Julia Kassem experienced the pinnacle of success as a freshman runner for UM-Dearborn's cross country team. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).
Julia Kassem experienced the pinnacle of success as a freshman runner for UM-Dearborn's cross country team. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).
Julia Kassem experienced the pinnacle of success as a freshman runner for UM-Dearborn’s cross country team. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).

By JOSH PAULISIN, Guest Reporter

It’s no longer a secret among the college ranks that freshmen can make an immediate, and significant, impact during their first year on campus.

From the Fab Five changing the culture of basketball forever, to Johnny Manziel electrifying the masses and infatuating the folks at ESPN, first-year collegiate athletes can be thrown into the limelight even before they write their first college paper.

To some, the limelight is an addiction. The Twitter followers, iPhone camera clicks and eminence off the field make their on-field performance worthwhile. But for every athlete that seeks the extra attention, there are those who prefer to walk in the shadows.

As for University of Michigan-Dearborn cross country runner, Julia Kassem, it wasn’t easy stepping into spotlight so quickly. But she has come to embrace the responsibility and celebrity of being the face of a program.

Chosen as the team’s banner athlete, as a freshman last year, it took some time for Kassem to get accustomed to seeing herself on banners displayed across campus.

“I wasn’t initially all for being on a poster,” Kassem, now a sophomore, said. “I’m a pretty introverted person, yet the banner was immutable publicity. I tried to get over it and eventually came to appreciate the opportunity to represent UM-Dearborn athletics.”

If there was a book on representing UM-Dearborn athletics the right way, Kassem has followed it to a tee. Not only was her first season with the cross country program a resounding success, but she joined Joan Stoian (2011) as the only two Wolverines to qualify for the NAIA National Championships since the program became a varsity sport in 2010.

Not bad for a freshman huh?

At the National Championship meet in Lawrence, Kan., Kassem finished with a time of 20:22:47, good for 216th overall. She was also named to the WHAC All-Conference Honorable Mention team.

Despite her impressive accomplishments at the conference and national level, Kassem is more enthusiastic about how the program has grown since its’ inaugural season in 2010.

“It (National Championship qualification) says more about our achievements, as a university than my abilities as an individual,” Kassem said. “We’ve made amazing progress in developing our athletic program, and having a second athlete making it to the NAIA championships is a testament to UM-Dearborn’s progress and development.”

Kassem’s “the team, the team, the team” mentality is something all Wolverines appreciate; especially Second-year Head Coach, Joe Horka.

Horka, who took over the reins of the cross country program before last season, can’t help but rave about his talented sophomore.

“Julia makes something a lot of people cannot stand look easy. She very rarely looks distressed, even in tough workouts and races,” Horka said. “She is one of the team’s hardest workers and is always eager to push herself during a workout. For that reason, I think Julia will continue to be our best example of a leader.”

It’s a challenging endeavor for a first-year collegiate athlete to step up and be a vocal team leader. But even the most experienced and well-known athletes of our time may not be as outspoken as others. Just ask Nick Lidstrom.

For an athlete to lead by example, they must possess a high level of self-confidence in everything they set out to accomplish.

Megan McDonald, a teammate of Kassem’s, noticed this the moment Kassem joined the squad.

Julia Kassem, center, poses for a photograph at the NAIA National Championships last fall. Photo courtesy of Julia Kassem.
Julia Kassem, center, poses for a photograph at the NAIA National Championships last fall. Photo courtesy of Julia Kassem.

“Usually freshmen come in questioning where they fit in on the team and how they will measure up compared to others,” McDonald, a senior from Livonia, said. “Julia came in knowing she was a good runner and that’s all there was to it.”

Kassem’s self-confidence on the course can be recognized off the course as well. On campus, she is involved in Student Government, the UM-Dearborn chapter of Amnesty International, and she will be finishing up the Honors Program this year.

According to Kassem, there is still a lot more she wants to achieve during her time at UM-Dearborn.

“There is still so much I’d like to be involved in at school. I’d also like to really develop our team, place in races and hopefully make it to Nationals again,” she said.

There is also one personal goal that students who enjoy the scenic Hines Drive route to school may witness Kassem achieve firsthand.

“Living at the first-mile point of Hines Drive and going to college where it ends makes me really, really want to run those 16 miles along Hines.”

Kassem still has a few more years to complete her collegiate goals. If her freshman year was any indication, Kassem will undoubtedly cross off everything on her college bucket list.

As freshmen athletes across the country begin their first season with their respective teams, McDonald believes that Kassem is the model for all first-year collegiate athletes.

“Julia is a great example that it doesn’t matter if you are a freshman, you can make a huge impact on a team,” said McDonald.

Freshmen success is no longer a secret. And neither is Kassem.