Jan. 9, 2014
By Mike Sheridan
Villanova Media Relations
Pressure situations are a fact of every day athletic life.
Those who come to play at the highest levels learn early what it takes to channel their emotions at the lonely moments when all eyes are focused upon them.
Jessica Wamala claimed nine letters at Milford (N.H.) High School in three sports (basketball, volleyball and indoor track). She has been on a court in a dark uniform with home-standing fans cheering against her. She has stood waiting for the starter's gun to fire. At Villanova, she has carved a leadership niche on a team which lands atop the BIG EAST standings.
So when Wamala found herself in a setting that could have frayed the nerves of the coolest customer, the moment did not overwhelm her. In fact, she rose up to meet it.
In mid-November, Wamala - a Truman Scholarship recipient in 2012 - was one of 15 finalists selected to interview for a Rhodes Scholarship in New York City. Only two from that group would be selected to begin a two-year program to study in Oxford, England in the fall of 2014.
The process began with an evening cocktail reception where the candidates would mingle in a "relaxed" setting with fellow candidates and judges alike.
"It had to be, by far, one of the hardest, most anxious situations I have ever been in," says Wamala. On a Friday evening the group gathered at the reception with the goal of getting to know one another before the actual interviews got underway the next morning. Yet all were aware that there was a reckoning to come in less than 24 hours with the majority of the invitees destined to face disappointment.
"You wonder - how relaxed can you get?" states Wamala. "They have cocktails and these nice snacks and hors' doe'uvres. You kind of don't want to let your guard down, though. You play that fine line of wanting to appear relaxed but also being under control."
However, for a woman who has aspirations of a career in diplomacy - and has already spent a summer working at the State Department - this was a kind of template for tomorrow. Wamala is an outgoing individual who brings an understanding of how to mingle successfully in what might otherwise appear to be a charged setting.
"That really is diplomacy," she notes. "You might have a goal or strategy coming in but you do want to show the judges your true nature. You don't want to be so uptight that they don't get a glimpse into your personality.
"I actually really enjoyed the cocktail hour. It was a good chance to meet some of the other candidates."
The interviews with the committee began at 8 a.m. the following morning. Wamala's interview session got underway at 10 a.m. Once complete, she and the other candidates who had already interviewed remained nearby. By 1:00 p.m. all of the 15 had completed their initial interview and were together for lunch in a conference room.
"The committee has the right to call everyone back or anyone back until they make their decision," she explains. "Once we realized we had all (interviewed), the anxiety rose through the roof."
It did not diminish when the door to the conference room swung open and one candidate - not Wamala - was invited back inside.
"We're all very tense at that point," she says.
Wamala recalls two more hours passing before the committee members re-entered the room with the full crop of candidates. The candidate from Villanova was struck instantly by how energized the committee members seemed to her at that moment.
"The judges were excited," she remembers, "but all of us were stone cold. We were all staring at one another."
The moment of truth in the process was at hand.
The committee took pains to thank all of those who had participated, emphasizing the significance of what it meant to be among those chosen to interview for the opportunity to study at Oxford.
"They were telling us we were all winners and that we had a responsibility to society to continue to pursue our (dreams)," notes Wamala. "And then they said my name."
Fully aware of the feelings of those around her, Wamala received the news with a reserved smile.
"I couldn't scream," she says, "so I just befriended everyone in the room."
A short while later, Wamala was called back into the room alongside the other winner to review some details on the Rhodes Scholarship itself. By the time she exited, the rest of the candidates had departed so she found a small room to, as she puts it, "jump for joy."
Her first stop after leaving the building was at the apartment of her brother, Jacob Wamala, who lives in New York. Then came a series of phone calls to inform some of the many people who helped supported her in the quest, including head coach Harry Perretta and members of his staff along with the scholarship office at Villanova.
A little later she posted the news to her Facebook page.
Life has been a little different ever since.
Friends and professors have taken time to congratulate her and she's had a series of media obligations to fulfill as well. All of those came with fall semester finals approaching at Villanova not to mention a daily dose of basketball to find time for too.
"Going to Miami for the (FIU) Tournament right after it happened and then having all of this (academic) work to do was not ideal," she says with a smile.
As you would expect from a student of her achievement, it has all fallen smartly into place. That includes from a team perspective too - the Wildcats have mirrored Wamala's productive November and December.
In fact, she believes her background as a student-athlete at Villanova has played a significant role in her academic accomplishments.
"I have benefitted tremendously from the student-athlete experience, especially at Villanova," she states. "Both the institution and my head coach promote great academics. To Harry, winning comes not just on the court but inside the classroom. Practice is a priority but so are your classes. Whether that means studying on the road, making accommodations for your practice times around your class schedule, we know how much it matters.
"Because of that, I've always made my schoolwork the same kind of priority my basketball is. I have been able to manage both in a way that has allowed me to be productive in both. I really enjoy playing basketball. It gives me a way to shut my mind off and enjoy the sport."
Now as a senior, she is part of a unit that has prospered over the course of its non-conference slate. In fact, her presence sets a valuable tone on a roster that is replacing some valuable senior tone setters from last season's NCAA Tournament unit.
"I think I've been a backbone in the sense of staying positive when it does become a daily grind," states Wamala. "Basketball season really is from August to April. It gets hard when you are in the thick of your season to maintain a positive spirit and come into practice ready to work. I try to be vocal and be the first person there when maybe you don't want to (be), or the last person to leave when you could go."
Wamala points to the bond this group of Wildcats shares as one reason for its fast start.
"This has to be one of the closest, if not the closest, teams I have ever been on in terms of our relationship off the court," she says. "As much as we want to say it's business when we get on the court, I think fundamentally as people if you don't get along or see eye to eye it is going to play out on the court.
"The way Harry's system works, you have to be willing to rely on your teammates and trust them 100 percent. I think that aspect of our character, our selflessness and willingness to be there for one another off the court, has allowed us to excel on the court."
It's been a heady 12 months in 2013 for Wamala. She was part of an NCAA Tournament team, got an insider's view of the State Department during a summer internship (even referring in an interview to the President by the proper Beltway term, "POTUS"), and closed out with an invitation to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Next fall, she begins a two year stint in England in pursuit of a Masters of Philosophy in Modern Middle Eastern Studies.
Beyond that she is contemplating a career serving her country as a diplomat.
"As of now I see Foreign Service as a goal that suits my personality," she says.
Her deft navigation of a pressure-packed weekend interview process suggests she is well-suited for the assignment.