Humans of BRAVE: Figuring It Out

by Lia Triantafylidis

Hello! My name is Lia Triantafylidis, and I am 25 years old working for a nonprofit up in Boston. I met Meaghan Davis during my undergraduate time at UConn where we both worked for the intramurals program. I knew I wanted to be Meg’s friend from DAY ONE because she’s so awesome and anyone is lucky to be around her positive energy. As our friendship grew, I was introduced to BRAVE and even more incredible people. Below is a deeper look into my journey pre, during, and post finding BRAVE. It’s a pretty detailed account of my path thus far, so don’t worry if you can’t relate or aren’t interested in every little thing.

My hope is that there is at least some piece of my story that resonates with readers - especially those who are still just figuring it out.

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It’s pretty rare to know at a young age how you plan to spend the rest of your life.

Many are stressed by the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When we’re really young, there’s more room to be creative and shoot for the stars: professional athlete, movie star, gazillionaire, whatever your little heart dreams of...but as we get older, the question requires a more “realistic” answer. Well, I was lucky because my answer never changed. My family, friends, everyone including me, knew I was going to be a teacher. Most kids would ask for a new bike, new toy, or even new clothes for Christmas or their birthday - what did I ask for? One of those grading books teachers use to list and track student grades for different assignments. It was the BEST gift and brought me one step closer to making my teaching dreams a reality.

Every night, I would prop my (hundreds of) dolls up side by side and lead the “class” through the basics: colors, shapes, addition, etc. The material got more complicated as I got older. I spent hours walking the class through problems and activities, often just mimicking what I had heard earlier that day while I was in school. The best part of “teaching” at this age was doing so in front of a huge mirror. My childhood bedroom has a huge, wall-sized mirror by the desk which allowed for ample self-observation. I would watch myself teaching hour after hour. Am I standing up straight? Am I holding the book up so the class can see the pictures? As I type this out, I am realizing how ridiculous I must’ve looked, but this was my favorite thing to do.

Fast forward a few years and my goal grew and evolved a bit, but ultimately stayed the same.

I began volunteering for my town’s Therapeutic Recreation program and fell in love with Special Olympics. My incredible experiences with these programs helped further shape my vision for the future and suddenly it was clear: I wanted to be a special education teacher! Having this realization made the college application process much easier. I knew what my goals were, where I saw myself in 5+ years, and I would happily write a million college essays to share this enthusiasm with the world.

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Deciding on a college was the first time I remember really feeling unsure about something big.

It was down to Drexel University or the University of Connecticut. Both are great schools and both have excellent education programs. I LOVED the idea of Drexel’s Co-Op program. Right away I would be getting hands-on experience in the classroom, in the field as an educator. Program-wise, my heart was pretty much sold on Drexel. But the program was not all that mattered to me. I wanted my whole college experience to be rooted in the things I love, and what did I love more than anything? UConn Men’s Basketball. It sounds ridiculous to many, but I wholeheartedly picked my college based on my love for sports, particularly UConn sports. After growing up going to games as Gampel, walking around Storrs, and watching the most talented athletes on the court - how could I pass up the opportunity to really be a part of the UConn family? So, the whole college choice thing didn’t really end up being a huge problem at all. I stuck with my gut and followed what made me happy. Looking back now, this was a pretty BRAVE decision. I ignored the obvious reasons to pick a school and stuck with what my heart was telling me. People usually think I’m joking when I say I picked a school based off of its sports teams, and I’m sure my parents were hoping my decision would be rooted in something a little more important, but I wanted to breathe the same air and walk the same paths as Ray Allen and Emeka Okafor [my two all-time favorites]. From day one, I knew I had made the right decision. UConn was, and still is, my home. Everything about the campus makes me happy. From the grassy fields of Horsebarn Hill to the lots full of smashed cans in Celeron, every inch of the school contributed to that “whole college experience” I was looking for. Things were rolling along smoothly socially and academically...or so I thought.

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Students apply to UConn’s NEAG School of Education after their first year, so I entered college with a “pre-teaching” designation. If you are not accepted into the School of Ed, then you have to declare a different major. It’s somewhat of a gamble, but certainly not the end of the world if you don’t get in. My freshman year was progressing, and I had to start paying more attention to NEAG’s requirements and considering the application process. At the end of the first semester, pre-teaching students were encouraged to attend a NEAG information session to learn more about the program and next steps.

This was the night that changed my life. To this day, I don’t know what happened or why it happened, but my entire vision for the future was uprooted. I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.

The more I heard the speakers talk about the education program, student teaching, schools, etc. the further I fell into a massive anxiety attack. What is happening? I could not even tell you what the 1.5 hour long session went on to discuss because I definitely blacked out. There I was, 18 years old, I had been planning for and rehearsing my career for basically my entire life and suddenly it felt utterly wrong!? How is that even possible?

My future was suddenly not so fact, it was the complete OPPOSITE of clear.

I remember calling my mom as I left the info session and unloading all of these emotions onto her (god bless her soul). Thankfully, she was incredibly understanding and helped me calm down. Of course a bit surprised by this sudden change of heart, I think she could really hear how wrong it felt to me. After she got me to stop crying and finally breathe, she told me there was no rush to figure things out. I kept thinking, What is she nuts? Of course there’s a rush! The NEAG application is due soon, I need to pick my classes for next semester, blah blah blah. But she just kept saying similar things like, “there’s no rush, we’ll figure it out, don’t worry.”

As you might imagine, I didn’t sleep very well that night. I didn’t sleep very well for the next few weeks. My life had just been completely turned upside down. I really thought I had it all figured out, and part of the reason it threw me for such a loop was because I couldn’t explain why it felt wrong... it just did. I sat in that info session thinking, this is not what I want.

But the real struggle then became figuring out what it is I did want. If teaching is no longer my destiny, what in the world am I supposed to do next?

Figuring out how to proceed at UConn felt like an impossible task, but with the support of my parents, advisors, and other mentors, I found my path. Actually, what really got me through was a connection to something entirely new (sorry mom & dad, I promise you were #2). Some time went by as I tried to figure out what interested me, and suddenly I remembered that information session again. Not the scary blackout part of it...but right before that. Before the NEAG presentation, some students from a group called Husky Sport gave a brief pitch about their sport-based youth development program which runs through the University. I had completely forgotten about this because I was too caught up in my “no future ahead of me” crisis, but I decided to follow up and learn a little bit more about Husky Sport because it has peaked my interest.

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In the next 3.5 years, I took several courses in conjunction with Husky Sport (partial class credit was through service learning), completed a year of Coach Across America as one of their coaches, and then became a paid student-staff member. I fell in love with this program. It helped fuse my love for sport with, what initially drew me to teaching, a connection to students and the community. Husky Sport links UConn students with community organizations and leaders in the North End of Hartford to provide programming for Hartford’s youth. Heading to the schools or community spaces in Hartford were my favorite times of the week. It was through Husky Sport that I was connected to the Hartford Catholic Worker, better known as the Green House, which works to end violence and poverty in the community. The Green House is a safe haven for so many of the youth in the area. I spent so much of my four years at UConn going to the Green House with Husky Sport to play some basketball, eat a delicious meal, and make meaningful relationships with the kids and adults of the community. The Green House became such a huge part of my life, I continued going during school vacations and the summer on my own.

Husky Sport and the Green House were the first entities to really challenge my knowledge and beliefs regarding race, oppression, privilege, and other topics of social justice. Later on during my time at UConn, I met Meaghan from BRAVE and fell deep into an entirely new (to me) matter: feminism. All of these programs and the amazing people involved urged me to recognize my own privilege (or lack of). More importantly, they encouraged me to find and be a part of efforts which dismantle ground level and systemic inequities. I didn’t know it yet, but all of these BRAVE experiences drove me to pursue a degree in social work.

I ended up graduating from UConn with a Bachelor’s in Human Development & Family Studies. I learned so much about something I really love - people. When I started to think about post-college life, I knew I wasn’t done learning yet. I felt like my journey had just begun. There was (is) still so much to learn about the world. I don’t remember how social work school came onto the table, but I’m thankful it did. I went to Boston College School of Social Work and earned my Master’s in macro social work. I learned an incredible amount about mental health, social justice, and nonprofit management. It was through BC that I found Doc Wayne Youth Services, a nonprofit headquartered in Boston where I completed my final internship. Doc Wayne reimagines traditional outpatient therapy through the lens of sport. When I first hear this, I was intrigued but really had no idea what that meant. Sport? Therapy? What’s really going on here?

Doc Wayne’s approach on group therapy is unlike any other program I have ever seen. Group therapy sessions literally look like sports practices or gym class, but all of the clinicians are known as “Coach” and the power of sport is used to teach life skills. It seems like such a basic concept: sport can help improve mental health. As an athlete, I knew this was so real, and my experiences with Husky Sport made it all the more obvious. Doc Wayne is unlike any other “sport for good” or “sport based youth development” program because of its team. The coaches’ ability to fuse therapy with sport makes healing and growth possible for kids who face challenges many of us could never fathom. Through sport, kids process and persevere through adversity, and it truly is amazing. I am now working full time for Doc Wayne as their Development & Special Projects Coordinator, and sometimes I have no idea how I ended up here, but I am so grateful I did.

There are a lot of “unknowns” in this life.

That’s part of the beauty of it…I guess. I like plans, lists, and schedules, so when my future was no longer clear, it felt like my life turned upside down. It’s been one hell of a roller coaster, up and down, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way it’s that life will zoom by faster than you think, so you can’t forget to slow down and just be present and grateful in the moment. The stress will pass and the questions will be answered, only to find new stress and more questions. If you asked me 7 years ago where I would be today, I’d definitely say teaching somewhere. 5 years ago? I’d have a much harder time answering. 2 years ago? I’d say “changing the world” with absolute confidence that didn’t mean staying in Boston. But guess what? I did. It’s my hope that by writing this piece, someone (even if it’s literally just some ONE) will find comfort in knowing their roller-coaster of a life is “normal” and it’s OK to still be figuring it out.

Not knowing what’s next and being comfortable with that uncertainty is the BRAVEst thing we can do. So, roll the windows down, blast the music, and enjoy the ride.

Peace with Every Step,

Lia Tria