For Sierra Afoa, school and sports have always been intertwined. Her coach/referee father Stan and her mom, Sarah — a two-sport athlete for the Seawolves, with two UAA education degrees — stressed that balance early. On Sunday afternoons, while Sarah graded homework in her classroom at Gladys Wood Elementary, the Afoa kids shot hoops in the school gym. Academics and athletics have been interconnected from the start.
That’s in part why Sierra decided to hang up the basketball jersey, even though she had one more season of eligibility at UAA. Since she could graduate in 2017, it made sense to wrap up her basketball career as well.
The decision wasn’t easy. “It was a yearlong process, just thinking about it,” she said. “I know how much my family loves watching me play, and I know how much I love basketball.” But, with a high GPA, a degree in social work and a yearlong internship on the résumé, she says she’s ready “to take the next step forward.”
Local athlete, national stage
In the über-athletic Afoa family, college sports are the norm. All four kids were multi-sport athletes at Dimond High School, and all four competed in volleyball, track or basketball (or all three) in college. Pickup basketball games were easy growing up; with two sets of twins in the family, everyone came with an automatic teammate.
“I wanted to play basketball in college, I knew that from the start,” Sierra said. Older twins Shaina and Savannah solidified that plan when they left to play college ball. When Shaina returned home to coach at UAA, Sierra started considering her hometown team.
With her sister on the sidelines, Sierra got to know the pace and play of the Seawolves. Add in scholarships (high marks in high school earned Sierra an Alaska Performance Scholarship) and the chance to stay close to home, and attending UAA became a smart move both academically and athletically.
And the numbers prove it. Sierra will graduate this month with a 3.72 GPA, having played for a team that went 97-7 during her three years on the court. Four seasons after redshirting, she became the top rebounder for this year’s team that finished 30-2 and won its third straight Great Northwest Athletic Conference title. Last season she made huge contributions during UAA’s playoff run to the 2016 NCAA Div. II National Title Game.
The opportunity to compete for a national championship on the floorboards of a NBA/WNBA arena last year in Indianapolis, she says, was “probably my favorite memory from UAA.” The team’s championship week included banquets, police escorts, box suites to the Div. I Final Four, and even a Salt-N-Pepa concert.
“It would have been better if we had won,” she rightly noted. “Other than that, it was a dream come true.”
Though all student-athletes balance class, homework, training and practice, Sierra contended with a yearlong internship as well. Social work majors complete a 448-hour practicum, and Sierra spent much of this school year at McLaughlin Youth Center, a residential arm of the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice.
Balancing an internship with school and sports required constant attention. With regular multi-day road trips taking her outside Alaska during the season, Sierra had to carefully budget internship hours to stay on track. That focus and forward thinking didn’t go unnoticed.
“Sierra is a very motivated individual,” said her head coach, Ryan McCarthy. “She has been a great role model and has set the tone, from a culture standpoint, in what it means to be a true student-athlete.”
At her two-semester practicum, Sierra worked in McLaughlin’s transitional services, building reintegration plans so youth can return to the community after their court-ordered stay. It was challenging, it was meaningful, and it was a great fit for Sierra.
“Advocating for youth who really don’t have that opportunity is something that always interested me,” she said. She’s a frequent youth basketball coach, and classes like Intro to Child Welfare and Trauma in Childhood shaped her interest in building a career in youth services.
UAA’s community-focused curriculum gave her a great start. She says she was drawn to the ethics and values of the social work field, which emphasizes the value of each human’s worth. Her classes have matched that message, connecting her and her classmates with a range of city services, social work professionals, and real-world opportunities.
… and Sister-Coach-Roommate
Though she’s leaving her team early, she’s also leaving an impression. “She has been a fantastic ambassador for UAA and our women’s basketball program,” Coach McCarthy added. “Her work ethic athletically was something that will leave footprints on our program for many years to come.”
After graduating May 7, Sierra quickly flies to Boston to see her twin brother Stanson graduate from Emerson. Then it’s time to adjust to post-college life.
One of those small adjustments? Reassessing her relationship with Shaina who, for the past four years, served as sister, roommate and coach.
“It was Coach Afoa for everything. It’s going to take a while to get back to calling her Shaina,” Sierra laughed.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement