"Raising the Pick," like raising the bar, is everyone coming together to practice excellence every single day. UTEP student-athletes feed off the support of those around them, whether in competition, the classroom or in the community.
In the following pages, four student-athletes share their unique stories of what it means to “Raise the Pick.” They talk about the value of their experience, including how their athletic scholarships are creating opportunities for the future. Their stories exemplify the impact that donor contributions have on their lives each and every day.
To learn how you can “Raise the Pick,” visit minerathleticclub.com.
Paul Thomas, a small forward on UTEP’s men’s basketball team, traveled about 2,600 miles to learn an important life lesson.
Thomas and his teammates toured a Costa Rican orphanage that serves several hundred children. It was his first visit to that kind of facility. The players spoke with the orphans, gave them T-shirts and participated in races and games with them. Despite their hardships, the children always were in good spirits.
“It will definitely be something I remember for the rest of my life,” the Houston, Texas, native said after returning from the trip. “Seeing kids like that makes you count your blessings. It was really humbling.”
Thomas said it reminded him to be grateful for his opportunities to attend college and play Division I basketball.
“I did not always like basketball,” the student-athlete admitted. He started playing organized sports at age 5, including basketball. “I used to love baseball, but in seventh or eighth grade I hit about 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, and at that moment I knew I had to make a decision, and I chose basketball.”
That choice led him to UTEP and an athletic scholarship.
“Paul has been an ideal student-athlete since the day that he first arrived on campus in 2015,” said interim head coach Phil Johnson. “His leadership, combined with his exceptional basketball skills, has allowed our team to grow both on and off the court. His ability to play both tough and smart is a very rare quality in today’s game.”
Thomas, a marketing major, said he plans to pursue a job with a sports team’s marketing department after graduation.
“I’m interested in why people make the decisions they make when it comes to buying or spending their time or money on something,” Thomas said.
Without an athletic scholarship, Thomas may not have attended college, he said.
“It was either college or the military,” he said. “I didn't really have any sort of plan. When I started getting offers, it made me get real about life and start thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Basketball hasn’t just taken Tamara Seda across the world; it’s changed her life completely.
“In my hometown, a lot of females get pregnant at the age of 16,” said Seda, who is from Mozambique, a coastal country in southeast Africa. “I started playing sports and I kind of drifted away. If I wasn't playing sports, I'd probably be one of those girls back home.”
Seda is the lone senior on the 2017-18 women’s basketball team. The starting forward has become a fan favorite for her propensity to block a shot and then wag her finger back and forth to the crowd like Dikembe Mutombo, a fellow African native who played center in the NBA for 18 years.
“It’s the adrenaline,” Seda said of why she loves basketball. “It’s 40 minutes, but you can go up to two or three hours depending on how good the game is and anything can change in a split second."
Her desire and ability to lead caught the attention of UTEP women’s basketball coach Kevin Baker.
“Tamara is the perfect combination of work ethic, class, humor and drive to be the best she can be at all times. She is any coach’s dream,” Baker said.
Off the court, Seda is majoring in business management because it offers her job flexibility and an opportunity to lead. She has been successful in the classroom, earning a spot on the Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll in 2016 and 2017.
In her spare time, Seda likes to cook, hang out with friends and binge watch “Game of Thrones.”
Seda said cooking is fun and relaxing. She likes to try new recipes from around the world and enjoys sharing them with her teammates. About her only criteria for a recipe is that it has be able to be prepared quickly.
Seda’s main goal, after she is done with basketball, is to return to her hometown and create an organized, sponsored children’s basketball program.
Some people go years, maybe even decades, not knowing what they want to do with their lives.
Courtney Clayton knew at age 4 when she started playing T-ball that she wanted to follow in her family’s footsteps and play softball.
“I absolutely loved it,” Clayton said. “Pretty much my whole family is a softball family. Both my aunt and my mom played in college. My grandpa played baseball (in college) and was amazing. I was always on the tractor with him at the games, dragging the field. I’ve been around softball my whole life, but the cool thing is I never felt pressured to play. It was always just a love that I’ve always had.”
That love for the game – and hard work – helped her earn a Division I athletic scholarship to play second base on the UTEP softball team. She’s now gearing up for her senior season.
UTEP almost didn’t get Clayton except for a twist of fate, and having a top-notch nursing program.
Tobin Echo-Hawk, then the head coach at Portland State, recruited Clayton. She had chosen Portland State mostly because she would be 20 minutes from home. Echo-Hawk then took the job at UTEP and Clayton wasn’t sure about following her.
“I didn’t even know where El Paso was at that point,” Clayton said. “I was just so overwhelmed with emotions.”
Clayton paid a recruiting visit to El Paso and fell in love with the city and its supportive fans after running into a few of them at a local eatery. It also helped that UTEP has a nursing program and Portland State did not.
Once she took the field for the Miners, Clayton made her impact felt. As a sophomore, she was named Conference USA Player of the Year.
“I couldn’t think of a more deserving kid,” Echo-Hawk said. “She has definitely put in the work, so it is nice to see it pay off.”
Off the field, Clayton is working toward a degree in health promotions with an eye toward a master’s in nursing.
With several Division I athletic scholarships to consider, it came down to something very simple for Tobi Amusan.
“I felt like UTEP was like a home,” said Amusan, who is from Nigeria. The University has enrolled other Nigerian student-athletes who have succeeded both in their sports and in the classroom.
In her short time as a track and field athlete at UTEP, Amusan has made quite an impact. She completed her freshman season at UTEP in spring 2016 with a second-place showing in the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships with a wind-aided time of 12.79 seconds. She became only the second athlete from UTEP since it joined Conference USA in 2006 to be named C-USA Female Track Athlete of the Year.
At the Conference USA Indoor Championships, Amusan finished with the third-best time in school history in the 60-meter hurdles (8.23 seconds) to take gold. She also placed seventh in the long jump (5.84 meters) to earn two additional points. Her 12 total points helped the UTEP women’s team claim its second consecutive C-USA title.
She also competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the 100-meter hurdles for Nigeria.
Mika Laaksonen, UTEP track and field head coach, said Amusan had not competed indoors before, but she got better with every competition.
“She is very talented,” Laaksonen said. “Little by little she worked her way up, trains very hard, is very dedicated and always comes to practice ready to compete. She knows you compete the way you practice.”
Amusan is grateful to have found a U.S. family at UTEP.
“I want to thank UTEP for giving me the opportunity to come here to the States and study and then prove myself on the track, because without being here, I might not know what I’m capable of doing,” said Amusan, a health promotions major.
Amusan is no longer competing for UTEP, having turned pro a few months ago, but she still is taking courses at UTEP toward her degree and trains with her former UTEP coach with eyes toward qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
"I am the person I am today because of the grace UTEP gave me … to be on scholarship as a student-athlete,” she said. “I'm really grateful and thankful for this opportunity.”
- Leonard Martinez