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Feb 16

S.8, E.1: Service and Tennis – Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum Mason Bultje ’18 about his equity work and…

Mason Bultje 18 talks about majoring in Exercise Physiology and playing tennis at Gustavus, assisting Minneapolis children and youth through nonprofit InnerCity Tennis, and his experience as a young Black man both on and off the Hill.

Season 8, Episode 1: Service and Tennis

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. Im your host Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

For a lot of us, I suspect the sport we most associate with inner city youth is basketball. And for those of us living in Minnesota, the year-round indoor-outdoor sport that comes first to mind is most likely hockey. Which is why for people unfamiliar with it as I was, the Minneapolis organization, InnerCity Tennis may come as a surprise.

With origin stating to the 1950s, InnerCity Tennis or ICT has contributed importantly to the development of tens of thousands of children and youth. One person at the center of that work today is ICT junior development coach, Mason Bultje. Mason is a 2018 graduate of Gustavus where he majored in exercise physiology and played tennis, earning all-conference honors and singles and doubles his senior year.

In keeping with the values of Gustavus and reflecting his own experience in the summer Tennis and Life Camps there, Mason has his profile on the ICT website states has A passion for working with underprivileged youth and players of all abilities. Since first learning about mason and his work from a faculty colleague, Ive been looking forward to speaking with him and Im delighted now to welcome to the podcast. Mason, its great to have you.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Thanks for having me. Im really excited to be here. Appreciate it.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks. Yeah, youre quite welcome. So I want to mention that faculty colleague is Professor Jill Locke, a friend and a member of the political science department. I gather you helped her maybe as a trainer or something like that and she mentioned you to me because you and I hadnt met before. I was intrigued by what she was saying about your work in InnerCity Tennis. So grateful to her for that connection and also for even suggesting some of the questions that Ill probably be posing, not probably, will be posing today. So how are things going right now? Is InnerCity Tennis up and running even amid the COVID pandemic?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Our facility in South Minneapolis where we have people come in and play tennis, we call it our pay-to-play programs, whether its adults or youth, that has been running through most of this year, but when Governor Walz shut things down kind of around Thanksgiving time, that facility closed to the public. But Im heavily involved with tennis and learning program. So its part of our outreach programs where we work with underserved youth and were helping them with their distance learning at this time.

So a lot of the kids that we are working with, I think over 75% of them are on free and reduced lunch. So they dont have the resources to stick to their distance learning at home. So they come into one of our two sites and we have coaches that help them throughout the day make sure they attend their meetings that theyre turning in their work, turning in quality work as well as give them some physical activity where we play tennis as well, and its just been so fulfilling seeing kids being able to safely see their friends and stick to their schoolwork.

There have been times where students dont attend for a couple days and they come back with 15 assignments to do. And then next week, we chip away at it. We get them caught up. So its just very fulfilling work knowing that we are providing these kids with an opportunity to receive their education when they likely wouldnt be able to if they were at home because mom might be working and dad is working multiple jobs as well or limited internet access at home.

So theres certain barriers that our kids face that our program is there to really support them as much as we can. I think for me, the number one thing is getting these kids an education and keeping them safe. And if we can play tennis and have some fun on top of that, thats the icing on the cake. But the number one thing is fulfilling the needs for for these students outside the campus.

Greg Kaster:

Its great to hear this for a lot of reasons, but one of them for me is as you alluded to, we read a lot about how difficult, how the distance learning is difficult. Its difficult even for people who are privileged, but certainly for people who maybe one or both parents have to work and they maybe dont have the internet resources, et cetera. So its nice to hear some stories about organizations like yours that clearly werent werent founded with COVID or any pandemic in mind, obviously, but are doing that kind of good work. I think its important to get those stories recorded and remember them. Well come back to your work there later. So tell us a little bit about where you grew up first of all and how you came to Gustavus.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So I was born and raised in Mankato. So not too far away at all. I grew up just very close to Gustavus and Id come to campus for different things like pep band or I was very involved in music in high school so I did some choir concerts there as well as the Swanson Tennis Center going to play different high school matches or tournaments. So I was just around. Im very close with my family in Mankato, and so when I was thinking about going to college, there were a couple things I knew I wanted to stay pretty close to home and then tennis was a big part of who I was and still who I am to this day.

So I kind of was looking at how I could make those things match up and I realized at some point, that I wasnt good enough to play for the Gophers. So the next school on the list was Gustavus and I went and visited the summer before my senior year of high school and just instantly felt at home on campus. Actually Gustavus was the only school I applied to, which I wouldnt recommend, but it was pretty academically rigorous in high school. So I was pretty confident about getting in and then it was just a matter of making things work financially, and just figured it out. And by, I want to say, October my senior year of high school, I knew I was going to be a Gusty and never looked back since.

Greg Kaster:

Thats great. Well, were glad thats the case and I was going to ask you if you had applied to any other schools like Minnesota State or the University of Minnesota. Im not technically, I guess, a first-generation college student. My dad didnt go to college. My mom went to a two-year teachers college, but Im just curious, do you fall into that category of first generation college student or did your parents both attend college? Maybe they even went to Gustavus. I dont know. Sometimes theres a family connection.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Im actually kind of the further end of that spectrum there. My mom is really who pushed me, not necessarily even pushed me, but inspired me to pursue an education. She got her doctorate while being a single mother raising four kids, and Im the oldest. I dont want to say, I guess I picked up the slack, but I was very involved in helping out and I just saw the sacrifices that she made to pursue her education. She really taught me that education is something thats really worth investing in. Its something that people cannot take away from you.

Financially Gustavus, the sticker price was pretty scary, but she encouraged me like, Well figure it out. No one will ever take away your education from you. But she actually did work with first generation college students. So I also know the challenges that they face just from talking to her about her work. So its kind of an interesting perspective that I got from her growing up.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. Obviously, youre still drawn on your current work. Whats her field? What is she working or what does she work in?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. She has her PhD in psychology.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow. Thats fantastic.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

My dad who as I said didnt go to college grew up in Chicago and then went into World War II, the Army, became a hairdresser. His dad had been a barber. Anyway, my dad just valued education so much and just exactly like your mom was saying all of those things to me and to my brother, one of the sibling. Man, Im so grateful. As I know you are to your mom, because its amazing to me how many people still discount education, generally, but also a college education that its not worth it. Well, I can be an entrepreneur without it.

No, its worth it, and your mom is so right, it can never be taken away from you. It repays in so many ways not just in monetary ways, obviously. And youre an example of that. Well get into that. So thats a neat story. So how about the major? You end up majoring in exercise physiology. I mean, I didnt even hear of that until, I dont know, maybe when I was in graduate school. But what led you into that area?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah, I think this part of my story is pretty similar to a lot of students. I came in thinking I was pre-med. For my first year, I really did load up my schedule quite a bit. I didnt necessarily help myself out there, but taking the bios and chems, and everything my first year. And its kind of found like I like studying the human body and I like the application of knowing more about how muscles work and how the different systems of the body work.

I just remember theres a moment in the library where I was sitting there like, Okay, I probably could get through this. I probably could get to medical school someday, but I dont like this. This isnt very fun. So I literally went on the website and just looked at other majors and classes that I kind of What field am I sort of in, but its different than this. Im sick of talking about plants right now.

So I actually had a lot of a lot of pre-reqs for physical therapy. And actually part of my story thats interesting is that my first year at Gustavus, I had wrist problems. I was playing tennis and right away in February on touring week, my wrist was really hurting and I didnt know what was going on and I had to jump through a bunch of different hoops at one point. They diagnosed me with this rare disease and I thought my wrist was going to shatter.

So through that process, I end up in the doctors office with my mom. Shes like, Yeah, you might have to do physical therapy. I could see you being good at that. Wait a minute. I already have a lot of the classes for it. Its about the human body. Youre really helping people. So I looked into it a little bit more and I really liked the sound of going the pre-PT route and I thought that Its actually the health fitness major at the time. They switched it to exercise physiology, while I was in the program.

The classes stayed essentially the same. They just changed the title of the major, which I approve of. I think exercise physiology sounds a lot better than health fitness. So then I pivoted to that route and actually was able to jump a year ahead in my major. So I finished up pretty much all of my exercise physiology classes by my junior year.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Mason Bultje:

My senior year was very lax and allowed me to shadow for PT, which I can get into a little bit more [crosstalk 00:12:25].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, Id like to hear more about that. Thats awesome. So regular listeners know how much I love these stories because its often the case. Maybe its probably most often the case that students really dont know. Or lets put it this way, they may think they know what theyre going to do, what they want to be. And boy, if I only had a dollar or maybe $10 for every student who wants to be a doctor at least through the end of the first semester until the low grades start coming in. Its so interesting, the way you found that major and also the personal connection. I didnt know about the wrist injuries. I assume you overcame those because you continued to play tennis.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Eventually, I actually had two surgeries in three years though. So the first one didnt quite get it. So it taught me some lessons about perseverance through that. But Im all fixed now. Im good to go, but it was a bumpy start to my tennis career, no doubt.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And you had mentioned youd come to Gustavus having played in high school, so you already had a love of the game. What are some of the memories you have of Gustavus? I know we want to talk about the Tennis and Life camp there and then we maybe set that aside for just a second, but that aside, what are some of the memories, good, bad and ugly and you were a student of student of color there as well, if you want to talk about that. But what are some of the memories you have of the place? Im asking partly because youre two years out, so its not going to be that hard to recollect.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Its still fresh. I still think about what Im missing out as a full grown adult now every day. I think a lot of my memories really are wrapped around the tennis team and the camaraderie that I had with my teammates, whether thats on the court or off the court just thinking about going to practice and then going to the trainers and going to the caf. Everyones sitting around the table together and then 30 minutes later after everyone showers up and meet up in the library again.

Youre closing it down, going back to your dorm and doing it all over again. Just the time management skills that I learned from being an athlete at Gustavus. Id also say, I mean theres a lot of camaraderie obviously between the tennis team, but just athletes in general, theres just a really supportive community being an athlete. All the different sports, I feel like we all connected and support each other very well. So thats thats very central to a lot of the memories that I have.

Just being neighbors with your best friends for four years is a very unique experience. I know that living on campus a lot of people complain about it, and theyre warranted. But I do think that you can also look at it in a positive way, and that youll never have more access to being around your classmates and your friends in the way that you are when youre just down the hall and new.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I completely agree. And just to underscore what you said about athletes at Gustavus, Ive said this before both on the podcast and off, but over the years, Ive taught like like other profs taught, many athletes in all different areas women and men, and in general, yes, what you mentioned learning time management and having the self-discipline thats necessary to succeed in your particular sport also translates nicely into your academic work, right? At least in my experience. So I can relate. And I also can relate to what you just said about being on campus.

I mean, I guess as an undergraduate, I went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where by the way I have a memory of playing tennis not as a team member, but I think maybe as what was then called physical education, PE requirement. I wasnt very good at it. But what I remember is when I lived off campus, it was really kind of on campus. It was a house called the foreign language house and it wasnt far off campus at all. I suppose like most most off-campus housing.

But man, the friendships there, the camaraderie. We still have reunions. Theres one coming up in January as a matter of fact which I hope to attend, finally. Anyway, so I can completely relate to what youre saying and just certainly want to underscore what you said about athletics and the way it connects to self-discipline and success beyond the particular sport one is involved in.

So as a student of color, what was that like? I mean, the place is overwhelmingly white like most college campuses. I mean, thats just a fact. Was that something that you felt you were aware of or not?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Very much so. I think for me college was sort of a great awakening if you will for me with my own identity, with my standing in the world socially. I think in high school Mankato was very, very white as well. Although you have a pretty good immigrant population from East Africa. But as far as like who was in my social circle and who was in the classes that I was in, AP classes and everything, its very white. So that was very normal to me.

So on the hill at Gustavus, I felt great. I didnt feel black so to say. Obviously, I am and I knew that, but it didnt feel as much of an anomaly as when I went down the hill. Being completely honest, I had a pretty tough time in St. Peter. I think that for me, it actually was really interesting that I didnt realize how bad it was in the world as a black man until I went to Gustavus, until I experienced the absence of that feeling while I was on the hill.

It just felt normal I guess just to always feel black, just to always feel kind of the eyes on you. Always feel like people are suspicious of you. Once I went to Gustavus, I finally felt that feeling be removed, but then at the same time when Id go to Family Fresh, Id feel it 10 times more than I would-

Greg Kaster:

In the grocery store, yeah.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Thats all fascinating to me. Quite fascinating and important. Boy, youre reminding me long ago, maybe even before you were born, the grocery store, I think it was called Ericksons. Anyway the grocery store in town on Halloween, my wife Kate who then taught in history, and I went down to do our shopping and there was a cashier in blackface. A white woman dressed up as a mammy for her Halloween costume. We were stunned. We shouldnt have been.

The woman clearly took great pride in her costume. My wife, Kate who doesnt hold back in the face of something like that, she spoke to the manager. And long story short, I mean, oh goodness, the woman was so upset. She had to get rid of the costume. Sort of to her, it was nothing at all, but to then African-American students seeing that and some white people as well, it was like, What in the hell? So thats just so interesting to me. It felt different in Mankato because Mankato is just more diverse. Growing up in Mankato, you didnt have those kinds of experiences you had here?

Mason Bultje:

I would not say that. I would say when I grew up in Mankato, it was just normal because I didnt know anything different.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Got you.

Mason Bultje:

It was happening, but that was just the norm. Then when I went to Gustavus and I felt that stopped for a little bit. Thats when I realized like, Wow, this is what it was always like for me growing up. I dont have to just deal with this. I mean, just the things that just were normally my friends in high school, I wouldnt say that theyre racist or anything. Theyre kind of dumb high school kids, but they would make like Emmett Till jokes and that would just be normal.

I didnt think anything of it because thats just the way it was. And then when I went to Gustavus and people were not making Emmett Till jokes, thats when I realized that, okay, it doesnt have to be this way. And then taking that a step further now living in Minneapolis, I really feel much more free and secure in my identity as a black man.

Greg Kaster:

Again, its all fascinating because Ive spoken to some black alums, Gustavus alums, for whom Well, different in your case, maybe coming from lets say black towns in Mississippi and then coming to Gustavus where its much more of a shock, and they had some you know negative experiences and some negative memories around race at Gustavus. But in your case, you went through sort of what some African-Americans went through lets say during World War II who were abroad and werent experiencing racism for the first time, and then come back to a country having fought against racism, the Nazis, but come back to a country where racism is still flourishing.

So I just think its so interesting how Gustavus in your case became the place where you felt Not that there wasnt racism, but you felt its absence more than before, and that was kind of an awakening. I find that quite interesting. So were you up in Minneapolis when Mr. Floyd was Youre already living here when George Floyd was murdered this past summer?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So I was up here and just to add thats walking distance from InnerCity Tennis, from our facility. So that really hit close to home and got me more fired up. I think that for myself, before George Floyd, Id kind of go through phases of being really empowered and vocal and really pushing those around me to learn more about you know social justice issues and become more outspoken. But then it kind of dwindle at times and I think that with George Floyd that fire grew so big and and I realized that I cant ask allies to commit to working towards solving these issues consistently if Im not doing it.

So Ive really tried to commit myself to making that be a part of my identity, a part of who I am, and bringing diversity equity and inclusion initiatives into everything that I do. That was really a turning point for me especially having it. Like I said, it hit so close to home. I was able to organize an event for InnerCity Tennis. Its kind of like a supply drive on getting people together in the community just to kind of talk about these issues and then they were people are encouraged to walk over to the memorial, just walk over a foot bridge over 35W down a couple blocks and then youre right there.

Greg Kaster:

Youre right. I forgot how close to your facility is to the side. Kate and I were able to go. So many others were able to go to the memorial site, which was just quite profound, quite moving and very interesting. I was so struck by the mix of those A sense of celebration in some ways. Lots of life. I mean, barber shop, and cooking, and music, but also deep profound grief and sadness. So I want to come back to your You were telling me before we started recording, your work with the US Tennis Association around diversity, but lets circle back, again, to Gustavus.

I know for you as for so many people, that Tennis and Life Camps there, the summer Tennis and Life Camps that I mentioned in the intro were so I mean, its an overused word, but it still applies transformative, so important. I wasnt at all closely associated with them. I was aware of them of course teaching at Gustavus. We should note that they were founded and started in 1977 by Steve Wilkinson, a renowned collegiate tennis coach. I think the winningest tennis coach in collegiate history, at least thus far, and his wife Barbara. Did you get to know Steve before he passed away or not?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So I was actually the last first year class to come in, while Steve was still alive. So he passed away January of my first year. So I have one memory of him coaching me in a match in the fall and thats something that I definitely cherish.

Greg Kaster:

Thats great. Well, tell us a little bit about your experience in there. What you did in those camps, how they impacted you. You also taught there, right? Did you attend them and teach there both?

Mason Bultje:

So I actually never attended. I grew up in Mankato, but the drive was just too much for me. It is an expensive camp, and so for me, its either I could do a whole summer of tennis in Mankato or I could go to TLC for three days. So I chose more tennis. But when I went to Gustavus, I had a pretty good idea that there was a decent chance I would get involved with Tennis and Life Camps in the summer.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that, about what you were doing.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. I have a pretty decent story I guess about the beginning. I mentioned having wrist problems that happened in the spring of my first year, and I had already committed to doing TLC that summer, but then ended up needing to have surgery in May. They put a screw in my wrist. So I was going to be in the cast for most of the summer and I was really worried about my job security at that point, like not only do I not get to play tennis, do I have to be in the cast, but can I even work?

I talked to Neal Hagberg whos the director, and he said, Well make it work. The majority of my first summer, I taught tennis left-handed. Its not like Im ambidextrous or proficient with my left hand by any means, but I figured it out, and I think that really is the start of I dont know. Thats just so integral to what I do now, and with outreach, so many situations are not ideal, but you just figure it out. So I think thats one of the first lessons that I learned going in the TLC.

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S.8, E.1: Service and Tennis - Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum Mason Bultje '18 about his equity work and...

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