained how difficult being at Cornell was in the beginning due to being an international student and facing language barriers.
“Mental health is a big topic with being a student-athlete due to the immense amount of pressure we face. What many people don’t understand is how demanding our schedules truly are, how demanding our schedules truly are. If we ask for extensions, it is not because we are lazy but because our schedules are pretty booked, and losing games can affect our mood and morale. It can be hard to focus on school after pouring so much of our energy into athletics, and sometimes our struggles go unnoticed,” Psenicka said.
Khubchandani explained that without her teammates, she is unsure if she would’ve been able to get through her first semester: “It can get super stressful, and at times, my anxiety is at an all time high. However, my friends in and out of squash have been nothing short of amazing. I have had a lot of Olin nights and grinds, but we are all in it together and everyone is there to guide and help you when you need it.”
Alongside balancing schoolwork and social lives, athletes inevitably face issues of self-image and stereotypes, and I wanted to tackle these notions with the athletes.
“At a school like Cornell, we didn’t get in just because of athletics but also because of school and dedication; all of the athletes I have met are extremely well rounded. We care about internships, work experiences, and clubs just like any other student. All of us realize that we enjoy what we are doing now, but we also focus on all other aspects beyond hockey,” stressed Psenicka.
Alongside that, a lot of recognition for student-athletes is brushed under the rug because many people don’t realize how they put in large amounts of effort too.
“I saw this SideChat meme saying that if there are a lot of Gatorade bottles in a class the class is going to be easy and honestly I laughed.” Khubchandani chuckled. “It is funny for the jokes, but on a serious note it is important to acknowledge how much work we are doing too.”
After listening to each athlete’s perspective, I realized rethinking stereotypes that surround student-athletes is more important now than ever. Like previously mentioned, popular culture loves the “dumb jock” character, and unfortunately, many of those perceptions have bled into today’s society. There are often negative stereotypes that come with being a student athlete. student-athletes and I hope that this article helped share their stories that go beyond their sport. I have heard plenty of people talk about how they believe a lot of student-athletes only got in because of their sport, that athletes don’t care about their grades/ academics as much. If there is one thing interviewing these athletes taught me, it’s to never judge a book by its cover. Although I cannot change everyone’s views on athletes, I hope this serves as a reminder that there is more to an athlete than their sport, that there are other hobbies they commit themselves to, and that they are regular people at the end of the day.
Near the end of our chat, Johnson imparted some wise advice that we can all embrace: “Don’t assume things about people. If you’re here at Cornell, you made it here for a reason. There is always more to a person than what’s on the surface.”