From the soccer field to Big Thought – the Leadership Journey of Crystal Zapien
Originally posted by Texas A&M International University
By Dan Lathey
A recent conversation with former Texas A&M International University women’s soccer standout Crystal Zapien makes it makes it “crystal” clear that the Dallas, Texas native has found her niche, and is on a mission to help create a better future for vulnerable youth in her hometown. Zapien is pursuing her passion by serving as a project assistant for Big Thought, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization that focuses on closing the opportunity gap in marginalized communities and empowering the youth in those communities.
Zapien was a four-year letter winner and defensive stopper, who played box to box, for the Dustdevils from 2012-15. She was a team captain and helped lead the Dustdevils to the first two Heartland Conference Tournament appearances in school history.
Zapien admits that the transition from college life to the “real world” after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Multidisciplinary Studies (education, psychology, communications) in 2016 was a rough one. Without the structure needed to balance academics and playing a collegiate sport, it took Zapien a while to find out what mattered most in her life. She says the life lessons she learned through soccer, a sport she has played and loved since childhood, eventually helped guide her down the right path.
“You play sports all your life and it consumes most of your time and suddenly it comes to an end,” Zapien said. “It took me a while to process, but eventually it became easier. I thank sports for that; sports teach you to keep going. You won’t always win every game, you may not even always make it to the starting lineup, but if you keep at it and try your best, boy do the tables turn!”
Through her work with Big Thought, Zapien says it is her privilege to assist in providing resources, support, and opportunities to marginalized youth. She sees herself in many of the youth she serves and that awareness fuels her empathy and drive “to continue the fight towards equality, dismantling systemic issues, and fighting for a better life for all.” Opportunity means a lot to Zapien, who is quick to point out that the opportunity to play soccer at TAMIU paved the way for her to become the second member of her family to earn a college degree (her sister Amy Zapien is a graduate of the University of North Texas).
Long time TAMIU head soccer coach Claudio Arias says Zapien is a natural born leader and her work ethic and character made her a joy to coach.
“Crystal was a great player and person on and off the field,” Arias said. “She demonstrated leadership early in her career and became a captain for our team. Through it all, Crystal represented us really very well in the classroom, in the community, and on the field. In victory and defeat, she always behaved in a manner that brought respect to the game, our team, and our university. It was a pleasure coaching Crystal! Her maturity and desire to learn made coaching her easy and enjoyable. We loved her family and their support through the years as well.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Zapien played soccer in a Sunday women’s league though out North Texas. She looks forward to returning to the pitch in a post pandemic world. She also stays physically active through CrossFit, which reminds her of her days in the TAMIU weight room under the supervision of Aaron “Pops” Garza, and instills a sense of discipline and competition that she misses from college soccer. Zapien also enjoys traveling, visiting National Parks with her best friends, trying new foods, wine, art, and coffee.
Zapien recently took some time from her busy schedule to update Dustdevil fans on her life and thoughts on a variety of topics.
Question: What is your best memory of your TAMIU playing career?
Answer: My best memory of my playing career definitely is beating our well-known rivals, St. Mary’s in overtime in 2014. Overtime was the theme that season; it seriously felt like we went to OT almost every game. We were so fired up about losing to them early on the season by an unfair penalty kick. It was such a great game, Kari [Karina Garcia] sent an awesome cross and Parker [Jessica] made a beautiful finish. The coaches and all our players came onto the field to celebrate; I still have the game film and pictures. I remember Coach Arias telling me it was the best game he has ever seen me play.
Question: In your opinion how important is youth sports in the development of children?
Answer: I believe youth sports in the development of children is so important and fundamental. Sports have a way of integrating life building skills such as character, discipline, resilience, integrity, and so much more. I am a firm believer that youth sports should continue to work on being accessible to all youth. Soccer can become so expensive once you reach the competitive level. I do not think that is fair, particularly in America. A lot of talent is unseen and unknown because of the barriers that exist within the sport. Sports can open so many doors and opportunities outside of itself, so my hope is that we can see progressive change in the near future.
Question: What is the most rewarding aspect of your chosen career and what are your ultimate career goals?
Answer: The most rewarding aspect of my current career is being able to help provide the tools and resources to marginalized youth so that they can become the best version of themselves, whatever that may look like for them. I love that I am part of organization that is passionate about closing the opportunity gap and genuinely invested in creating a world of equality for all. I love that there is a space for me to connect with the Latinx community; we are living in a time in which there is too much divisiveness fueled by unnecessary cultural misunderstanding. So any chance I get, I am sure to be inviting and welcoming to all. I love being able to be that sense of comfort and trust for those who may only speak Spanish and are looking into the programs we offer for their kids and loved ones. Ultimately, I plan on returning to school and earning a Master’s degree. I want to continue to grow, learn, and build leadership skills in regards to philanthropy. I do not quite know what comes next after Big Thought, I am focusing on being present yet open to growth.
Question: What role do you see Big Thought and other nonprofits playing in creating a more equitable world in a post pandemic society?
Answer: Big thought, as I am sure other nonprofits, quickly realized the urgency to adapt and create new ways to continue to connect and support with the communities we serve during a pandemic. We have switched over to virtual camps, providing our students with creative kits that contain distance learning tools, and even a few social distance camps within COVID-19 protocols. We will have to continue to lead the way in the new “norm”. Moreover, keeping in mind that the pandemic has hit communities very differently, not every family has Wi-Fi at home, not every family has a laptop/smart phone, and so forth. It will be our duty to figure out the gaps and bring the missing pieces to these communities so that they can have access to these resources.
Question: What is your favorite National Park and what is on your list to visit next?
Answer: Zion National Park is my current favorite. It is such a beautiful park that offers so many amazing hikes like the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. I am actually going to visit Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks at the end of the month! They have been on my list for some time, so I am excited!
Question: Any shout-outs to former teammates, professors or others at TAMIU?
Answer: Of course, shout-out to all my former teammates and coaches, I miss them so much. I know they are all contributing and impacting society positively in their own special way. Some of them are already working moms and they truly are an inspiration to me. But a special shout-out to Rosalia Pujols-Sanchez, she and I communicate frequently, I love you sis! She is a married woman now, so sorry to all her fans. And shout-out to Dan, thank you for taking the time to catch up with me homie.
What They Are Saying …
Big Thought Senior Manager of our Out of School Time Programs James Adams:
“I work as a Senior Manager of our Out of School Time Programs, which is pretty much all after school and summer enrichment programs. I take pride in saying I hired Crystal nearly two years ago and she has been a wonderful asset to our team and organization. Crystal works with such passion and cultural awareness to the families we serve that Principals, students, staff and parents acknowledge often the way they feel when working with her. Safe, valued and heard are just a few of the words I have heard back from our community stakeholders. I consider her the quiet storm in the room. The gravitas she exhibits to balance our left and right brain members is a skill to be cherished; The Velvet Hammer.”
Former TAMIU women’s soccer player Rosalia Pujols-Sanchez on her former roommate:
“Crystal is such a hard-working individual. Everything she sets her mind to, she accomplishes. I was lucky enough to have her as a teammate, roommate, but most importantly, as a friend. Her amazing skills on the field describes exactly how she is: someone who does not give up and that always strives for greatness. I am confident she will excel at everything she chooses to do in life.”
Former TAMIU women’s soccer player Laura Twinem on her former teammate:
“My first impression of Crystal is that she was a quiet person but on getting to know her better, I learned quickly Crystal has strength of character with resilience and persistence. She was a fierce player and a hard worker who constantly trained to improve her game. She is one of kindest people you will ever meet, but never a push over. She was always willing to embrace challenges and hold to her principles. She is a team builder and a great friend.”