My college experience began when I was 17, but traveling for acting and gymnastics on top of going to school kept my social life to a minimum.
Which brings me back to the first time I stepped foot onto the UCLA campus – the incredible feeling of happiness and excitement as I walked into an orientation full of athletes and college students, with the expectation of making lots of new friends. I had a vision that life and everything in it would become much easier than before.
In my mind, collegiate gymnastics was going to be a cinch compared to elite. No strict schedule, specific meal or sleep plans or juggling activities – life was going to be a breeze.
But it started as a nightmare that took me a while to wake up from. In my first two years, I kept trying to make my ideal image of college come true and couldn’t understand why it was so difficult – my grades weren’t high, practice wasn’t easy and my social life was more like a dry, painful cactus than the blooming lotus I envisioned. I was bored and lonely. I missed my family, I missed dancing and acting, and I missed the structure I was accustomed to.
I realized it was time to make a transition. Adjust, adapt, change course. UCLA gave me the effective tools I needed to adapt to a new life that worked. At the surface, UCLA may be a large and prestigious campus, but at the core, it provided all the resources I needed to become successful.
Things began to change: I formed study sessions with classmates, utilized the counseling resources, took advantage of office hours with my professors and joined a group of friends that I hung out with in between studying and traveling. During this time, I was also looking for something that was missing – I was looking for Sophina because somewhere along the way, she had become lost.
When I found her, I learned I could do anything when I believed in myself.
Once I made the decision to let UCLA be my surrogate family and trusted that I could rely on the people around me as much as my own family, things improved. No matter how talented you are or how much you may have done in life, you still need a support system.
Life is a roller coaster – you can’t always stay up, but you’re not always supposed to stay down either.
Enjoy the ups, grieve the downs, but jump right back on and enjoy the thrill of the ride. After getting back on track, I became a better student, a better athlete and ultimately a better person.
In my senior year, I remember calling my mom and telling her how I had found myself – my grades were going up and I was having a great time at UCLA. I told her I was contemplating giving up gymnastics and doing my own thing. But she told me no – I wasn’t finished. I needed to go out there this year and be me.
I knew she was right.
The morning of our meet against our rival Utah, I woke up full of joy. Blue hairspray in my hair, sparkles on my eyelids, leo up, I was ready to perform for the right reasons, not for scores, not to fit in, and not for a medal but for myself and, above all, for God.
When they called my name that afternoon, I felt a rush go through my body. I stepped out on the floor and when the music began to play, it sent a shiver of excitement down my spine. I can still hear the sound of my name being announced, feel the wave of empowerment as I performed my routine, and remember the amazement I felt upon learning my performance had gone viral.
I am blessed to have experienced all my sport had to offer. From my low points to my very high points, I can look back now with no regrets. UCLA was a perfect fit for me – it was my family, my educator and my friend. I will never forget the life lessons I learned here and how I grew from a child into an academically strong woman with the help of my Bruin support system every step of the way. All I had to do was ask.
DeJesus competed for UCLA gymnastics from 2013-2016.