By Tony Phifer, as appearing in SOURCE

For as long as she can remember, soccer had been the center of Jenna Howerton’s existence. Her identity.

A standout player at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, she had multiple offers to play soccer in college before settling on UNLV. And that’s where her unusual journey to CSU – and a new love – began.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of her story:

  • UNLV was the first of four colleges she has attended the past five years.
  • She has battled a variety of illnesses and injuries in college. Just when it appeared her soccer career was on track at CSU, she tore the ACL in her left knee 10 minutes into her first game as a Ram.
  • During her recovery from reconstructive knee surgery in the fall of 2014, she had chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. The culprit? A pulmonary embolism, which landed her in intensive care and delayed both her recovery from ACL surgery and her academic progress.

Jenna Howerton“I never really had the soccer career I wanted, which is really disappointing,” Howerton said. “At the same time I’ve learned so much from my experiences. I’ve learned to persevere and quickly adapt.”

Howerton recently completed her senior season in soccer despite lingering issues with her knee and a strained hamstring. Her long recovery gave her time to reflect on her future beyond the sport she loves.

“When I came to CSU I took some classes in ethnic studies, and for the first time I was truly excited about academics,” she said. “The time off from soccer really helped me find myself.”

A big part of her journey of discovery was her senior capstone project. Howerton, who had come out as queer, wanted to learn about the experiences of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer athletes at CSU.

She called her project, “Leave Your Sexuality at the Gym Doors: How Queer Athletes Experience College Athletics.” The four athletes she interviewed talked about dealing with inappropriate jokes and comments from teammates and coaches, among their many experiences.

“It was absolutely one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen,” said Roe Bubar, associate professor of ethnic studies. “Jenna did an amazing job of delivering her message. She has developed into such an incredible young intellectual, and it has been my great pleasure to witness her development. She has a very bright future.”

Howerton is graduating with a degree in ethnic studies and a minor in women’s studies on Dec. 18. She is applying to graduate programs in social work and wants to work with marginalized populations. She is eager to find out as much as she can about others – and herself.

“It was so hard for me to get past my athlete identity because I’ve been playing soccer for so many years and it has been such a huge part of my life,” said Howerton, 23. “At the same time, getting hurt made me realize there is so much more to my existence. I’m excited to use the energy I’ve put into soccer to foster new things in my life.”