By Maria Evangelou, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is a dream school for a lot of high school students, especially athletes. Its reputation academically and athletically holds true, and it's hard not to fall in love with the community once you become a student.
For freshman gymnast Alissa Bonsall, coming to Penn State was the easiest decision of her life- somewhere she knew she'd be before she even committed to gymnastics. Bonsall's mother and father, Dave and Stephanie Bonsall, as well as one older sister, are all proud Penn State alumni. She says the Nittany Lion pride has been strong in her family before she even knew what a balance beam was.
"Since both my parents are alumni, Penn State has been in my family since I was born," Bonsall said. "With my parents both being from Penn State, I've always looked up to them. They've been so successful and I want to be just like them, so why not Penn State. It has such high standards for academics, and the entire atmosphere here is so amazing to be a part of. I'm following my dad a lot by pre-majoring in engineering right now. It's really inspiring and I think it's cool that he was a TA for one of the classes that I'll be taking in the future."
Bonsall's parents could not have been more excited when their daughter verbally committed to Penn State athletics as a sophomore in high school.
"I have pictures of myself at football games with my entire family, and my mom recently sent me a picture of me with a Penn State sweatshirt on when I was two," Bonsall said.
Stephanie Bonsall said although she had always hoped her children would continue the Nittany Lion lineage, she didn't truly realize the likelihood of her daughter's gymnastics skills taking her there until Alissa was nearly in ninth grade.
"Alissa was fortunate enough to go to training camps and reached a high level of skill in gymnastics," Stephanie said. "She officially toured Penn State the summer of ninth grade and fell in love."
In combination with Happy Valley already feeling like home before she arrived, Bonsall says her bond with her team is what truly makes her realize she belongs. The freshmen gymnasts all live together in the dorms, and have been here before the semester started when they arrived for the summer bridge program.
"It was great for all the incoming freshmen to be a part of," Bonsall said. "It gave us an easier path to get into the college flow, and my other freshmen teammates are amazing, we're best friends already and I can't wait for the next four years."
"Our freshmen live together in the dorms which I think has really helped them feel connected to one another, but I have to give credit to our upperclassmen for making them feel involved," head coach Sarah Brown said. "I know that they're constantly giving them rides and including them in team activities. Ever since we've hit the road, like at the Maryland meet, or throughout the season, there hasn't been a question as to whether or not the freshmen have been all-in or felt like a part of the team. I feel like they absolutely are an integral part of the program and I think they've blended in really well."
The head coach had nothing but good things to say about Bonsall and her family, which is especially complimentary considering Brown is in her first season of coaching at Penn State.
"She's an amazing person, first and foremost. She's by far one of the most polite athletes that I've ever had the privilege of working with," Brown said. "She's incredibly kind and she cares so much about this program. I think she puts a lot of pressure on herself because she wants to compete well, and I appreciate that, but I am continuing to encourage her to take a deep breath and a step back and realize all she's accomplished. She's been a solid performer for us."
Brown understands the significance of family ties within a university, being a University of Missouri alumna, along with her mother, godmother, and aunt. Just the way Brown's family was there for her, the Bonsall family can always be seen loud and proud in the stands for a Penn State gymnastics meet.
"I know that even to this day, my family still follows Mizzou athletics and I know that Alissa and her family are going to continue to follow Penn State athletics together," Brown said. "It just makes you feel good, it makes you feel like you're a part of the community and like when you go home, that your family gets it. Her mom comes to all the meets and has her 'Alissa' shirt and Penn State stuff on. They've been wonderful, it's been a pleasure getting to know her family."
Stephanie, an alumna of Penn State's College of Education, has not missed a single meet so far this season, and even plans to head to Michigan State this weekend.
"I know they love coming to the meets," Bonsall said. "My dad loves being in Rec hall and being anywhere with athletics pretty much, he loves being a part of it."
As a freshman on the team, Bonsall says her adjustment to the campus and program has been seamless.
"My team is amazing and always there to support me. I can have the most random questions and they'll have a response for it. Overall, I don't think the change has been too hard because I'm used to a busy schedule. The only difference with college is a lot more time management. There's a lot more work to be done."
During the fall of 2016, Bonsall sat proudly with her parents on signing day, making her enrollment in Penn State and her title as a student-athlete official. Stephanie recalls the excitement of Alissa and all her teammates and friends, the room adorned with blue paw prints and blue-and-white cupcakes.
"It was surreal," Bonsall said. "I don't think I'll completely understand the significance until I'm older and I'm watching potentially my daughter going through the same experience."
Stephanie recounts the invaluable experiences Penn State has given her. She recalls memories with her sorority sisters, whom she still keeps in touch with and sees from time to time at gymnastics meets. She also hopes Alissa's younger brother, a golfer, will consider Penn State when the time comes.
"This whole journey has brought our Penn State family back together," Stephanie said. "I think Penn State is such a perfect fit for Alissa. We looked at other schools, but when you think about excellence, there's something in your heart that you feel when you're at Penn State. Whether you look at academics or athletics, you think pinnacle and excellence. It fits Alissa's personality. And you carry that the rest of your life."