Oppressed Peoples Online Word...The Voice Of The Voiceless

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John Urschel, a 20-year-old mathematics major, statistics minor, and guard on the offensive line, graduated from


Penn State in May 2012, excelling both on and off the field. Academically, he earned a 4.00 cumulative grade point average and received the Evan Johnson Memorial Scholarship in Mathematics; athletically, he was named an Academic All-Big Ten in both 2010 and 2011, and named to the Capital One Academic All-District Football Team in 2011. That’s fairly impressive, considering the challenge of being a mathematics major and the time commitment required to participate in the rigorous Penn State football program.

John, the son of John Urschel and Venita Parker, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.  He attended high school in Buffalo, New York, and attended Canisius High School, a Jesuit college preparatory school before coming to Penn State.
John recalls being interested in math for as long as he can remember. “I was always naturally good at math, even from a young age. However, I never thought that I could make a career out of it. All through high school, my teachers and mother pushed me towards engineering, believing it to be the best career for someone talented in mathematics and physics.”

However, after starting out in the College of Engineering as a freshman at Penn State, John finished all of his required math classes in one semester but realized they were not enough to satisfy his desire to further his math education. “Once I began taking engineering coursework, I found myself asking why a lot. I wanted to understand why things are a certain way, not just use what other people have created. It was then that I decided to switch into mathematics. My favorite thing about math is seeing why things are a certain way. It is this rigorous structure that made me choose mathematics as my major.”


When you think of a mathematician, the stereotype usually suggests a bookworm who spends more time doing mathematical equations and succeeding academically than participating in extracurricular activities. A mathematics major, especially a 4.0 GPA student, doesn’t usually bring to mind a 6’3”, 292-pound Penn State football player.

Although John knew math was his calling early on, he didn’t start playing football until high school. His talents on the field, as well as in the classroom, lead him to be recruited by Penn State during his senior year in high school; he committed to the University after just one visit to campus.

John recalls that Joe Paterno had a tremendous influence on both his academic and extracurricular successes. “Joe Paterno was truly a great man and a molder of young men. When I was being recruited my senior year, many schools passed me up because of my lack of size. Joe believed in me and thought I was the type of kid Penn State wanted: a young man who succeeds both academically and athletically. The whole time I was here Coach Paterno constantly encouraged me to excel academically.”
But Paterno was not the only positive influence on John during his three years at Penn State. “My position coach, Dick Anderson, was a great influence on me in general. He taught me a lot of things about life. On the academic side of things, Professor Vadim Kaloshin gave me a great deal of support and direction mathematically. He certainly helped me get where I am today.”

Kaloshin encouraged John to participate in research during his sophomore year. “Kaloshin took me under his wing and got me started doing research in celestial mechanics. I was struck by the steep learning curve. It is an experience that I would recommend to any undergraduate that has hopes of doing graduate work. The research took about a year, and then we did a paper on the topic, which we completed in December 2011.” John also participated in another research project during his last semester at Penn State on graph partitioning and multigrid under the guidance of Jinchao Xu, the Francis R. and Helen M. Pentz Professor of Science and Postdoc Xiaozhe Hu.

Despite his already considerable time commitment to academics and research, John added his football-training schedule on top of that. A typical day for John during football season included waking up at 6:00 a.m., going to lift, and then having breakfast.  Afterwards, he went to classes all day. Then, after classes, he went back to the football building for meetings, watching film, and practice. After practice, he iced, stretched, and showered, then had dinner at the football-training table. After that full day, he finally had time to do homework and study for the rest of the night. During the off-season, the football-training program was slightly less demanding, permitting more time for academics and research.

John credits his academic and extracurricular accomplishments to time management skills and being in the correct major for his abilities. “I found out early on that the key to success is good time management. I’ve been blessed with strong quantitative skills, and chose a major that I was well suited for. When you love the major you’re in, and are good at it, succeeding academically comes easy.”

For students who may be considering extracurricular activities but worried about risking their academic success, Urschel encourages them to take the risk. “I would tell them to do it if given the chance. Extracurricular activities certainly take up a lot of time, but you just have to allot your time accordingly. You have to cut back on your relaxing time, social time, and things of the sort, but in the end it’s extremely worthwhile.”

Despite having a jam-packed schedule, John still enjoys a few hobbies in his downtime, including chess and playing jazz and blues on the guitar. He plans to continue his studies in mathematics by enrolling and beginning graduate school in the future. Best of luck in graduate school and for a future filled with continued successes, John!

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