On the UCSB roster, Kirsten Tilleman is listed as a senior, but she is definitely no ordinary student athlete.
For one, Tilleman isn’t an undergrad; she’s a second-year graduate student at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, where she dual-specializes in conservation planning and water resource management.
Not to mention her GPA is a 3.96. Let me repeat that: 3.96 — as in almost perfect. Last spring, she earned the UCSB Golden Eagle Ring Award for top female scholar-athlete, although really, she holds the highest GPA of any student athlete at UCSB, male or female.
Then add to that the fact that she’s also the starting center for the UCSB women’s basketball team. One of two players to start every game she’s played in, she’s a vital part of the Gaucho squad, averaging 30.5 minutes per game, which is second on the team.
Tilleman is also one of Santa Barbara’s best defenders. She ranks second on the team and fourth in the Big West in defensive rebounds, grabbing 5.3 boards per game (averages 7.3 total) and is tied for first on the team in steals with 0.9 per contest. Finally, with 0.7 blocks per game, she leads the Gauchos.
So how does Tilleman do it all? Well, her formula is, “basketball, school, dinner, (school) work, repeat.” Obviously it’s not that simple though, so I was given the opportunity to shadow Tilleman for a day and see what a day in her shoes is really like.
It’s Monday morning and Tilleman’s day starts at the Thunderdome. She gets there at 8:30 a.m., which is a bit earlier than usual because the team has to retake its team picture.
Afterward, they change into practice gear and head into the film room, where they look at the game they played two days before in Hawaii (a 51-50 victory that handed Hawaii its first home loss during conference play). Head Coach Carlene Mitchell examines the team’s man defense, missed block-outs, screen-and-roll plays and more. A win is a win, but there’s still plenty to work on.
They also go over their basketball tests, a test given by Mitchell to look at the player’s basketball IQs. Sitting in the back left corner of the room, Tilleman is quick to answer any questions asked by Mitchell, exemplifying her comprehensive knowledge of the game.
Practice starts just before 10:00, beginning with warm-ups and stretches. Tilleman leads the pack and is the first to get to the ball rack when the players are instructed to start shooting drills. Since coming to UCSB, Tilleman — one of the team captains this year — has been known to lead by example with her blue-collar mentality.
She dons a blue practice jersey, the straps tucked into her sports bra. On the back reads the number 32; it’s the number she’s worn all her life and the number her mom wore.
On the first shooting drill, which involves grabbing a ball out of a chair, ripping and then taking a lay-up or jump shot, Tilleman makes all her lay-ups but the last one. She still made 90 percent of them, but as Mitchell looks over and sees Tilleman miss, the sound of “finish Tilleman” echoes through the gym.
While she’s not taking her turn, she encourages her teammates. As she continues to run through the multiple shooting drills, her shot looks consistent. Nevertheless, as she misses a couple in a row, she mumbles a cuss word under her breath. It’s one of the charming things I’ve learned to look for while watching Tilleman play over the past year-and-a-half.
Not to say that Tilleman goes around swearing all the time — because she certainly does not — but she’s a perfectionist, and her efforts produce results. Currently, last year’s Big West Tournament MVP is averaging 5.5 points per game and shooting 51.4 percent in conference play. In UCSB’s most recent game against Cal State Fullerton, Tilleman exploded for a season-high 16 points and eight rebounds.
Moving onto power layups, Tilleman’s power is apparent. She might not be the quickest or the most athletic, but she is strong, physical and knows how to use her body.
Next on the practice agenda is going through all the offensive patterns. She’s vocal while running plays, constantly communicating with her teammates.
Then, while sitting out, the second group makes a mistake on a play. From about halfcourt where the rest of the players are standing, Tilleman is very vocal. She points and yells where they need a ball screen and I can finally see for myself how she’s grown as a vocal leader.
Practice ends after about an hour. While drills are at game speed, Mitchell decides to run a short practice considering the team got back to Santa Barbara from its trip to Hawaii the morning before after a red-eye flight.
We walk over to the ICA where Tilleman gets started on weights around 11:00. We’re ahead of most of the team as Tilleman knows she’s got things to do and doesn’t want to waste time. She works through a circuit of exercises, including slides with a rubber band around her ankles, squats and abs.
During the exercises, Tilleman can laugh and talk with her teammates and I catch glimpses of that infectious smile. She balances socializing and working, never falling off task. After about a half hour, she heads into the training room to do some exercises for her knees because, as she said herself, “my knees suck.”
With the basketball portion of the day done, we walk over to the other side of campus where the Bren School is located. She takes me out to Deckers Deck, which has an amazing view of the ocean. We eat lunch there and talk. She has a leftover sweet potato curry dish for lunch, which smelled amazing. Tilleman loves to cook; it’s one of the things she does to take a break from her schoolwork. After all, you have to eat.
The conversation flows easily; she’s so personable and genuine. Despite me following her, she tried to make me feel comfortable the entire day.
She explains how she graduated in three years from Oregon State University, but only played two years of basketball. While she completely supports the program now, it wasn’t the right fit for her and so she decided to take her last year off and study hard to graduate in three years, leaving her with two years of NCAA eligibility. She eventually decided on UCSB, based on its master’s program first and basketball program second, wanting a program in which she could make an impact and make a run to the NCAA tournament.
Tilleman tries not to talk about herself too much because she doesn’t want to seem conceited. She’s definitely far from being arrogant, but she does throw in that she was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist for District 16 this past fall, an award that combines athletic ability, leadership and academics. While still gracious, her competitive nature comes through. She doesn’t like losing.
At 1:00 p.m., we head to Tilleman’s only class of the day: ESM 276, or Ethical Decision-Making for the Environment — a two-unit, five-week short course. It’s a much different setup than an undergrad classroom. There are only 15 to 20 people sitting around a conference-style table, not desks.
Overall, the class is much more applied with a lot more discussion. They applied different ethical models learned in class to different real-world concepts. For example, the class discussed the Tigers Woods scandal and why, unlike the rest of his sponsors, Nike decided to keep him. Beyoncé even came up, too.
The class ends at 2:15 p.m., after which we head down to the visitors center, where Tilleman is scheduled to meet with her group at 2:30 p.m. to work on their master’s thesis project. At Bren, the GP (for group project) as Tilleman calls it, is done in groups and is unique in that their paper will be able to be used; it won’t just sit on a shelf.
Tilleman’s master’s program is a two-year program with the master’s thesis being a spring-to-spring project. After finishing the paper, she will have to defend her thesis on March 1, meaning she has to leave the team in between games during its Fullerton and Riverside road trip.
The project involves coming up with a public access plan for Tejon Ranch, a 270,000 acre ranch north of Bakersfield. In 2008, an agreement was made that said the ranch would conserve 90 percent of its lands as well as create and fund a conservancy (Tilleman’s group’s client) to manage the land. Their product, along with the work of the conservancy, will be the public access plan of the ranch. The overarching mission for Tilleman and her group is to make the resource available to the public while maintaining the integrity of the ranch.
The first thing Tilleman does is get caught up on what she’s missed during the group’s previous meeting and weekend trip to the ranch due to travelling with the team.
While Tilleman seems very passionate about her project — and it’s certainly clear she’s put a ton of work, time and effort into it — I see a bit of stress on her face as she knows the paper isn’t magically going to just come together. The group has set an internal deadline to have the paper done by Feb. 10 so they then can have time to edit before sending it off to ‘defense.’ As she said, “we’re in crunch time.”
During her group meeting is where I could truly tell the difference between grad and undergrad work as information started flying over my head. There’s so much they have to consider with their project. That day alone, they discussed trails and hikes, such as a loop trail for their case study, how to label them, where to put them and more.
Finally, after meeting for about two hours, we head back to Tilleman’s apartment. It seems like a peaceful place for her where she can just get work done (there’s no TV). She makes both of us tea from Montana, exhibiting her motto “when in doubt, drink tea.”
Throughout the day, her passion for the environment is clear. While she’s not 100 percent certain of her path after graduating in the spring, she’s interested in working in city government and dealing with water management or land use for recreational purposes.
For my last question of the day, I ask her how she manages everything. Her response is simple, but speaks the truth: “You just make time.” While it can be difficult, like on road trips when there’s no electrical outlet on the bus so her computer will die, making homework virtually impossible to do, she knows what she has to do and makes those things her priorities.
But here’s the difference between Tilleman and the majority of students at UCSB: She isn’t just making time and she isn’t just doing a lot. She’s doing it all extremely well.