‘A Star Rises’ with fall commencement speaker Alex Zakutney

Alex is the featured student speaker at the 2 p.m. commencement ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2022.

-Story by Michael Shaw, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay writer

As a rule, a laundry-list of distinctive achievements is standard fare for a commencement speaker. But one of Alexandra Zakutney’s achievements stands alone – she is the first Phoenix who’s risen to the challenge of preparing for medical school while also as a D1 volleyball player, achieved 1,000 kills to her name.

But she won’t take all the credit herself. “To get 1,000 kills you need a good setter.” Another Zakutney fun fact: she’s a native French speaker, and also completely fluent in English. “My whole education was in French. Green Bay was the first school where I studied in English. ”Plus she blends Canadian politeness with Wisconsin nice. “I guess I do say ‘pardon’ a lot.”

The Zakutney family has devoted much of their lives to the world of collegiate athletics. Her mom and dad met playing volleyball, her brother is a gymnast and her sister also plays volleyball. Zakutney’s personal accolades on the UW-Green Bay women’s volleyball team merit special recognition on their own—named to the Horizon League’s All-Freshman Team in 2018-19, Horizon League’s First Team in 2020, ’21 and ’22, Player of the Week four times, the All-Tournament Team in 2022 and selected to the All-Academic Team three consecutive years (an honor awarded to a limited number of athletes.)

Zakutney grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, a 777-mile trek east skirting three of the five Great Lakes. In high school, she was a rising talent in Canada, but her club didn’t play in a lot of American tournaments, so she flew below the radar in the states. In fact, it was a fellow Canadian on the Green Bay team that made her connection with the coaches.

She admits to being surprised being recruited by Green Bay. “I had a lot of offers in Canada, so I really wasn’t planning to take the leap and go to a different country.” But her brother had taken the leap earlier, attending Penn State to participate in gymnastics. And while Penn State may have the edge in total enrollment, UW-Green Bay did have its own qualities that attracted Zakutney.

“I also knew they had a really good human biology department. That’s really what I wanted to study in college. I was interested in the science aspect.” Seems the health-sciences also ran in the Zakutney family. Her mom is an occupational therapist and dad’s Senior Vice President, Digital Health and Cardiac Technology and Chief Information and Technology Officer at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. So, growing up, she was already familiar with hospital settings, but in the spring of 2018, her medical experiences were about to become far more personal.

She was starting as a freshman, which was unusual in itself, playing UW-Madison. “First point of the game I went to hit the ball, trying to get a kill, tilted my body slightly, landed and just heard a big pop.”

That “big pop” was a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, plus the lateral and medial meniscus in her left knee. She was injured in March, waited until June to have surgery, and began a year-long rehabilitation. Then in 2020 COVID hit and everyone was sent home. She returned to Ottawa—and an uncertain future. “It was kind of nerve-wracking,” Zakutney recalls, “because I didn’t know if they would let international students return.”

But return, she did—both to Green Bay and to volleyball, with the support of family, friends, coaches, teammates and professors. “I was really lucky to be part of a program that appreciates everyone on the team, even when you’re hurt.”

For Zakutney it was never about the size of UW-Green Bay, but the generous spirit that defines being a Phoenix. As she explains it, “It’s not a very big school, but I’ve gotten really close to the professors. They really do want to help you.”

And adding to this already long list of achievements, there’s one more twist in Zakutney’s tale (though, thankfully, it has nothing to do with a knee.) She was born with a hearing loss and has been wearing hearing aids since the age of two, which brought its own uncertainty and challenges. “I was pretty nervous about how I would do in college.” Zakutney recalls, “If I would have trouble hearing the professors, if I would have to ask for special assistance and how difficult that would be.”

Added to that challenge was missing classes because of her volleyball commitments, knowing that communicating with her professors was even more essential. Yes, she had doubts, but never let that hold her back. “I decided just to take the leap. Try something new and get out of my comfort zone. Now here I am, four and half years later, ready to graduate!”

As for the future? “I’m currently studying for the MCAT. That’s a lot of brain power. But that’s something I want to do so I’m really determined to achieve it and see where it takes me.”

Proof you can’t keep a good Phoenix down.

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