EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – When an opportunity exists, take advantage of it. That's what SIUE women's basketball player Alek Akuen has learned.
The junior transfer from Independence Community College has travelled many miles for her spot on SIUE's roster.
The 6-foot, 3-inch center was born in South Sudan. She has lived in Kenya and travelled to live with her uncle in Australia before coming to the United States for an undergraduate education.
"The journey from South Sudan to Kenya was the biggest adjustment," said Akuen. "I was still young then and leaving my family behind to live with my uncle and cousin. So it was tough. Then, when I went to Australia I was more grown up, and I was used to it. Moving got easier because it is not a big surprise anymore."
Akuen always seems to have a smile on her face, and why not?
"Not everyone is as lucky and is in my position," said Akuen. "I am lucky to be studying and can do these things. If I was in my country I would not have these opportunities. Every day is a new day."
SIUE women's basketball Head Coach Paula Buscher said Akuen is someone you want to do more for because of how much she appreciates it.
"She is very appreciative and grateful for everything that she gets," said Buscher. "She always smiling and happy."
A psychology major at SIUE, she has a liberal studies degree from Independence.
"I am a bubbly person," admitted Akuen. "I love playing basketball, and I have career goals. I want to play professionally, maybe in Europe."
She learned to play basketball only six years ago in Australia during her junior year in school.
"I am very tall and have been tall all while growing up," said Akuen. "I hated that I was tall because I wanted to play soccer and also there were not a lot of tall girls. When I was young I did not like it but when I grew up I started to appreciate being tall. So I started playing basketball and it was an advantage and also on the court you feel comfortable because there are others with the same height as you."
Akuen has worked hard on improving her game.
"I had the opportunity to watch Alek in her freshman season and knew there was potential, but wanted to see some improvement," said Buscher. "When I saw her again it was very evident she had made great strides, loved the game and is someone who was committed to improving. I knew then she would be a great fit for us. As she becomes more comfortable I look for Alek to do great things for us both on and off the court."
She played one season with SIUE senior Jay'nee Alston at Independence. That gave Buscher a chance to make the comparison.
"Jay'nee is amazing," Akuen said. "When we first met she was so impressed with my height. Since that day on, on and off the court we were great friends. Our friendship grew and she was very helpful because I came in a bit late. She was a good leader when I was going into the program."
Akuen fit in well at Independence after moving from Australia.
"The decision to come to the U.S. wasn't hard, but it was more leaving my family behind," she said. "Coming here on my own I made a decision which let me follow my dreams."
With SIUE being her second stop in the U.S., Akuen said she wants to support her teammates in whatever way she can whether it's on the court or off the court. She has appeared in all four games so far this season, scoring four points and grabbing six rebounds.
Akuen is mindful of her body language both on and off the court.
"I get stressed out with school and basketball," she noted. "When I am having a bad day I don't want to show it on my face because I am affecting other people. I want to bring out a bright energy to everyone else and myself."
Her teammates reciprocate.
"My teammates are amazing. Everyone is always checking on me," said Akuen. "Coach Buscher is great. She is really good at making you understand what things you are doing wrong and what things you are doing well and making us grow on and off the court."
Akuen doesn't have the opportunity to see her family but she does try to talk to her uncle and cousin on a weekly basis. She worries that while she is pursuing her dream of an education and chance to play basketball she isn't contributing the way she previously was taking care of her nephew, who is now 12. She was cooking meals for the family and watching over them.
"I like being independent as well," Akuen added. "I just feel that they are doing everything for me, and I am not doing as much as I would like for them."
Her goal is to get her degree and have the opportunity to give back to her family who have sacrificed so much for her to have these opportunities.
"On a bad day I try not to worry too much and move on to the next day," she continued.
"Her story just makes you appreciate what you have," added Buscher.