As she prepares to deliver the keynote address at Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board’s annual luncheon in Oaks Friday afternoon, Jill Bodensteiner, the Director of Athletics at Saint Joseph’s University, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Indiana, where she fell in love with the game of basketball, skipped fourth grade, and graduated high school when she was 16 years old.
Bodensteiner also discussed her decision to attend Notre Dame, her shyness and coming to grips with her anxiety, going to law school in St. Louis, the people who mentored her, what opportunities and challenges lie ahead for SJU, and why her university recently prohibited faculty, students, and staff from betting on Saint Joseph’s games.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born, the second of two girls, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I spent most of my formative years in Valparaiso, Indiana.
What did your parents do?
My dad taught law for forty-four years at Valparaiso University law school and still, at age 76, has a civil rights practice in Valparaiso. My mom is a retired therapist.
What memories do you have of growing up in Valparaiso?
I have very fond memories of growing up in Valparaiso. We spent a lot of time together as an immediate family. We did not have much extended family nearby, so I spent a lot of my time with my parents and my older sister.
Some of my best memories were high school basketball. Basketball is big in Indiana. Plus, my high school had a great program. When I look back on the friendships I still have today, I made many of them in summer basketball games or during the season for my school team. A lot of my memories revolve around basketball.
How did you get into basketball in the first place?
I was a total tomboy who loved playing any sport I could get my hands on. We lived across the street from the YMCA and down the street from the Boys and Girls Club. My parents worked a lot of hours, so I would go after school and on weekends and shoot baskets until my elbows hurt. I’m a lefty, but I could never shoot from the left side of the basket because my driveway only had space on the right.
When did you first notice you were a talented basketball player?
I started to see myself as a better player in junior high. Before that, I was a very shy and timid kid, afraid of the limelight. I think I scored two points on four shots my entire sixth-grade season.
That all started to change in Junior High, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I was first-team all-conference. I grew a lot personally from 7th grade to 9th grade.
Was there one moment, Jill, where you said to yourself, “I got this?”
I had a very impactful friend who helped me along the way. I skipped the fourth grade, so I was very young for my class and graduated high school when I was 16 years old. I had an older classmate – Chris Gavin – who became not only a teammate and the best young basketball player in the city but a close friend as well. I looked up to her, on-and-off the court. She died in a car accident during pre-season of my sophomore year of high school.
Chris’ death was very sudden, and I couldn’t process it at the time as I was only fourteen. After Chris died, I stepped up my game because I wanted to make her proud. I had a good year my sophomore year. Junior year, I was playing behind a lot of seniors, but my confidence kept growing. In my Senior year, I blossomed. I think about my friend Chris a lot, and while I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I know she really motivated me to become the best I could be.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
My sister was the real worker in the family. She liked having her own money, and I didn’t really care as much about working or the money! But because I was so shy, my parents and I thought working would be good for me. My dad got me a job working at the Law School library, putting “Do Not Steal” stickers on the books.
The first job I got on my own was at Omnitech Video, which was the first video rental store in Valparaiso.
How did you get the job?
My parents told me about a man who was leaving law school to start a video store. I walked into the store and asked for the job. He eventually gave me an awesome title, “Queen of the Mountain,” because I basically managed the place.
What lessons did you learn working at the video store that still stays with you today?
Definitely customer service. I just put a quote on my wall the other day that says, “Connect with people who matter. Everyone matters.” That was equally important back then at the video store. I was usually the only person behind the counter and would have a group of people in line asking questions about what movies they should rent. Because I was so shy, it was tough at first to connect, but I really appreciated being put in those situations where I was forced to connect with people.
Were you a movie person back then?
I watched a lot of movies. I think I watched Grease fifty times; it came out on my 8th birthday!
What kind of music were you listening to?
Thanks to my parents’ good music taste, I’ve always been a classic rock fan. I love Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, The Doors, the Eagles, The Birds, and Buffalo Springfield. I certainly had my high school eighty’s phase like Duran Duran. I am still listening to class rock on Channel 26 on Sirius XM!
I went to a ton of concerts too.
Who was your favorite act you ever saw in person?
My parents took me to see Styx when I was 3 years old. The most impactful concert was a little later in life when U2 opened their North American tour at Notre Dame. There were 7,000 seats in the venue, and I had a great one. I also had the opportunity to meet and speak with Bono earlier that day on campus. They are one of the greatest bands of all time, so to be able to see them in that small setting was incredible.
I went to see Van Morrison all by myself and sat in the front row at the Chicago Theater watching him play the Astral Weeks album. That was another awesome experience.
Where did you go to college?
In my senior year of high school, I had a big decision to make – whether I wanted to play “lower-level” Division I basketball, Division III basketball, or not play basketball. I had my heart set on Notre Dame, and they did not have their heart set on me to play basketball there.
In the end, I attended the University of Notre Dame, knowing I would have to give up basketball but had a phenomenal experience anyway.
As it turned out, Notre Dame had one of the best intramural sports programs in the country. I was the starting quarterback for our flag football team for four years. We would practice four days a week. I had a playbook and everything. I would also play pick-up with the women’s basketball team and play with the guys after class.
I graduated at twenty, turned twenty-one a month later, and started law school.
Did you find yourself at Notre Dame or earlier in high school?
I didn’t really hit my stride until I was thirty-five. I had massive social anxiety, which I always thought was just me being shy and nervous around people. When I was in my early thirties, I was diagnosed with social anxiety and realized it was beyond just being shy. I certainly started to come into my own in college, but it was after college that I really started to flourish.
Is your sister shy as well?
No, my sister and I are total opposites. She’s an extrovert, very friendly and very comfortable talking to people. She’s girly and beautiful. I’m neither of those. I’m more cerebral, and she’s more emotive, which makes us best friends! We talk virtually daily.
How did you get over your shyness?
A lot of hard work, some therapy, and practice.
Looking back on your career, Jill, who are some of the people mentored you along the way?
First and foremost, my parents! I know that sounds cliché, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. They’re the most non-judgmental, caring, and thoughtful people I know. I try to emulate their example every day.
Out of law school, I clerked for a federal judge, a Clinton appointee, – The Honorable Catherine Perry – in St. Louis, who was an incredible person to work for. She taught me how to write and how to be a professional.
My boss– Carol Kaesebier – who served as General Counsel at Notre Dame, supported and believed in me my entire career, but was especially supportive when dealing with my anxiety diagnosis. She helped me gain confidence and get back on my feet.
The former Dean of the Business School – Carolyn Woo – suggested I get my MBA, which was life-changing for me. Her belief in me and support is something I will always treasure.
The Director of Athletics at Notre Dame – Jack Swarbrick – gave me a chance and then taught me everything he knows about college athletics; he’s a brilliant guy.
What do you think these people saw in you?
I hope that I have an ability to balance mental and emotional intelligence, I try to be self-aware and empathetic, and I also have a good memory and can analyze pretty quickly. I think that I’m also pretty efficient. I guess that my mentors saw a good combination of skills that they wanted to help me develop.
I’m still learning and getting to know myself better. The last five years have been pretty transformational for me.
Looking forward, what challenges and opportunities are ahead of you and Saint Joseph’s?
With college athletics, you need to start by thinking globally. There’s so much happening in the college athletics landscape at the national and state level. The question as to whether to allow student-athletes receive payment for use of their name, image, and likeness is dominating the conversation right now. There’s also a lot of interest in the finances of college athletics, the future of media deals, sports wagering, etc. There’s a lot to track from that perspective.
On a day-to-day basis, I think a lot about how we can utilize athletics at Saint Joseph’s to do two things. One, help the University reach its institutional goals. Two, help our student-athletes have the best, most holistic, amazing experience. When you have those as your guideposts, day-to-day, things fall into place.
My decisions so far have been driven primarily by the student-athletes’ needs. This Generation Z population is awesome, and they have needs and interests that are different than the Millennials before them.
What led to Saint Joseph’s policy prohibiting faculty, students and staff to bet on Saint Joseph’s games.
The policy actually fits both of those two guideposts that I just talked about – help the University reach its institutional goals and maximize the student-athlete experience. First, we are a Jesuit institution and community is very important to us. Second, we want to be a University that supports our student-athletes and coaches and helps them develop rather than wagering on them individually or as a team.
What do you do in your free time, Jill?
As an introvert in a busy and high-profile position, I’m usually exhausted by the end of the week. I recharge my batteries by spending time alone, with my two dogs. I like to enjoy watching Netflix, reading, and just relaxing.
I like to read both fiction and non-fiction. I just finished reading the Culture Code, a book by Daniel Coyle about group culture. I presented on the topic of culture last week, so I read the Culture Code to get a different perspective.
I love documentaries, so the most recent movie I’ve watched was a documentary about a plane crash that killed the U.N. Secretary-General in 1961. I also just finished the Netflix series “Unbelievable,” which was fascinating.
Finally, Jill, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Two things and they came from my parents in a number of conversations over the years as opposed to a big epiphany: Be Authentically You. You’re not perfect, nobody is. People can tell if you’re faking it, so just be you and accept it.
The second thing I remember specifically from my transition from a lawyer to college athletics at Notre Dame. College athletics is a very tightknit community, and I came into it in my late thirties. I came in with no network, knowing no one and not fully knowing what I was doing.
My father told me, the worst thing I could do is to rush it and try to prove to people I could do the job. He recommended that I be patient, learn, know what you don’t know, and people will eventually figure out that you’re good at what you do.
That must have been playing in your mind during your first few months here in Philadelphia?
Definitely. I made it a point to listen and evaluate for my first several months on the job as opposed feeling the need to prove myself.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this profile.