Against All Odds

Avery Pennywell

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This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

The aspect I’ve always loved about tennis is that there’s nowhere to hide on the court.

There’s no managing the clock after a strong start.

There are no substitutions if I struggle or go cold.

I get the opportunity to problem-solve from the first point until the last and own the result fully, for better or worse.

And, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’ve applied this mentality to my life outside of sports.

While I’ve never had a mindset of me against the world, I know what it takes to be resilient against all odds.

It takes having a mindset to isolate outside noise and persevere to accomplish life goals.

To me, that’s what it means to achieve Black Excellence.

When I received the extraordinary honor of being recognized for my success at the SMU Black Excellence Brunch this February, I thought quite a bit about what Black Excellence has meant to my life and career at SMU and beyond.

As a Black tennis player, it wasn’t always easy being complimented for my physical gifts but disregarded for my mental toughness.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard things like, “He’s just a strong serve.”

When the first and only positive thing people have to say about your game is the physical, it suggests an absence or deficiency in arguably the most crucial part of tennis: the mental aspect.

These backhanded compliments used to bother me, but there came a point when I took it as a personal challenge.

I developed my standard of internal excellence and worked to be mentally sharper regardless of whether others acknowledged it.

I learned to believe in myself and built a resiliency that has helped me through life’s journey with every growth opportunity, both on and off the court, including those at SMU.

Everything came together

In hindsight, everything came together.

I always felt confident and blessed to be a strong student.

I’ll be the first to admit that although I excelled academically in high school, I wasn’t at the level of a tennis player that would garner a full-ride athletic scholarship, at least not to the universities I was considering attending academically.

As a native of Dallas, Texas, part of me always wanted to venture out and explore other areas of the country, but once I was fortunate enough to receive the President’s Scholarship, SMU bridged the gap perfectly in everything I wanted to accomplish as a student-athlete.

With my tuition paid for, I just needed to figure out how to make it onto the tennis team.

The process originally seemed far from straightforward.

The head coach at the time had just retired. With a new head coach pending, I did my best to stay patient and prayed that I would get my opportunity. The next thing I knew, I got a call from the new head coach, Coach Grant, telling me how excited he was to have me on the team and that they were bringing me in as a walk-on.

Not only was I a student at a prestigious academic institution, but I would also get to compete in a sport that I love and represent a university 30 minutes from my home.

Everything came together perfectly, and I’ll forever be grateful to SMU and those who afforded me that opportunity.

While I've never had a mindset of me against the world, I know what it takes to be resilient against all odds. It takes having a mindset to isolate outside noise and persevere to accomplish life goals. To me, that's what it means to achieve Black Excellence.

The results will come

What I love most about my time at SMU is that they genuinely embraced me as one of their own.

From the moment I stepped on campus, I had support from faculty, staff, and coaches to pursue my goals on and off the court.

For example, I had Dr. D’Brot, a biology professor who became an invaluable mentor in my life and helped guide me to success.

Coach Grant and the team helped me improve as a player while being equally invested in my career pursuits.

That’s why I loved the parallels from my time in the classroom and on the tennis court at SMU. I had coaches and professors who wholeheartedly believed in my process, and I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today without them.

One key part of that process was starting the SMU Black Unity Forum (BUF) in 2020.

While there was a nationwide discourse about racial discrimination, I worked with other students, faculty, and staff members to build a proposal for how SMU could better support its Black and otherwise racially diverse community.

Some people challenged that my approach was too timid, but we eventually reasoned that moving forward together with the university and building opportunities that would last past our time at SMU was more important than pointing fingers and casting blame.

Fortunately, that decision paid dividends. We had support from President Turner, his executive team, and the trustees.

We worked with SMU to create scholarship and internship opportunities that are still alive to this day.

With all that SMU had given me, it was special to give back to the university and use my platform for Black students who will come after me.

Beyond the Hilltop

After I graduated in 2022, I spent a year in New York working for JP Morgan as an investment banking analyst.

I was able to leverage the fact that I graduated as a dual major (Finance and Biology), which was not an easy feat as a student-athlete.

It may sound a little strange as someone whose career goal is to be an orthopedic surgeon, but it was one of the best experiences to grow personally and open my eyes to finance outside the classroom.

It allowed me to explore the business world and build new experiences, which I hope to integrate as I continue my studies in the medical field.

Going back to the mentality I had at SMU, it was another chance for me to challenge myself to be a better professional while working in a fast-paced, detail-oriented role.

In the future, understanding the business side of healthcare and clinical knowledge will allow me to serve my patients better, individually and as a whole.

Now I’m in my first year of medical school at UT Southwestern in Dallas.

It’s been a blessing to take all the lessons, values, and knowledge I learned at SMU and apply them every day in my journey to becoming a surgeon.

Inspiring Black Excellence

On February 24, at the Black Excellence Brunch, it will be an honor and privilege to share a panel with some of the most accomplished and established professionals in their respective fields.

In addition to connecting with them and getting to know them personally, I’m looking forward to speaking to the SMU student-athletes the most.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times, there are so many opportunities at SMU to better yourself, which is the message I want to hit home.

Even beyond athletics, this university invests in you as a person, and I want every student-athlete to understand how important and unique that is.

Most importantly, I would challenge Black student-athletes not to let anyone set limitations on what they can accomplish.

Throughout history, there are countless times Black people have been taken advantage of and told that they were not good enough.

While balancing athletics, academics, and other student areas of involvement, others doubted me, and at times I doubted myself.

There will always be people wanting to see you fail and bring you down to their level, but trust me, there isn’t a better feeling in the world than fighting off that negativity and coming out on top.

The journey of Black Excellence is remaining resilient and never giving up on dreams to be your best person in every area of your life.

Many people have laid the foundation before us, which grants us an opportunity to aim higher.

Black Excellence is because of the sacrifice and derailments that others endured, and I refuse to take that for granted.

I’m looking forward to learning from the panelists and student-athletes at the brunch, and hopefully, I can inspire others about what it means to be resilient against all odds and achieve Black Excellence.

Harvey Armstrong, Daniel Gresham, Avery Pennywell and Rob Seals are the panelists at the 2024 Black Excellence Brunch on February 24 at 11am (SOLD OUT). The panelists will be honored at the Women’s Basketball game that tips at 2 p.m. at Moody Coliseum (TICKETS)