S.8, E.1: Service and Tennis

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum Mason Bultje '18 about his equity work and experiences on and off the hill.
Posted on February 16th, 2021 by

Mason Bultje ’18 talks about majoring in Exercise Physiology and playing tennis at Gustavus, assisting Minneapolis children and youth through nonprofit InnerCity Tennis, and his experience as a young Black man both on and off β€œthe Hill.”

Season 8, Episode 1: Service and Tennis

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

For a lot of us, I suspect the sport we most associate with inner city youth is basketball. And for those of us living in Minnesota, the year-round indoor-outdoor sport that comes first to mind is most likely hockey. Which is why for people unfamiliar with it as I was, the Minneapolis organization, InnerCity Tennis may come as a surprise.

With origin stating to the 1950s, InnerCity Tennis or ICT has contributed importantly to the development of tens of thousands of children and youth. One person at the center of that work today is ICT junior development coach, Mason Bultje. Mason is a 2018 graduate of Gustavus where he majored in exercise physiology and played tennis, earning all-conference honors and singles and doubles his senior year.

In keeping with the values of Gustavus and reflecting his own experience in the summer Tennis and Life Camps there, Mason has his profile on the ICT website states has “A passion for working with underprivileged youth and players of all abilities.” Since first learning about mason and his work from a faculty colleague, I’ve been looking forward to speaking with him and I’m delighted now to welcome to the podcast. Mason, it’s great to have you.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here. Appreciate it.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks. Yeah, you’re quite welcome. So I want to mention that faculty colleague is Professor Jill Locke, a friend and a member of the political science department. I gather you helped her maybe as a trainer or something like that and she mentioned you to me because you and I hadn’t met before. I was intrigued by what she was saying about your work in InnerCity Tennis. So grateful to her for that connection and also for even suggesting some of the questions that I’ll probably be posing, not probably, will be posing today. So how are things going right now? Is InnerCity Tennis up and running even amid the COVID pandemic?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Our facility in South Minneapolis where we have people come in and play tennis, we call it our pay-to-play programs, whether it’s adults or youth, that has been running through most of this year, but when Governor Walz shut things down kind of around Thanksgiving time, that facility closed to the public. But I’m heavily involved with tennis and learning program. So it’s part of our outreach programs where we work with underserved youth and we’re helping them with their distance learning at this time.

So a lot of the kids that we are working with, I think over 75% of them are on free and reduced lunch. So they don’t have the resources to stick to their distance learning at home. So they come into one of our two sites and we have coaches that help them throughout the day make sure they attend their meetings that they’re turning in their work, turning in quality work as well as give them some physical activity where we play tennis as well, and it’s just been so fulfilling seeing kids being able to safely see their friends and stick to their schoolwork.

There have been times where students don’t attend for a couple days and they come back with 15 assignments to do. And then next week, we chip away at it. We get them caught up. So it’s just very fulfilling work knowing that we are providing these kids with an opportunity to receive their education when they likely wouldn’t be able to if they were at home because mom might be working and dad is working multiple jobs as well or limited internet access at home.

So there’s certain barriers that our kids face that our program is there to really support them as much as we can. I think for me, the number one thing is getting these kids an education and keeping them safe. And if we can play tennis and have some fun on top of that, that’s the icing on the cake. But the number one thing is fulfilling the needs for for these students outside the campus.

Greg Kaster:

It’s great to hear this for a lot of reasons, but one of them for me is as you alluded to, we read a lot about how difficult, how the distance learning is difficult. It’s difficult even for people who are privileged, but certainly for people who maybe one or both parents have to work and they maybe don’t have the internet resources, et cetera. So it’s nice to hear some stories about organizations like yours that clearly weren’t weren’t founded with COVID or any pandemic in mind, obviously, but are doing that kind of good work. I think it’s important to get those stories recorded and remember them. We’ll come back to your work there later. So tell us a little bit about where you grew up first of all and how you came to Gustavus.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So I was born and raised in Mankato. So not too far away at all. I grew up just very close to Gustavus and I’d come to campus for different things like pep band or I was very involved in music in high school so I did some choir concerts there as well as the Swanson Tennis Center going to play different high school matches or tournaments. So I was just around. I’m very close with my family in Mankato, and so when I was thinking about going to college, there were a couple things I knew I wanted to stay pretty close to home and then tennis was a big part of who I was and still who I am to this day.

So I kind of was looking at how I could make those things match up and I realized at some point, that I wasn’t good enough to play for the Gophers. So the next school on the list was Gustavus and I went and visited the summer before my senior year of high school and just instantly felt at home on campus. Actually Gustavus was the only school I applied to, which I wouldn’t recommend, but it was pretty academically rigorous in high school. So I was pretty confident about getting in and then it was just a matter of making things work financially, and just figured it out. And by, I want to say, October my senior year of high school, I knew I was going to be a Gusty and never looked back since.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Well, we’re glad that’s the case and I was going to ask you if you had applied to any other schools like Minnesota State or the University of Minnesota. I’m not technically, I guess, a first-generation college student. My dad didn’t go to college. My mom went to a two-year teacher’s college, but I’m just curious, do you fall into that category of first generation college student or did your parents both attend college? Maybe they even went to Gustavus. I don’t know. Sometimes there’s a family connection.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. I’m actually kind of the further end of that spectrum there. My mom is really who pushed me, not necessarily even pushed me, but inspired me to pursue an education. She got her doctorate while being a single mother raising four kids, and I’m the oldest. I don’t want to say, I guess I picked up the slack, but I was very involved in helping out and I just saw the sacrifices that she made to pursue her education. She really taught me that education is something that’s really worth investing in. It’s something that people cannot take away from you.

Financially Gustavus, the sticker price was pretty scary, but she encouraged me like, “We’ll figure it out. No one will ever take away your education from you.” But she actually did work with first generation college students. So I also know the challenges that they face just from talking to her about her work. So it’s kind of an interesting perspective that I got from her growing up.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. Obviously, you’re still drawn on your current work. What’s her field? What is she working or what does she work in?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. She has her PhD in psychology.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow. That’s fantastic.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

My dad who as I said didn’t go to college grew up in Chicago and then went into World War II, the Army, became a hairdresser. His dad had been a barber. Anyway, my dad just valued education so much and just exactly like your mom was saying all of those things to me and to my brother, one of the sibling. Man, I’m so grateful. As I know you are to your mom, because it’s amazing to me how many people still discount education, generally, but also a college education that it’s not worth it. “Well, I can be an entrepreneur without it.”

No, it’s worth it, and your mom is so right, it can never be taken away from you. It repays in so many ways not just in monetary ways, obviously. And you’re an example of that. We’ll get into that. So that’s a neat story. So how about the major? You end up majoring in exercise physiology. I mean, I didn’t even hear of that until, I don’t know, maybe when I was in graduate school. But what led you into that area?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah, I think this part of my story is pretty similar to a lot of students. I came in thinking I was pre-med. For my first year, I really did load up my schedule quite a bit. I didn’t necessarily help myself out there, but taking the bios and chems, and everything my first year. And it’s kind of found like I like studying the human body and I like the application of knowing more about how muscles work and how the different systems of the body work.

I just remember there’s a moment in the library where I was sitting there like, “Okay, I probably could get through this. I probably could get to medical school someday, but I don’t like this. This isn’t very fun.” So I literally went on the website and just looked at other majors and classes that I kind of… What field am I sort of in, but it’s different than this. I’m sick of talking about plants right now.

So I actually had a lot of a lot of pre-reqs for physical therapy. And actually part of my story that’s interesting is that my first year at Gustavus, I had wrist problems. I was playing tennis and right away in February on touring week, my wrist was really hurting and I didn’t know what was going on and I had to jump through a bunch of different hoops at one point. They diagnosed me with this rare disease and I thought my wrist was going to shatter.

So through that process, I end up in the doctor’s office with my mom. She’s like, “Yeah, you might have to do physical therapy. I could see you being good at that.” “Wait a minute. I already have a lot of the classes for it. It’s about the human body. You’re really helping people.” So I looked into it a little bit more and I really liked the sound of going the pre-PT route and I thought that… It’s actually the health fitness major at the time. They switched it to exercise physiology, while I was in the program.

The classes stayed essentially the same. They just changed the title of the major, which I approve of. I think exercise physiology sounds a lot better than health fitness. So then I pivoted to that route and actually was able to jump a year ahead in my major. So I finished up pretty much all of my exercise physiology classes by my junior year.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Mason Bultje:

My senior year was very lax and allowed me to shadow for PT, which I can get into a little bit more [crosstalk 00:12:25].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I’d like to hear more about that. That’s awesome. So regular listeners know how much I love these stories because it’s often the case. Maybe it’s probably most often the case that students really don’t know. Or let’s put it this way, they may think they know what they’re going to do, what they want to be. And boy, if I only had a dollar or maybe $10 for every student who wants to be a doctor at least through the end of the first semester until the low grades start coming in. It’s so interesting, the way you found that major and also the personal connection. I didn’t know about the wrist injuries. I assume you overcame those because you continued to play tennis.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Eventually, I actually had two surgeries in three years though. So the first one didn’t quite get it. So it taught me some lessons about perseverance through that. But I’m all fixed now. I’m good to go, but it was a bumpy start to my tennis career, no doubt.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And you had mentioned you’d come to Gustavus having played in high school, so you already had a love of the game. What are some of the memories you have of Gustavus? I know we want to talk about the Tennis and Life camp there and then we maybe set that aside for just a second, but that aside, what are some of the memories, good, bad and ugly and you were a student of student of color there as well, if you want to talk about that. But what are some of the memories you have of the place? I’m asking partly because you’re two years out, so it’s not going to be that hard to recollect.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. It’s still fresh. I still think about what I’m missing out as a full grown adult now every day. I think a lot of my memories really are wrapped around the tennis team and the camaraderie that I had with my teammates, whether that’s on the court or off the court just thinking about going to practice and then going to the trainers and going to the caf. Everyone’s sitting around the table together and then 30 minutes later after everyone showers up and meet up in the library again.

You’re closing it down, going back to your dorm and doing it all over again. Just the time management skills that I learned from being an athlete at Gustavus. I’d also say, I mean there’s a lot of camaraderie obviously between the tennis team, but just athletes in general, there’s just a really supportive community being an athlete. All the different sports, I feel like we all connected and support each other very well. So that’s that’s very central to a lot of the memories that I have.

Just being neighbors with your best friends for four years is a very unique experience. I know that living on campus a lot of people complain about it, and they’re warranted. But I do think that you can also look at it in a positive way, and that you’ll never have more access to being around your classmates and your friends in the way that you are when you’re just down the hall and new.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I completely agree. And just to underscore what you said about athletes at Gustavus, I’ve said this before both on the podcast and off, but over the years, I’ve taught like like other profs taught, many athletes in all different areas women and men, and in general, yes, what you mentioned learning time management and having the self-discipline that’s necessary to succeed in your particular sport also translates nicely into your academic work, right? At least in my experience. So I can relate. And I also can relate to what you just said about being on campus.

I mean, I guess as an undergraduate, I went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where by the way I have a memory of playing tennis not as a team member, but I think maybe as what was then called physical education, PE requirement. I wasn’t very good at it. But what I remember is when I lived off campus, it was really kind of on campus. It was a house called the foreign language house and it wasn’t far off campus at all. I suppose like most most off-campus housing.

But man, the friendships there, the camaraderie. We still have reunions. There’s one coming up in January as a matter of fact which I hope to attend, finally. Anyway, so I can completely relate to what you’re saying and just certainly want to underscore what you said about athletics and the way it connects to self-discipline and success beyond the particular sport one is involved in.

So as a student of color, what was that like? I mean, the place is overwhelmingly white like most college campuses. I mean, that’s just a fact. Was that something that you felt you were aware of or not?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Very much so. I think for me college was sort of a great awakening if you will for me with my own identity, with my standing in the world socially. I think in high school Mankato was very, very white as well. Although you have a pretty good immigrant population from East Africa. But as far as like who was in my social circle and who was in the classes that I was in, AP classes and everything, it’s very white. So that was very normal to me.

So on the hill at Gustavus, I felt great. I didn’t feel black so to say. Obviously, I am and I knew that, but it didn’t feel as much of an anomaly as when I went down the hill. Being completely honest, I had a pretty tough time in St. Peter. I think that for me, it actually was really interesting that I didn’t realize how bad it was in the world as a black man until I went to Gustavus, until I experienced the absence of that feeling while I was on the hill.

It just felt normal I guess just to always feel black, just to always feel kind of the eyes on you. Always feel like people are suspicious of you. Once I went to Gustavus, I finally felt that feeling be removed, but then at the same time when I’d go to Family Fresh, I’d feel it 10 times more than I would-

Greg Kaster:

In the grocery store, yeah.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all fascinating to me. Quite fascinating and important. Boy, you’re reminding me long ago, maybe even before you were born, the grocery store, I think it was called Erickson’s. Anyway the grocery store in town on Halloween, my wife Kate who then taught in history, and I went down to do our shopping and there was a cashier in blackface. A white woman dressed up as a mammy for her Halloween costume. We were stunned. We shouldn’t have been.

The woman clearly took great pride in her costume. My wife, Kate who doesn’t hold back in the face of something like that, she spoke to the manager. And long story short, I mean, oh goodness, the woman was so upset. She had to get rid of the costume. Sort of to her, it was nothing at all, but to then African-American students seeing that and some white people as well, it was like, “What in the hell?” So that’s just so interesting to me. It felt different in Mankato because Mankato is just more diverse. Growing up in Mankato, you didn’t have those kinds of experiences you had here?

Mason Bultje:

I would not say that. I would say when I grew up in Mankato, it was just normal because I didn’t know anything different.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Got you.

Mason Bultje:

It was happening, but that was just the norm. Then when I went to Gustavus and I felt that stopped for a little bit. That’s when I realized like, “Wow, this is what it was always like for me growing up. I don’t have to just deal with this.” I mean, just the things that just were normally my friends in high school, I wouldn’t say that they’re racist or anything. They’re kind of dumb high school kids, but they would make like Emmett Till jokes and that would just be normal.

I didn’t think anything of it because that’s just the way it was. And then when I went to Gustavus and people were not making Emmett Till jokes, that’s when I realized that, okay, it doesn’t have to be this way. And then taking that a step further now living in Minneapolis, I really feel much more free and secure in my identity as a black man.

Greg Kaster:

Again, it’s all fascinating because I’ve spoken to some black alums, Gustavus alums, for whom… Well, different in your case, maybe coming from let’s say black towns in Mississippi and then coming to Gustavus where it’s much more of a shock, and they had some you know negative experiences and some negative memories around race at Gustavus. But in your case, you went through sort of what some African-Americans went through let’s say during World War II who were abroad and weren’t experiencing racism for the first time, and then come back to a country having fought against racism, the Nazis, but come back to a country where racism is still “flourishing”.

So I just think it’s so interesting how Gustavus in your case became the place where you felt… Not that there wasn’t racism, but you felt its absence more than before, and that was kind of an awakening. I find that quite interesting. So were you up in Minneapolis when Mr. Floyd was… You’re already living here when George Floyd was murdered this past summer?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So I was up here and just to add that’s walking distance from InnerCity Tennis, from our facility. So that really hit close to home and got me more fired up. I think that for myself, before George Floyd, I’d kind of go through phases of being really empowered and vocal and really pushing those around me to learn more about you know social justice issues and become more outspoken. But then it kind of dwindle at times and I think that with George Floyd that fire grew so big and and I realized that I can’t ask allies to commit to working towards solving these issues consistently if I’m not doing it.

So I’ve really tried to commit myself to making that be a part of my identity, a part of who I am, and bringing diversity equity and inclusion initiatives into everything that I do. That was really a turning point for me especially having it. Like I said, it hit so close to home. I was able to organize an event for InnerCity Tennis. It’s kind of like a supply drive on getting people together in the community just to kind of talk about these issues and then they were people are encouraged to walk over to the memorial, just walk over a foot bridge over 35W down a couple blocks and then you’re right there.

Greg Kaster:

You’re right. I forgot how close to your facility is to the side. Kate and I were able to go. So many others were able to go to the memorial site, which was just quite profound, quite moving and very interesting. I was so struck by the mix of those… A sense of celebration in some ways. Lots of life. I mean, barber shop, and cooking, and music, but also deep profound grief and sadness. So I want to come back to your… You were telling me before we started recording, your work with the US Tennis Association around diversity, but let’s circle back, again, to Gustavus.

I know for you as for so many people, that Tennis and Life Camps there, the summer Tennis and Life Camps that I mentioned in the intro were so… I mean, it’s an overused word, but it still applies transformative, so important. I wasn’t at all closely associated with them. I was aware of them of course teaching at Gustavus. We should note that they were founded and started in 1977 by Steve Wilkinson, a renowned collegiate tennis coach. I think the winningest tennis coach in collegiate history, at least thus far, and his wife Barbara. Did you get to know Steve before he passed away or not?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So I was actually the last first year class to come in, while Steve was still alive. So he passed away January of my first year. So I have one memory of him coaching me in a match in the fall and that’s something that I definitely cherish.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Well, tell us a little bit about your experience in there. What you did in those camps, how they impacted you. You also taught there, right? Did you attend them and teach there both?

Mason Bultje:

So I actually never attended. I grew up in Mankato, but the drive was just too much for me. It is an expensive camp, and so for me, it’s either I could do a whole summer of tennis in Mankato or I could go to TLC for three days. So I chose more tennis. But when I went to Gustavus, I had a pretty good idea that there was a decent chance I would get involved with Tennis and Life Camps in the summer.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that, about what you were doing.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. I have a pretty decent story I guess about the beginning. I mentioned having wrist problems that happened in the spring of my first year, and I had already committed to doing TLC that summer, but then ended up needing to have surgery in May. They put a screw in my wrist. So I was going to be in the cast for most of the summer and I was really worried about my job security at that point, like not only do I not get to play tennis, do I have to be in the cast, but can I even work?

I talked to Neal Hagberg who’s the director, and he said, “We’ll make it work.” The majority of my first summer, I taught tennis left-handed. It’s not like I’m ambidextrous or proficient with my left hand by any means, but I figured it out, and I think that really is the start of… I don’t know. That’s just so integral to what I do now, and with outreach, so many situations are not ideal, but you just figure it out. So I think that’s one of the first lessons that I learned going in the TLC.

So I’ve done five summers now and really come into my own. Through TLC, I just think of who I was when I started working there versus who I am now and how the situations that I was in at Tennis and Life Camps really pushed me to become who I am today. You do 15 camps this summer. They’re just in and out.

For example, by my third or fourth year, I was leading 40-minute singles or doubles demonstrations. You got 50 people sitting on bleachers at a time watching you, lead them through a demonstration. That’s something that in my first year I would have been shaking in my boots just thinking about. But by the end of my fourth summer, I’m doing it on autopilot and you realize that you can make mistakes with public speaking and no one’s going to hate you for it. No one’s going to think you’re an idiot.

It’s fine. I just think about, they have variety shows and kids will request you to be in the variety show. I mean, I’ve had to do things like pretend I’m a fly or pretend I’m one of those inflatable things at car dealerships. You just make a complete fool of yourself in front of people and you just learn how to get over yourself put yourself in those situations as well as teaching tennis.

I think it just developed me into a strong leader. I was fortunate enough to witness really good leadership from the supervisors when I started and was able to model myself after them and grow into a leader myself. I commend Neal Hagberg that we’ve had a lot of tough conversations about diversity equity and inclusion efforts at Tennis and Life Camps, and he’s been very receptive to it and I think that it’s been a symbiotic relationship there where the camps have really improved I think in that aspect and I’ve also grown in that aspect quite a bit through just getting opportunities to have my voice heard at the camp. So I could go on and on all day long about how instrumental it’s been in my development, but I can definitely say I would not be who I am today if it were not for TLC.

Greg Kaster:

Again, I don’t have close first-hand experience, but just speaking to people who’ve been associated with it, experiences you have, just how incredible it is. And it’s well known, I mean, around the country not just in Minnesota. Are you planning to teach there again this summer? Is that a gig you’ll come back to?

Mason Bultje:

We’ll see. It gets a little bit harder when you have a full-time job. I was going to go back this last summer, but COVID kind of wiped that out. And the summer before, I was still working for InnerCity Tennis, but was still in my first year and kind of carving out my own role. It’s a little easier to take time to step away for the summer. But now I’m in more of a sort of administrative role within the organization.

So it might be a little bit more difficult. Whether I’m there one camp or half of the camps, they’re just there to help advise them. I want to stay connected and stay involved to TLC because it is a really special place and I’ve seen the impact that it can make on adults and kids from 80 to seven years old. So it’s a really special place in my heart.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s amazing. Everything you said too about learning to… I think you said learning to get over yourself is important. You’re reminding me of my first solo teaching gigs what a wreck I was, how nervous I was. I thought everything had to be written out and just perfect. Fast forward, a few decades. Thank God, I’m over all of that. Those are important lessons that you described. I mean, it sounds like it was an easy step for you to move to InnerCity Tennis. Was it smooth? I mean, did you essentially graduate and start working for InnerCity Tennis or had you already heard of InnerCity Tennis? How did you come to do what you’re doing now?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I guess, I’ll pick up where I left off earlier. I alluded to picking it up. So I guess I’m obligated to do that at this point. So senior year, I was very free in my schedule because I was essentially done with my major. I actually had to save a class in order to not graduate early and be able to play tennis in the spring.

So I was able to use that time to shadow for physical therapy, and I found after three or four weeks, I had to talk myself into getting out of my car, going into the clinics. I had seen the same things over and over again. And I just had to look myself in the mirror and say, “Do I really want to spend another hundred thousand dollars on going to physical therapy school, and that time, and energy?”

I really like new projects, being innovative. I felt that PT doesn’t have as much room for that as I had initially thought. So I had a little bit of a crisis there maybe around March or April of my senior year. For a while, I was then thinking about going to… Because of my wrist injury, I had an extra year of eligibility and I have a friend who is down in Florida and played for a Division 2 team, and I was really thinking about going and getting my MBA there.

One of the years was going to be on scholarship, so it’s going to be pretty cost effective. And I still have this dream of one day opening or running my own tennis center and giving back to underserved kids. I thought that was kind of the route to go, but you had some good advice from those around me to explore other options that I wouldn’t necessarily need an MBA to do that, but getting real life on the job experience would be just as valuable if not more.

So I met with Neal Hagberg and was like, “Hey, what do you know? Who’s hiring? What’s going on? I need a job.” So he actually connected me with my current boss at InnerCity Tennis. We met. They didn’t have my position at the time, but we met, things went really well and they ended up offering me a job. I haven’t looked back since and just really been trying to push things forward, not be defined by the role that I’m in at the current moment, but looking to see how we can improve, how we can make things better and more accessible for underserved youth, how we can impact their lives. And like I said, just really have not looked back. I’m given such a great opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it and leave an impact in the programs that we’re running.

Greg Kaster:

You have an entrepreneurial spirit. I can certainly see you pursuing an MBA at some point. I was recording with an alum who’s my age, who is in the world of finance. And when I asked him about the qualities that make for successful entrepreneurship, he mentioned optimism, but he also mentioned that looking forward is key, as you just said. So I have no doubt you’ll be… You may not be doing your own tennis center, but you’ll be doing something, I have no doubt about that, down the road. Be fun to check in with you again in another let’s say 10 years.

But talk to me a little more about that. I mean, I had not heard of this organization. The more I’ve read about it online, the more fascinated I’ve become. It’s really I think incredible. I mean, it goes pretty far back, back to the 50s. It’s about tennis obviously, but so much more as you were getting at in your opening remarks, but tell us a little bit more about what the organization is like and what your specific responsibilities are.

Mason Bultje:

So I guess a little bit of the history. We’ve been around for… I can’t remember how long it’s been, something like the ’60s. And the founder was really philanthropic and wanted to give back to inner city youth, but it was imagined in a kind of separate bins. There was a tennis center and then there was outreach programming. And that continued for quite a while, but then, I want to say like maybe like 2014, 2015, the organization really merged those two bins and it is, in my opinion a fantastic model that we have pay-to-play programming.

The revenues that the tennis center makes, goes towards our outreach programming. So that gives us the ability to scholarship kids whenever they need it, and we’re able to make costs not be a barrier for kids to attend our programs and give tennis a try, and I think that’s so instrumental in the success that we’ve been able to have. Then the organization, we are just so well connected to large corporations. Our sponsors and our board, it’s just incredible.

Looking at it, there’s some really incredible influential people that make up our organization. So we’re able to fundraise very successfully I think with our annual gala, which we didn’t have this last year but usually our annual gala brings in almost like $300,000.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Mason Bultje:

You can imagine that that goes really far. And then my role is I try to help with the fundraising through telling different stories. Actually, I get to write a good amount which I really enjoy writing stories about kids in our programs and what we’re doing exactly. Around the time of George Floyd, I wrote a piece encouraging people to use their voice and step up. Tennis is a very white community, and so I’m really trying to push that community to be better when it comes to issues on race and social justice.

That’s essentially my role is to help with fundraising, help connect people to what we are doing and then to make sure the work that we’re doing is as impactful as possible and that we’re helping these kids out. I think that tennis has really missed the mark in a lot of ways when trying to work with underserved youth because I think that we generally have this mentality of, if you build it, they’ll come. And we’re expecting kids to come to a space where people do not look like them.

Yes, there’s Serena and Venus Williams, but at the local level, they don’t see people that look like them playing tennis. They don’t have the proper equipment. There’s so many barriers as to why they don’t enter the sport, but I feel like tennis as an organization has been kind of lazy in that sense and that they haven’t been willing to get uncomfortable and to go into underserved schools that have high rates of poverty, high rates of homelessness.

Those are the kids that if they’re able to connect with a coach, if they’re able to connect with someone who genuinely cares about them and their well-being, before they care about them as a tennis player, I’ve just experienced that those kids will respond to it. You have to love them. You have to understand the pieces that they are missing in their life that are preventing them from being successful. If you just put a racket in their hand and say, “Hey, go play.” You’re not doing anything. You’re not doing anything at all. You have to chip away at the opportunity gap, the achievement gap, and just all the different challenges that are in their lives.

If you can take that pain and that pressure off of them, they’re so much more likely to succeed. But I just think that, like I said tennis has not been willing to get uncomfortable to go to that population and meet them where they’re at. So whether it’s through the USDA or InnerCity Tennis or TLC, I’m always trying to encourage organizations to roll their sleeves up and get uncomfortable because that’s where you really make an impact.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, you’re describing so well I think what teaching and education are about, right? I mean with any student, with any young person, anybody actually, depending… It doesn’t matter what the age is. If you don’t meet them where they are and understand what they are, who they are, good luck. I mean, so that’s like if I hand you a history book, that’s not teaching you history, right? I need to know something about you and about your own history. So all well said.

I mean, it sounds like from both from what you’ve said and what I’ve read online about the organization, I mean of course tennis is central to it, but that is far from the only activity, right? So you’re you’re working with the students to succeed with distance learning. What are some of the other activities, if not you personally, but the organization engages that do not involve holding a tennis racket, playing on a tennis court?

Mason Bultje:

I just say education as a whole. I’m to the point now where I consider myself an educator before I consider myself a tennis coach. I’d say the list of priorities of things that we want to accomplish with the kids that we work with, tennis is very close to the bottom of that list and I love tennis and they love tennis. I mean knowing that private prisons base the number of beds that they’ll have in the future on third grade reading levels. When you know something like that and then you see we have kids in our program in second, third grade and they really struggle to read. They’re struggling to sound out their words.

When you see that, it’s impossible to say, “Ah, forget it. Let’s go play tennis.” That’s the number one priority is if these kids do not have the skills to be successful in life, it doesn’t really matter how much they love tennis. They’re not going to be able to access it. So education is first and foremost. And then I think character development and values. We have seven values in our organization. We’re always teaching kids perseverance and service, and integrity. I could list all seven, but just to give you a little taste, you’ll have to go to the website to do some research from there.

So the character development, and really I think it’s a mentoring relationship. I’m a big brother at heart and I don’t think that’ll ever go away. I see myself as as a big brother to a lot of these kids. When they get frustrated and they break down, I’m there to talk to them about how to handle that. How they need to ask for help. How they need to keep trying their very best when you see the kids get frustrated with each other. They start arguing about things because they’re not being kind.

I’m there to step in and teach them about kindness and implement different practices that get them thinking about kindness and gratitude. Really just taking everything that I’ve learned and when I reflect, and I think about what helped me become who I am and be successful. I try to take those lessons and teach it at a second, third, fourth grade level and just be there, be consistent, be solid for them and that they know that they have me in their corner as well as our other coaches and that we’re always going to fight for them, we’re always going to advocate for them and do whatever it takes to give them the opportunities to be successful.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m thinking that if you or someone were going to design a kind of perfect first job for you, given your experiences growing up and also then at Gustavus, this is it. I mean the continuities between even the values and purposes of Tennis and Life Camps and InnerCity Tennis just terrific. By the way, are there other Gusties? Are there other Gustavus grads working for InnerCity?

Mason Bultje:

Yes. Actually, as of very recently, my roommate and teammate from junior and senior year, [Graham Kellogg 00:45:45] recently got hired. He’s been perfect with our learning program. He’s fluent in Spanish and we have some students that their school is in Spanish. We have one student who only speaks Spanish. So having him be able to teach the tennis and teach the character values and know Spanish, and be there to support this student. Actually, this student just immigrated. So this is his very first taste of school in America is doing distance learning all in Spanish.

So having another gusty there, being able to help him through everything and just be by his side throughout the day, it’s just the coolest thing to see when you look into these kids eyes and you realize the relationships that you’ve built in such a short amount of time and how different it would be if they didn’t have our program. I mean, it’s got to be one of the most fulfilling things that you could do especially at this time.

So I’m just so fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. And you mentioned that it sounds perfect for me. And I think that’s that’s because the organization’s done a really great job of letting me be creative, letting me go and I’ve been able to carve out my own role to my strengths, and there are areas that I need to improve yet, but I’m in a position where I’m able to do so.

I’m really grateful that the organization has trusted me to just let my creativity flow and just really problem solve and figure out how we can address the issues that the population that we’re trying to serve faces on a daily basis.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, I think that’s the mark of a good organization, for sure. Before we talk a little bit more about diversity in tennis, to circle back to something you said about you have opportunities to write, and I’m just curious if you find yourself thinking about some of the ways in which your your academic work at Gustavus for example, our writing program. I mean, you find yourself thinking, “Oh wow. I’m glad I learned how to write well at Gustavus,” or not. I’m just curious.

Mason Bultje:

Completely. I didn’t realize I was a good writer until Gustavus. My first few classes, my FTS… Actually my FTS was with Bonnie.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, Bonnie Reimann of health and exercise science.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah, exactly. Sports society. I mean how perfect could that have been? And I think about how that’s the very first class that I stepped foot in, thought I was doing this pre-med track. Bonnie was telling me, “You should be a phy ed teacher.” Then to circle all the way back, and now when it’s not COVID, I find myself spending the majority of my time in gym classes in elementary schools. So it is pretty funny how I came full circle.

We wrote a paper called a Sportography and I remember writing about the role of father figures as it relates to sports and coaching, and mentoring. I remember I got the paper back, and I think I got a 99 or something, and I was like, “Oh, it’s a sports class. It’s kind of graded easily. It wasn’t too bad.” Then everyone next to me, they get their papers back and their eyes get all big. They’re like, “She graded us so hard. What happened?”

Greg Kaster:

She’s tough. She’s a tough coach.

Mason Bultje:

I was like, “Really? Oh, okay.” And then I think I went on to the next class. There was a stretch for every big paper that I wrote. The bigger the paper it was, the better I did. It took a couple years and then I was like, “Okay, I might actually be a decent writer.” I didn’t know this.

Greg Kaster:

It’s like sport. I tell my students, it’s like practice, right? You just have to practice it and do it. The more you do it. And with the help of good teachers like Bonnie as well. That’s a great story. I hope to interview her at some point for the podcast because she has a lot of… That course is interesting. I’ve talked to her a little bit about that first term seminar that she’s taught. So you were telling me before we started recording some exciting news about your new role with the USCA. You want to tell us a little bit about that and what that involves and how it connects to everything you’ve been saying about tennis and diversity?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. I guess I’ll start off saying that I’ve been very fortunate to have a great relationship with a fellow Gustie, Mya Smith-Dennis. He graduated in 2014. So he was my… Yeah, 2014. So he was my assistant coach my first year and then we worked at Tennis and Life Camps for three years. He’s also a person of color. We just developed a really good relationship. He works for the USTA.

So after George Floyd, the USTA realized, we really need to get better with diversity and inclusion. So they formed a task force and Mya, is his name, the Gustie. Mya reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the task force. So I started there and we were talking about how do we get more diverse volunteers. How do we get more diverse board members.

We met once a week for six weeks. And I was just like, “You know what, maybe I’ll apply. I’m only 25 and I don’t know if this is what they’re looking for.” But they say they want people of color, so let’s give it a whirl. So I applied and interviewed and was offered a seat for the board of directors for the USTA Northern, which is Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Western Wisconsin.

So that’s really exciting just for me as an individual, but also for the diversity and inclusion initiatives. I feel like I’m very fortunate to have a seat at the table now and I know that I’m going to learn a ton in that role. But then once you’re on the board, you serve as a liaison to different committees. So I’m fortunate enough to have been offered to chair the diversity and inclusion task force with my working closely with Mya and then also working on the junior scholarships committee.

So I think between those roles, there’s a lot of potential to make tennis much more diverse and much more accessible to people of color especially. I’m really excited to, like I said, to have a seat at the table and to give voice to people who have similar experiences as me and those who don’t know it yet, but they’re going to fall in love with tennis in the next five to 10 years or however long it may be, it’s a really unique opportunity and one that I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for a fellow Gusty.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s great. I mean, first congratulations. That’s exciting news. And I think second, if anyone can do it, it’s you just based on your track record, your background and everything you’ve said in this podcast. That’s exciting news. Another question I have for you and it’s maybe sort of obvious, and I guess I could have asked it earlier, what is it about the sport itself that drew you and still draws you? What is it about tennis? Is it just sort of generic things that would be as much true of football? I mean, is it just the camaraderie? What is it that first got you interested in tennis as a sport?

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. So for myself, I don’t remember ever not playing tennis. My stepdad at the time married my mom when I was around three years old and put a racket in my hand, and it’s been there ever since. I mean, I became pretty good at it and enjoyed it. So I’d say that’s mainly the reason why I got involved to start, but I think tennis is very unique. I mean, you’re out there by yourself. That provides a lot of unique challenges and I think that the problem solving, the mental aspect that goes into it is it’s just so important to learn how to again just figure it out.

You’re out there by yourself, your opponents picking on your weaknesses or this or that. You have to figure it out on your own and you have to really commit to trying point in and point out as well as it being a lifetime sport that I’m still able to not just coach, but play to this day and play at a decent level. You can’t say the same of football. I guess you could list a lot of other sports other than golf where you really can’t play it afterwards.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s a great thing.

Mason Bultje:

I guess I was good at it and I enjoyed playing. I think for me, it was really, really an escape from everything else that could be going on in life. I had a really good friend. My friend who’s actually down in Florida that I mentioned, he went to west high school in Mankato. So the opposite side of town, but we both just lived on the tennis court. We’d be at the tennis center. In the summers we’d be there at the tennis center about eight hours a day and then go get a quick bite to eat and play again until the sun went down. It just was really an escape for both of us. It’s where our friendship formed and it just became so much a part of my life at that point and I’m glad that it still is to this day.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. I played tennis. I was on the tennis team very briefly. I mean, I think I was third string or something in high school. I would sort of do volleying with my brother. I did love going to the park when we grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with my brother and sometimes my dad, and just hit that tennis ball on the court early in the morning. There was something about that, that I did enjoy. I mean, I never did any more than that.

But I think that point you just made too about being able to play it. I mean, there are people who play tennis into their ’70s and ’80s. I guess I don’t think of concussions in tennis the way I do with football for example and other injuries. The time is winding down here and as we come to a close, I want to ask you just two more questions. One is what do you think a school like Gustavus could do to recruit and retain some of the students you’re working with now through InnerCity Tennis?

I imagine scholarships are a big part of that, but beyond that, if you were advising Gustavus let’s say on how to recruit and retain InnerCity kids, the kind of kids you work with and the circumstances they face, what might you suggest?

Mason Bultje:

I think the first thing that that needs to happen and it needed to happen in Fargo. Yeah, Fargo. There needs to be faculty and professors of color.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Mason Bultje:

That’s a huge issue.

Greg Kaster:

Agreed.

Mason Bultje:

It’s really hard to get people to, especially with how expensive Gustavus is, and cold, and everything. It’s really hard to get people to go to a place where they don’t see people like them. They don’t see themselves reflected in the staff and faculty and professors. There has to be much more of an initiative to find people of color. I guess I don’t know the reasoning for why they don’t, but saying the diverse applicant pool isn’t out there. That’s just not acceptable. They’re out there. I know for a fact that they’re out there and that there are people that have applied for jobs and have been qualified and haven’t gotten the jobs.

So it’s sometimes a little disheartening to hear the college kind of say, “Yeah, we’re looking for professors of color.” It’s like, “Well, when you’ve had opportunities to hire professors of color, you haven’t.” So I am critical of Gustavus in that aspect. So I think that has to be something that they figure out sooner rather than later. I think again expecting people to just look up Gustavus and see and say, “Oh, yeah. I’m in North Minneapolis and I really want to go to Gustavus.”

There has to be some sort of a connection. There has to be an initiative to make it happen. It’s not just going to happen on its own and I think that we’ve expected it just to happen on its own and it hasn’t. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you’re going to get the same results. So I think it has to be much more creative than they have been and really show that diversifying the school is a top priority for them.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, I underscore, underscore 100 exclamation points everything you just said, absolutely true. I would say more recently Gustavus is making a concerted effort. We need to do more. We need to be, as you just said even more creative. But I think that’s starting to change. And some of this is just, as is true with many places in response to the events of this summer around George Floyd’s death and the result in protest. But anyway, all well said and I’m already envisioning a role for you here. So Gustavus should hire you as a consultant or a liaison in all seriousness.

Now, having said all of that, what’s your case for Gustavus? I mean, you did attend there. You have mostly good feelings about the place. What’s your pitch? Imagine you were making a pitch to, let’s say a kid growing up in the North Minneapolis. I mean, what would you say?

Mason Bultje:

I think really my pitch is really through my story and through the growth that I experienced while at Gustavus. I know that you can get that at other colleges, but I think for me having the small community, having that support where people like I said, the athletes, I feel like there’s such a great community there that you don’t get at larger schools. I also think that the liberal arts education is something that I value so much more now than I did even going in.

I mean, to be honest, I didn’t even really know what a liberal arts education was. I mean I just kind of assumed everybody has generals and whatever. But I think about the writing that I do now and being able to even write scientifically, and the psychology classes that I’ve taken. Just so many different classes I took because of it being a liberal arts school, and that plays a role in my day-to-day. I think back to things I learned in this class or that class that I wouldn’t have taken at a different school.

I mean, I wouldn’t trade my education. I wouldn’t trade my experiences at Gustavus for anything, and I think that speaks for itself. I talk with my classmates regularly where we talk about different memories on the tennis team or practice or in the lib or at the caf. They’re just a tremendous four years and I think, like I said that speaks for itself. I grew so much. I enjoyed myself. I made great connections, really great relationships. I mean what more could you ask for out of four years.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Again, all well said. I did not attend a liberal arts college, I attended Northern Illinois University and then a big private university for my PhD, Boston University. My wife attended Bard College in New York state, a small liberal arts college, but I wanted to teach at such a place and you’ll never know how much you just made my day saying what you said about the liberal arts, and I just couldn’t agree more obviously.

So Mason, this has been an absolute pleasure. Again, I know we have not met in person, but I sure look forward to doing so when we can up here in Minneapolis. And maybe even I’ll get a tennis lesson from you. You said people of all abilities. How about no ability? That would be me. But seriously, I’m just sitting here, listening and so proud of you in the work you’re doing. It’s been a real pleasure. So take good care. Best of luck with everything and look forward to seeing you in person, before too long.

Mason Bultje:

Yeah. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. It was a good time.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Take good care. Bye-bye.

Mason Bultje:

Thank you, bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing. Gustavus graduate, Will Clark, class of ’20 who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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