Alumni Interview: Five Things That Matter with Grace Pinkus '20

Meredith Morin

It’s finals week at UMass Amherst, and Grace Pinkus ’20 is eagerly awaiting what will essentially be her first traditional graduation on May 18, where she will earn a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. As with all 2020 high school graduates, Covid restrictions derailed her high-school graduation experience. Ironically, our meeting was on Zoom - a platform, Grace said, with which she was very familiar. 

We were meeting to talk about her experience as a member of the student group that founded Unified athletics programming at BBA. Our conversation ran the gamut from the early days of Unified, to life as a Division I (D-I) soccer athlete, to Grace’s future career plans. However, the theme that ran throughout our conversation was the sense of cohesive purpose she gained from her time at Burr and Burton. 

In the fall of 2018, Grace, Aryn Iannuzzi ’20, Johnny Miceli ’20, and Joe McCoy ’20 traveled to a leadership conference in Indianapolis, Indiana as members of Burr and Burton’s Student Athletic Leadership Training (SALT) program. At the conference, they attended a session about Unified athletics, and they came home wanting to implement a Unified program at Burr and Burton. 

“I was really touched and inspired by the story of Unified,” Grace said. “I had done some work with Joe (McCoy) with Special Olympics, and I had coached some younger, disabled soccer players.” 

Unified programming at Burr and Burton strives to deliver on BBA’s commitment to serve all students and to place that commitment at the heart of our culture. Unified athletics pairs athletes (players with disabilities) with partners (players without disabilities), and teams compete together as one. In addition to Unified athletics, Burr and Burton fosters a unified community through inclusive leadership opportunities, Neurodiversity courses, Student Accessibility Services, and whole-school culture building.  

When they came home from the conference, Grace said that she and her classmates met with Athletic Director Dave Miceli, who gave them the green light to explore the idea of creating a Unified team, and they began to work on the details with faculty member and Assistant Athletic Director Julie Crosier.

Grace said that the idea of implementing Unified athletics at Burr and Burton felt natural. “We thought it was such a great thing because we already have such a unified community at BBA, and to be able to make it (Unified basketball) a Varsity sport was such a big deal for all of us.” 

The program that Grace and her classmates started helped pave the way for Burr and Burton to earn national recognition last fall as a National Banner Unified Champion School. Special Olympics awards this prestigious prize for schools that demonstrate a commitment to inclusion by achieving 10 standards within four key areas:  commitment to Unified sports, inclusive youth leadership, whole-school engagement, and program sustainability. (Click here for a news article in the Manchester Journal.)

From far-flung and seemingly disparate corners of her life, Grace can tie so many pieces of her success and future plans to the people and programs of Burr and Burton. She is gracious in her gratitude for Burr and Burton, a place that will forever feel like home, she said. 

Q: Was there any one memorable moment for you at the start of Unified Basketball at Burr and Burton? 
Right before our first (Unified basketball) game, we were all in the gym, and Ms. Crosier brought in our uniforms. In my life, I’ve gotten uniforms all the time, and in my mind, it was such a small part of the sport. But, on that day, seeing everyone get the same uniform and be able to put them on together, I could see how important it was to the athletes. They received the same uniforms, and we were able to represent Burr and Burton together. Getting my uniform was something that I always took for granted, but now when I’m handed a uniform, that moment with our Unified team comes to mind, and I appreciate what it means. 

Q: You started college in 2020 - a difficult time due to Covid restrictions. Can you tell me about that?
Before freshman year began, our coach told us that UMass wasn’t taking students back in the fall. Usually, preseason (soccer) starts in August. So, August came around, and we didn’t go to school. It was weird because as a freshman, I didn’t even know how college worked. My first college class was on Zoom. Because I was home that fall, I got to work with Unified at BBA. Ms. Crosier brought me back to speak to the Unified students about the challenges that come with going to college during Covid.

Halfway through the fall, UMass announced that they were slowly bringing teams back to campus. First, hockey and basketball, and then us. I lived in an apartment with my team, and it was not typical because there were no other students on campus. But, we were able to practice and lift with our strength trainer. We weren’t allowed to have games against other teams, but we were able to play a modified season in the spring. Because that year didn’t count as a full season, I have one more year of player eligibility.

I’m definitely looking forward to (college) graduation because I didn’t have a true high school graduation. I feel very close to my class because of what we experienced together freshman year. I’m so excited to have a normal college graduation and do it with the people who I started this process with. 

Q: Being a D-I student-athlete must be difficult. How has that experience been for you?
I love everything about it! It definitely comes with a lot of challenges, but I know that the lessons I learned from being a D-I athlete will help me in the future because there are so many challenges that come with it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced, and, I know my whole team would probably say the same. It’s such a fulfilling experience to be a part of a team, and that has been my favorite part of growing up - every team I’ve been a part of has been the best part of any place that I’ve been. 

Q: With your additional year of athletic eligibility, you are staying at UMass for one more semester, right? What’s next after that?
Yes, I’ll be at UMass for one more semester, so I can play on the team this fall. I’m taking a graduate certificate course in business analytics and foundations of management. I’m looking to go to PA (Physician’s Assistant) school, hopefully in Boston, within the next year or so. I feel like I can use (the certificate course) when I work for a business at some point in my life. 

Q: Who was an influential teacher or coach during your time at Burr and Burton?
Both in school and life, Ms. Crosier for sure was one of the biggest influences on me. I took Sports Medicine with her, and I loved it. I ended up picking kinesiology as my major because of that class with Ms. Crosier and how impactful it was on me. A lot of my college classes have been similar to that, so it was really the basis of finding what I wanted to do. Also, Ms. Crosier was one of the biggest supports for me athletically when I committed to play for UMass, and she was a huge support for us starting the Unified program. She has definitely been one of the biggest influences on my life.

Q: The Class of 2024 is getting ready to graduate on June 7. What advice do you have for them? 
One - enjoy your graduation! I think the biggest thing I’ve learned through college is that any plans you have might change. I used to be super laser-focused with tunnel vision on what “the plan” was, and I learned that it’s hard to adapt and adjust to things you can’t anticipate if that’s your mindset. So, I think my advice for the seniors is to be really open-minded toward different opportunities and challenges. Those experiences might lead to something even better. Take every opportunity as it comes. Adapt and be flexible.

To learn more about Unified programming at Burr and Burton Academy, click here to read the cover story in the current issue of The VIEW.