Graduates in the Spotlight: Elzbieta Klein
With West Virginia University’s 2014 spring graduation celebration scheduled for May 9-11, WVUSports.com will focus on a student-athlete graduation story each day this week.
This week’s second feature centers on WVU senior Elzbieta Klein, a two-year member of the West Virginia volleyball team. Klein, a native of Gdynia, Poland, has only lived in the United States for three years. After transferring to West Virginia following one year at Colby Community College, Klein started 15 total matches for the Mountaineers while earning Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and Garrett Ford Academic Honor Roll distinctions.
Klein received her Master’s Degree in Communications this spring and credits her accomplishments to her department supervisors, Dr. Matthew Martin, her teammates, coaching staff, friends, and of course, her family.
Elzbieta Klein was never the type to settle.
She always wanted more in life, and this weekend’s commencement ceremony will be the culmination of every drop of sweat and tear shed to accomplish her dream.
Klein, a senior member of the West Virginia volleyball team and a native of Gdynia, Poland, earned her master’s degree in communications this spring – something she still is in awe about.
“I really don’t know how I did that,” Klein explained, who came to the United States for the first time in 2011. “I still think back about how I did it, and honestly, I don’t know.”
The academic journey for the 6-1, outside hitting volleyball player began back in 2009. Klein attended a university in Poland, working toward a degree in early and middle childhood under the Education umbrella.
In Poland, students generally take three years to obtain an undergraduate degree. But for Klein, she was able to complete it in just two. She was proud of her achievements but knew she wanted more.
As a child, she always dreamt of coming to America and living the ‘American Dream.’
“I saw the American dream in movies when I was little, and knew that I wanted to do that,” she said.
So Klein wrote a letter to her university president requesting permission to take her credits with her across the Atlantic and to the states, something that is required in the European country.
“Not everybody gets to take their credits with them when they leave,” the ambitious Klein said. “Because I was a good student, I got the president’s permission.”
Her path took her to a community college in Colby, Kansas. A town in west Kansas with a little more than 5,000 people. Klein was recruited there to play volleyball, but had very little grasp of the English language when she arrived.
Her teammates would spend an hour or two a day devoted to teaching the Polish speaker the basics of the English language. They would point to articles of clothing and say the word in English.
“It was tough to communicate because they didn’t speak my language, and I didn’t really speak theirs,” Klein said.
She took a variety of classes at Colby Community College, unsure of what exactly she wanted to study. She was content in west Kansas, but Klein still knew she wanted more.
“My dream was always to play in America and play for a Division I school. I wasn’t going to stop until I experienced that,” she said.
Klein spoke with West Virginia coach Jill Kramer and knew Morgantown was where she wanted to be. She fell in love with the place.
The next step for Klein was trying to nail down what she would choose as her major. Academic credits often don’t transfer from university to university, especially for someone who has obtained credits from colleges in two separate countries.
“With me, it was a lot about who could accept my grades from Poland and Kansas. It was an accident that it became communications, to be honest. I really didn’t know what I was going to be studying,” Klein admitted. “But it ended up being perfect because it forced me to learn the language quickly.”
It didn’t take long for Klein, still learning the English language, to experience the difficulties of a student-athlete, trying to juggle both athletics and academics.
“I’ll never forget when I first started. My first class was a course that required tons of reading. I was trying to play volleyball at a new school with new teammates, while also trying to read 100-150 pages before each class,” she explained. “We would have a quiz each week to make sure we had completed the reading. It was so difficult.”
Communications is a field that has many terms and ideas tailored to the industry. Unfortunately for Klein, most of those terms are English-exclusive and few exist in other languages.
“I still don’t know some of the words I was studying, because most of them could not be translated to Polish,” Klein said. “There were kids in my class who had spoken English their whole life and didn’t know what the terms meant. And me, I was still trying to learn the language.
“I would try to figure out, first, what the word meant in Polish. Once I did that, I was able to understand the word. Volleyball came simple to me. The school work did not.”
It became so challenging for Klein that she was almost ready to give up.
“After my first two months here, I called my mom to tell her that it was too hard, and that I couldn’t do it anymore,” said an emotional Klein. “She told me that if I finished school, my family and her would come for my graduation.”
Klein’s parents, and anyone in her immediate family, had never been to the United States. Getting them to experience her dream was what fueled her during rough times.
“Whenever I would have a hard time, I would think about my family and what my mom promised,” Klein said. “It was my motivation. I convinced myself I could do it.”
To no surprise, Klein didn’t let her parents down and her family has kept their promise.
She fought through the rough times and continued to learn the English language, all while helping the 2013 Mountaineers to their most wins in a single season since 1991.
“I don’t like to complain about the struggles I experienced. It was a hard time, but a lovely time,” Klein said. “I loved the experience and have great memories from volleyball and in the classroom, as well.”
Last weekend, her parents got on a plane in Poland and flew to the United States for the first time. Klein took them to Colby, Kansas, where her journey in this country first began.
This Friday, she will introduce them to Morgantown – the place she loved from day one and has called home for the past two years.
As for where Klein will take them first when they arrive in town …
“Of course it’s the Coliseum,” Klein said with a smile. “It was my second home. I love this gym, and the people that came and supported us. They called my name over the loud speaker. It was everything to me.”
On Sunday, Klein will march across the stage at WVU’s Creative Arts Center with her fellow graduates, shake the hands of those who helped her through hard times and look back across the crowd to see the familiar faces of those who have supported her through it all.
“This was my dream,” she said. “I have tears on my face because they are coming. They are coming to celebrate this with me.”
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