First to cross finish line

First-generation college student Stephanie Clarke finds UND success in the classroom and on the track

Stephanie Clarke

Amid the fast pace of a student athlete’s schedule, Stephanie Clarke graduated this spring from UND as a double major in psychology and criminal justice. On top of that, she’ll be the first in her family to hang a college diploma on the wall. Photo courtesy of UND Athletics.

University of North Dakota Track & Field alumna Stephanie Clarke doesn’t do anything slowly—not even preparing for college. The sprinter’s choice to attend UND had a gunshot start.

Kevin Galbraith

Kevin Galbraith, UND Track & Field head coach

“It was kind of a rushed process but everything worked out,” Clarke said. “I think it worked out really well.”

UND Track & Field Head Coach Kevin Galbraith received a call from Clarke’s high school track coach in Edmonton, Canada in July 2011—very late on the standard recruiting timeline.

“He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this young lady, she’s looking for a place to go, would you consider her?’ And I said yes,” Galbraith said. “We were going right up against the deadline, though—last minute on everything. We got her into school, and that was five years ago, and now she’s leaving with two degrees.”

That’s right—amid the fast pace of a student athlete schedule, Clarke graduated this spring as a double major in psychology and criminal justice. On top of that, she’ll be the first in her family to hang a college diploma on the wall.

“I think my family had more of a focus on working, instead of going to college,” she said. “People graduated from high school and then they would go and get jobs pretty much right away.”

Unfortunately, Clarke’s family wasn’t able to see her join her mortar board-clad peers on May 13 at UND’s Spring Commencement ceremony, because she was nearly 2,000 miles away in Sacramento, Calif., for the 2017 Big Sky Conference Outdoor Meet. It was a sacrifice familiar to student athlete graduates, but one that Clarke said wasn’t easy to make.

“It’s a tradeoff,” she said. “My family would have loved to be there, they would have loved to see that. I would have loved to be there.”

Balancing act

Clarke’s family brimmed with excitement when she landed a running scholarship at UND, but a dash of worry was wrapped into that feeling. The baby of the family was moving hours away, to an entirely different country. Clarke carried some of those nerves with her.

“It was definitely a little intimidating, just because I didn’t have my family there to do whatever I needed them to do for me,” she remembered.

But the fact that she was a first-generation student didn’t slow her stride. Clarke charged forward, finding a way to balance the completely new university experience with a sometimes daunting track schedule. Clarke’s mornings were filled with classes, afternoons with practice, and evenings with assignments and test prep—all squeezed between bouts of travel.

“I can’t say that it wasn’t hard,” she said. “At first you’re like, ‘Hooray! We’re missing school, this is awesome!’ That’s until projects start piling up, and you have to start rescheduling tests and things like that.”

When things started to get chaotic, Clarke found support from her friends and teammates, as well as the occasional pep talk from “Coach K.”

“He stuck by me for five years,” Clarke said. “When I was in a rut, he would be like, ‘Well, what can we do to fix this?’ So that was really nice. It was encouraging that he was there.”

Stephanie Clarke

Clark was showered with athletic honors over her college career, including being named UND’s Female Rookie of the Year as a freshman, breaking school records, and earning two Big Sky conference titles in the 400-meter sprint. Photo courtesy of UND Athletics.

A run of success

Clarke found equilibrium and kept her grades high as she kept her running times low. She was showered with athletic honors over her college career, including being named UND’s Female Rookie of the Year as a freshman, breaking school records, and earning two Big Sky conference titles in the 400-meter sprint.

Coach Galbraith says Clarke’s success on and off the track speaks to the drive of track and field athletes as a whole. In the fall semester, the women’s track team’s GPA averaged around 3.4. Six women carried 4.0 GPA, and only seven of the 45 on the team were below a 3.0.

“To do this, you have to be pretty focused, because it’s just the nature of the sport—there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t rely on anybody else,” Galbraith said. “You have to get your work done in a timely manner, be as efficient as you can, and go on to the next thing. And that applies to both track and the classroom. They really match up well.”

Now that Clarke is back in Edmonton, fully immersed in the post-graduation job hunt, she looks back on her UND experience with satisfaction.

“I don’t think it could have gone any better. It’s not like I showed up expecting to win conference any year, let alone twice,” she said warmly. “I’m definitely proud. And my family is, too.”

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