Commencement 2012 – URI tennis twins succeed on and off the court in Kingston

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Pair profoundly influenced by shooting of Arizona Congresswoman

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 7, 2012 – For University of Rhode Island tennis aces Tristany and Kirsten Leikem, diligence and commitment have paved their way for a future set with major victories.

The twins, from Tucson, Ariz., have played pivotal roles on the court, in the classroom, and in the communities of Tucson and URI. Both have been members of the Dean’s List, Honors Program, and Atlantic 10 Commissioner’s Honor Roll every semester since their freshman year, and both are members of the URI Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

However, their internship in Tucson had the most profound effect on their lives. Serving in the office of their Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in summer 2010, they also volunteered in her office after she was critically injured in a shooting, Jan. 8, 2011 during which six people were killed and 13 injured.

“My experience in Congresswoman Giffords’ office taught me that there are many misconceptions in this world,” Tristany said. “Rather than fight back with our own hateful rhetoric, we must try to connect with people to figure out what they are really upset about. Only personal connection allows for listening and for the potential to change. I will bring these lessons with me into my future career. The tragedy actually reignited my desire to work in politics, because I admired the congresswoman so incredibly much, and her work in Arizona should not go unfinished. I want to be one of those people who continues her legacy.”

“The shooting made me realize that I always have to give a task my all, especially since one of her staff members lost his life that day,” Kirsten said. “Life is definitely precious, and it is important to surround yourself with people who make life better, not worse. The experience taught me that it is important to love your job, and that I want to find a job where I can tirelessly help others.”

The sisters are excellent students with nearly perfect grade point averages. Tristany is double majoring in political science and journalism, while Kirsten majors in economics and political science. They will graduate on May 20.

In the classroom, the twins have become very fond of Political Science Professor Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, who has been instrumental in guiding them on their path.

“Other than not being able to tell them apart, they are very amazing students,” said Pearson-Merkowitz. “The fact that they both were teacher’s assistants in my class shows their desire and interest for a future in political science. Tristany recently served as a research assistant and wrote a chapter that will be published in an edited volume in an academic press. She writes as well as people who have a Ph.D.”

Choosing a college where the Leikems could attain their undergraduate degrees and play tennis together was important to them.

“We wanted a change from Arizona,” Tristany said. “We sent out e-mails to tennis coaches, and URI’s former coach Sandy Wood took interest in us.”

Playing tennis was important at URI since they had fallen in love with the game before they even entered kindergarten.

“We started playing when we were 3 years old, and we would constantly keep telling our parents that we wanted to play tennis all the time. To be honest, it was sort of natural and we loved it,” said Kirsten.

Adjusting to Rhode Island and life as a student-athlete has been difficult at times for the Leikems, but out of it all they have learned valuable life lessons.

“It was difficult, we would miss out on socializing due to traveling for two years on the road. But we pulled through, we found friends through other athletes, classmates, and we met a lot of people which gave us a sense of community,” said Tristany.

“We also had each other,” Kirsten added.

Their tennis coach, Val Villucci, has been influential for the twins.

“Coach has shaped us a lot and we’ve learned so much from her,” Kirsten said.

“As athletes and in life in general, our coach has taught us that no matter what, we respect our opponents and show class on and off the court,” Tristany added.

“The greatest qualities about Kirsten and Tristany are their commitment and dedication,” said Villucci. ”Whether it be to our tennis program, their academics, or any other interest they may have, once they have committed to something, they are focused and determined to be the best they can be.”

Although they are identical in appearance, the Leikem twins are fraternal in nature.

“Individually, Kirsten is outspoken and not afraid to speak her mind to get what she wants. Tristany, on the other hand, will get things done, but in a quieter fashion, somewhat crafty. This mirrors their tennis games to perfection. Kirsten is a hard hitter, attacking player, wanting to get things done fast. Tristany, takes her time, thinks things through and very carefully dissects her opponents weaknesses,” said Coach Villucci.

The future looks bright for the sisters. Tristany will be attending the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in the fall. “I am looking forward to starting another chapter of my life and being close to my family again. I’m considering intellectual property as an area to study or immigration law.”

Kirsten will be looking for jobs within the campaign or political realm. She eventually would like to go back to school for public policy, and get her Master’s in a section of political science. “I’m unhappy with new laws in Arizona and would like to make some positive change.”

“Overall, it’s been a great experience living here and learning a lot of life lessons, I love URI as a school. It’s truly been a great journey here at URI,” Tristany concluded.

This news release was written by Franco Lo Presti, a public relations major and intern in the URI Department of Communications & Marketing.

Commencement Information

Pictured above Tristany and Kirsten Leikem

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.