The process for an international student to come to the United States for school has long been an arduous one. Intricacies with the visa process, travel accommodations, living arrangements, and full-time student requirements limit the opportunities for many students who want to go to any college or university. The layers of complexity only deepen if that student is also interested in playing a sport at the college level. For Tina Stefanovic, PLNU Master of Science in Kinesiology program alumna and a Serbian native now living and working in the U.S., these processes are just another part of her daily life.
“When you are an international and find yourself in the U.S. there are so many things to think about you get used to that,” said Stefanovic. “My tolerance became so much higher; I knew I had to do certain things so I did it.”
Despite the difficulties, Stefanovic graduated from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), and in 2018 she moved to Los Angeles to start work in the orthopedic research lab at Cedar Sinai focusing on anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) research.
As a former collegiate volleyball player who dealt with a severe knee injury during her career, Stefanovic had a particular affinity for the position and the work.
“You don’t often think about life after sports, and I thought a full-time job in bio-mechanical engineering was what I wanted to do, so I made the move to LA,” said Stefanovic. “I was working with knee injuries and I thought it would be the perfect fit for me.”
But Stefanovic found she missed the atmosphere around coaching and playing at the college level. So she started reaching out to her network to find a position that would satisfy her professional aspirations as well as her athletic ones.
“The visa restrictions are very clear, but I was able to find a small loophole that allowed me to volunteer for a club or team while I was here as a full-time student,” said Stefanovic.
She connected with PLNU head women’s volleyball coach Jonathan Scott, and after one visit to the campus Stefanovic knew she’d found a special place.
“You know when you come to a certain place and feel calm from all the confusion,” said Stefanovic. “That’s what it felt like here.”
Stefanovic, still bound by the rules of her visa, knew she’d have to be a full-time student while working with the volleyball team in order to satisfy the international requirements. So at the same time she started working with the women’s team she also enrolled and was accepted to PLNU’s Master of Science in Kinesiology program in August 2020.
“You know when you come to a certain place and feel calm from all the confusion. That’s what it felt like here.”
In her work with the PLNU Sea Lions, Stefanovic was able to bring knowledge of the program Data Volley, a popular software that helps coaches and athletes analyze their performance.
“I got a scholarship as a grad assistant coach and my CV ended up in Dr. [Arnel] Aguinaldo’s hands and we had a chat about biomechanics,” said Stefanovic. “We talked about the possibility of me working as a research assistant, and I was a little bit concerned because COVID was happening and we didn’t know about the season and finding enough time for volley and teaching assistant and schoolwork.”
But after talking with Aguinaldo — or Dr. A, as he’s more fondly known around campus, Stefanovic knew she’d found an ally in her research goals who’d help her push past any barriers.
English or Serbian, Stefanovic’s passion for helping student-athletes was so contagious that her work with Aguinaldo became successful outside of the PLNU community.
“My english was good, but jumping into a STEM field in English was the hardest part,” said Stefanovic. “You hear some words and they don’t mean anything to you. [But now] I look back and the past couple of years have been me communicating in English in STEM and it’s almost harder to communicate in Serbian now. Like I don’t know how to express to my family what I do now that I’ve been at it so long.”
“When you get into research you have to pick a topic and narrow it down. I wanted to do something meaningful for the volleyball team,” said Stefanovic, who looked into the field of volleyball research and noticed a discrepancy.
“I noticed that there were all of these studies done on male volleyball players,” said Stefanovic. “I thought that’s interesting: there’s half a million female volleyball players in the U.S. and 13,000 male volleyball players in the U.S. but the studies are mostly on male volleyball players.”
Beyond that, Stefanovic found most of the research on volleyball players was heavily focused on regular attack approaches. An attack in volleyball is characterized by any offensive act in hitting the volleyball. There are a multitude of different attacks with both regular and slide approaches.
Stefanovic realized she was uniquely placed to fill a gap in the research. After Aguinaldo approved her topic, throughout the 2020-21 season Stefanovic could be seen down on the court on off days analyzing player movements and recording data through a popular motion capture software called MoCap. The goal of her study: to better understand performance in volleyball attacks and how they corresponded to injuries prevalent among female volleyball players.
“We looked at full speed predictors in slide attacks,” said Stefanovic. “What are the predictors, this is how you perform the movement properly, and if you don’t perform it properly are you getting injured?”
Stefanovic was able to take full advantage of the rare opportunity to study players in their natural environments where they were already comfortable, limiting the amount of outside influence potentially impacting the research.
“As a researcher you want to adapt to their natural environment as much as you can to make sure they can perform the movements as they would normally,” said Stefanovic.
Stefanovic finished her program and graduated with her master’s degree in 2021. At the same time she accepted a position at the University of Utah as the director of volleyball operations. It was about this same time she was defending her thesis, and Aguinaldo suggested she submit her abstract for publication to two different bodies: the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports (ISBS) and World Congress of Biomechanics (WCB).
After submitting to the ISBS and WCB, Stefanovic had to wait months to hear back on the results.
In January and April 2022 Stefanovic received word that her research, “Ball Speed Predictors In Slide Attacks in Female Volleyball Players,” had been accepted by WCB and ISBS respectively. Stefanovic would be presenting at the World Congress of Biomechanics 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan and the ISBS 2022 Conference in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
“I was super excited and usually I have a little blackout moment,” said Stefanovic when she recalled her presentation. “But it went really well. Both of those conferences I was super excited to get the research out there.”
“I tell people that my life took such a big turn when I came to Point Loma. I feel like I have people for life from here.”
Stefanovic was able to share her findings with the wider biomechanics community and raise awareness of injury prevention in female volleyball players.
“It was an incredible experience to be so young and so fresh out of grad school,” she said, “and being surrounded by world renowned researchers.”
After her time presenting at various conferences Stefanovic has returned to her job with University of Utah. As for her current work, she’s with student-athletes every day and continuously grateful for her experience at PLNU.
“I tell people that my life took such a big turn when I came to Point Loma,” said Stefanovic. “I feel like I have people for life from here.”