Alena Polenska (Czech Republic)
Who would have ever thought the road to professional hockey lead through an American University. Just like every young hockey player, I also dreamed about playing in the NHL. The only problem was that women’s NHL didn’t exist when I was a kid. Nevertheless, the dream of playing hockey in North America still remained my goal. Little did I care that I am a girl playing on a boys team and playing a male dominated sport.
It took some time before I personally started to understand that school is important. Thinking back to my childhood, I am glad I had a few people to constantly remind me that education is incredibly important. Initially, those people were my parents, who were pretty strict when it came to having good grades. With time, I learned to put school as #1 in my life and hockey and everything else came after. In 9th grade when it came to choosing what high school I would attend in Czech Republic, the decision was easy. In Czech, Gymnasium is a high school that has a more rigorous curriculum than other high schools. The belief was that as a girl I was never going to make a living by playing hockey. So I needed to get a good education. While I was accepted into a Czech high school, I was also exploring the option of attending a prep school in Kingston, Pennsylvania. Since the spring of my 8th grade, I had been in touch with the hockey coaches from Wyoming Seminary, who used to travel to Czech Republic for a hockey tournament every spring, where I played a few games with their boys team. The idea of being able to combine hockey and academics (both at the highest level) was very appealing to me. In Czech Republic it is quite impossible to do both at a high level. I was also hitting that age, when girls might not be allowed to play on boys teams, which was around the age of 15 years old back then. The Czech women’s league has never been too competitive and it would be hard to play hockey competitively and keep my grades up if I was to stay in my home country.
Therefore, coming to America was the best option for me. Before I could leave (after finishing middle school), I had to fill out a lot of paperwork that was sent to me by Wyoming Seminary. Some of the paperwork included medical forms, grades sent by my current school, financial aid forms, housing questionnaire and more. Fortunately I didn’t have to take any standardized tests and was admitted based on an in person interview with Jack Eidam, who was the dean of admissions in 2005. However, I must admit that my English was not up to speed. During the interview I didn’t understand Jack’s accent because I was only used to hearing my Czech teacher’s English, and there were a lot of things I could not explain. That’s why I was initially admitted for the summer school program at Sem (Wyoming Seminary). I spent about a month attending English as a Second Language classes, and also played at a few tournaments.
When the school year started, each student was required to play a sport or participate in other extracurricular activities each trimester. I chose to play field hockey in the Fall, ice hockey in the Winter, and lacrosse in the Spring. I was used to being on the ice every day since end of August but at Sem, to my surprise official ice hockey practices didn’t start until about end of October. Fortunately, Sem was big on hockey back then, and we were able to have unofficial practices with the boys team once or twice a week. This was challenging because it wasn’t hockey season yet, therefore students were only allowed to go if they were doing well at school. These on ice practices were early in the morning before school started. The hockey rink was located off campus, so we would all pile up with our hockey bags into three vans and left the school’s parking lot at 5:45. Whoever was late didn’t get to come. A few times I saw guys chasing the vans but our coaches would just drive away saying it was their’ fault that they were late. We were on a tight schedule, and had to get back to school before classes started. In the Fall, the deal was that we can get on the ice if we have good grades, don’t fall asleep in classes, and don’t miss any classes. On top of playing a Fall sport, I also played hockey for a club team with one of my school teammates. She was from New Jersey, and on weekends we traveled there to play games. I was fortunate enough to have great teammates throughout my 4 years at Sem. So I got to play for many different club teams such as Lady Patriots, Golden Blades, Princeton Tiger Lilies. I was lucky to have a lot of people help me along the way such as being able to spend weekends at my friends’ houses and travel with them to hockey games and tournaments, which helped me with the college recruiting process because college coaches often attend big tournaments and showcases. Sem played in a small league for my first two years there, and that’s why getting the extra exposure on club teams was great.
At Sem, there was always a big focus on school.Each student had to take several requirements, and then was free to choose some elective courses. This was great news to me because since middle school, I struggled with physics. So at Sem I made sure to avoid it and instead took biology, chemistry, anatomy, and forensics. Being at a prep school was an amazing experience. I got to meet people from around the world, and became close friends with many of them. I loved learning about different cultures and traditions people had. Also, I enjoyed living in the dorms with my friends. Our dorm parents were our teachers, who had apartments in the dorm. This was great because on the weekends our teachers would hang out with us and were like older siblings to us. Overall, living in the dorm allowed me to become close with my peers. Yes, there were times when I didn’t want to follow rules such as signing in at dinner on weekends, or having study halls on Sunday evenings. Soon enough, I realized all the rules are in place for a reason and I learned to be responsible, independent, and to manage my time well because of them.
One major difference I experiences while at Sem is the way classes are taught. There was a lot more reading assigned, and students were encouraged to talk a lot more in class compared to Czech Republic. We didn’t just read a book and then wrote a summary. We discussed the book while writing essays that involved critical thinking or research. On top of that, we had an honor code at Sem. Copying another student’s work during an exam (in other words cheating) or copying information from websites for writing assignments was not allowed. At the end of each exam or a writing assignment we had to write the honor code (“I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this work.”), and sign it. This concept was new to me because from my personal experience cheating in Czech is normal such as having cheat sheets, or allowing a friend to copy your homework. I have quickly adopted the honor code at Sem and started liking it because the grades I got were a true reflection of my own work. It became very rewarding to get an A on an exam or an essay. Another big difference was that my teachers were my friends outside of the classroom. We would play basketball in the gym on the weekends or just hang out and talk in the teachers’ apartments in the dorm. I loved being at Sem, and wanted to stay in the US for college as well.
The college process started quite early for me because I started receiving letters and emails from colleges early in my sophomore year. I was surprised that many Division I schools were interested in me. Before that I thought that I will be lucky if I can get into a college and make it work because my parents didn’t have high paying jobs and I was worried about being able to afford college. I must admit that I was lucky to have great coaches, advisors, and counselors around me at Sem, who helped me with the college process. They taught me how to write emails to coaches, how to find the right school, and what is required to get to the next level. The recruiting process is long and takes a lot of work and time such as researching schools, visiting schools, and talking with coaches while still doing all the school work. The college process is not easy but it is something that is worth it in the end. Long story short, I had a lot of offers in front of me when it came down to choosing the right college for me. And because school was always important to me, I chose Brown University, where I got to play DI hockey, which was the best hockey I got to play. We weren’t the best team but every game was very competitive and challenging. The college hockey environment felt like playing professional hockey. It was amazing! Studying at Brown was challenging but in the end it was all worth the hard work I put into it. On top of that I was able to get a great education at one of the best Universities in the world.
While at Brown, I initially majored in Commerce, Entrepreneurship and Organizations and at the beginning of my junior year, I switched majors to International Relations. I enjoyed the liberal arts education because I took some interesting classes ranging from Engineering to Psychology. Playing a Division I hockey is often referred to as having a job while being in college. It takes serious commitment, and great time management but the less time I had, the more I managed. For several years I had a few on campus jobs, and the more I worked the more I got done. Same went for hockey the more we traveled the better I did at school. I knew I had less time, and I used it well. In my senior, I was trying to decide what to do next, and thanks to the connections I made while in the US, I had the opportunity to go play professional hockey in Russia. So I thought I would give it a shot for a year, and see what happens. Today, I am still in Russia playing professional hockey but I have a great college degree to lean on.