Victim of bullying turns raw events into positive emotion

Gizelle Studevent doesn’t care to use the word “adversity” when reflecting on her life. She is simply following her dad’s advice.

“You don’t want this adversity to define you,” Ray Studevent would tell his daughter over and over again.

Now a senior guard on the Penn State women’s basketball team, Studevent’s life story is one of perseverance and overcoming the challenges of her past.

She grew up in Chula Vista, Calif., just seven miles south of downtown San Diego and seven miles north of the Mexican border. She jokingly says that she can see Mexico from her house.

A child of mixed ethnicity — her mother is Mexican and her dad is half white and half black — Studevent liked growing up in Chula Vista because it has a high Mexican population and it was easy for her to fit in and make plenty of friends.

On a summer day in 2001, she and her friends took a trip to the San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and spent the day there. Ray Studevent drove the group to and from the Valley. On the way home on I-805 a drunken driver hit Studevent’s car from behind, causing it to skid out of control and flip multiple times until it landed on its roof.

Studevent suffered serious injuries. Her jaw was shattered and she lost four teeth. Her face was swollen, her chest bruised. She was just 10 years old. Because of the injuries to her skull and jawbone, doctors first recommended that she never play basketball again.

Yet about six months after the accident, doctors stabilized Studevent’s jaw with titanium screws. At that point, she was cleared to continue playing the sport she loved.

A few years later, when she was in the eighth grade, she pursued both her athletic and academic goals to attend a prestigious private school in La Jolla, an affluent town about 12 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Coming from a family of modest means, she could not have been more excited about the opportunity.

“Their basketball team is really good,” Studevent said. “They had won the division there for the last three or four years, and they had won state titles. That was the school to be at for basketball. And, academically, I was really excited; I would be challenged and forced to critically think.”

The first weeks were great. She was soaking it up. But as her time with the basketball team progressed, the target on her back became larger and larger. She was the new girl, with difficult circumstances surrounding her arrival.

In California, Studevent was considered one of the top female players at her age. She joined the team with a lot of hype associated with her name. Her teammates didn’t take kindly to that. It didn’t help that she was Mexican.

It eventually became apparent that she was unwelcome.

A few months into her first year, Studevent traveled with the team to a tournament in Oakland, Calif. As an eighth-grader, she couldn’t play yet; she traveled to gain insight and experience from the girls she respected and admired.

Once back home, she found a folded letter in her bag. It was addressed to “Senorita.” The anonymous author insisted that she “go back to Mexico” and called her a “taco bitch.”

The author attacked her basketball skills viciously, telling her she wasn’t good enough to play on the team. The letter went as far as suggesting that Studevent’s father and the team’s coach were involved in some sort of sexual relationship.

“I was in tears,” Studevent said. “That was the first time I had ever experienced anything like that.”

A Pandora’s box of bullying and hazing had been opened. It would carry on for the next three years.

The letters continued, but that wasn’t all that she endured.

Studevent said she discovered that a girl had attempted to place drugs in her bag so she would get in trouble. Then someone placed pictures of her on lockers around the school to embarrass her.

She received a letter with a return address from a town in Arizona where the team had recently played in a tournament. Studevent didn’t travel to the tournament because it had taken place during finals week. She wanted to do well on her exams because she was interested in a few Ivy League schools at the time. Consequently, she now suspects that a girl or a number of girls on the team were responsible for the bullying.

Ray Studevent felt helpless throughout the series of events.

“My hands were tied,” he said. “Nobody knew who it was. It was like a scary movie in that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see.”

Ray Studevent and Gizelle’s mother, Estelle Sullivan, did everything in their power to help their daughter. Ray Studevent would slip $20 bills under her pillow and buy her new Michael Jordan-branded shoes. He said he would take her to Boston Market for her favorite pot pie biscuits — with honey drizzled on top — to boost her spirits.

Yet there was a breaking point for her — and for the whole Studevent family.

Studevent’s name had been posted on a number of pornographic websites and linked to images that falsely represented her.

Typing her name into a search engine prompted 20 to 30 results of different pornographic sites where her name and likeness had somehow appeared.

Ray Studevent discovered the pictures first and, without explaining the situation to his daughter, he decided that she would have to transfer to another school. Enough was enough.

“He saw the pictures and stuff and he was like, ‘OK, this is it,’ ” said Studevent. “He didn’t tell me why. He was just like, ‘Look, it’s a wrap. It’s time to go. You have to trust me.’ ”

At first, Studevent thought she should stay because she didn’t want to lose the opportunity of attending such a prestigious school. She thought she was doing OK, that she was getting through it all.

It wasn’t until later that her father told her about the pictures.

“I was speechless,” said Studevent. “I just got a feeling, right here in my chest. It was scary. You just think about how somebody has the time to do that.”

Ray Studevent said the bullying was affecting Gizelle as a person. “She lost her spirit, her innocence,” he said. “It took all of the wind out of her sails.”

Studevent said it hurt her play on the court.

“As far as basketball, I feel like that’s where it really hit my confidence,” she said. “I was really young, and there was just so much going on. I had never faced anything like that. I didn’t understand any of it. Because of all of that, I feel like I didn’t become the player I could have been.”

In the 11th grade, Studevent transferred to a rival private school in the La Jolla area. She immediately experienced a dramatic improvement.

“That school is awesome,” she said. “I had a great experience. Great school, great people — coaches, teachers, students, everybody. It was night and day.”

Marlon Wells, her basketball coach at the new school, said her transition was smooth. “It was a new beginning, a fresh start,” he said.

At first, Wells didn’t know all of the details of Studevent’s story. He noticed that she was “fragile.”

She was always “really apologetic” whenever she made a mistake; she was often “getting down on herself,” he said. It wasn’t until Ray Studevent explained the story to him that he understood what was really going on.

Wells’ coaching philosophy meshed with Studevent’s attitude and demeanor at the time. “I was more compassionate and caring,” said Wells. “She started trusting in me.” That ultimately led to her success.

She was an all-state selection in her junior and senior years.

Studevent’s defining moment came in the championship game for Division IV schools in San Diego County in her junior year. Her team was playing its rival, the school where she had endured three years of bullying and hazing.

She played the entire game with a folded piece of paper in her sock. It was that first anonymous letter that she had received in eighth grade. Her team lost, but the game was more than about winning or losing. Studevent had literally stood up to the bullying.

Now a student-athlete at Penn State, Studevent continues to take a stand against bullying and is using her experiences to affect the community.

Majoring in crime, law and justice, she was registered in an independent study with criminology professor Caren Bloom-Steidle last semester. She didn’t want to write another long, boring research paper to fulfill the major requirement. She decided to use her experiences to her advantage.

“I was given an opportunity to come to Penn State,” she said. “Every day, I feel thankful to be here. It’s a great place. I felt like I had to do something to give back, to show my appreciation.”

With the help of Bloom-Steidle, Studevent created the idea for Penn State Athletes Take Action, a program in which student-athletes visit area middle schools and talk to children about the dangers of bullying and hazing.

In the fall, she connected with the Centre County Women’s Resource Center. The staff had a relationship with the schools and could train the student-athletes to take part in such discussions and activities.

“I reached out to athletes here, ranging from football, soccer, girls on our team, cheerleading, the Lionettes dance team,” Studevent said. “For the most part, everybody was all-in. And from then on, we teamed up with the Women’s Resource Center.”

She and other student-athletes worked most often with Jody Althouse, director of outreach and communications for the center.

In December, the student-athletes made their first visit to Mount Nittany Middle School to introduce themselves to the children and tell them what they would be doing over the next four months.

“It was an exciting meeting,” said Althouse. “The students were pumped; the athletes were pumped; the teachers were pumped. The reaction was so positive.”

During the last week of January, Studevent and the others took part in their first sessions with the middle school students.

Studevent’s high school coach could not be more proud of her.

“It kind of brought a tear to my eye,” said Wells. “Now, it’s more of a positive than a negative. It takes a lot of courage to reflect on a dark place.”

Studevent continues to persevere and to follow her dad’s advice.

“Me being a victim of bullying, I know what it’s like,” she said. “I was obviously front-and-center in that position. So I know what kids are going through. I know what they’re feeling.”

“I think it’s really important to bring awareness to that, to tell these kids that it’s wrong and what to do if you are going through it,” she said. “I really felt like it was important to use my story to help other people, as opposed to just getting over it and putting it away.”