Published June 3, 2020
Story by Matt Choquette
Merve Pekdemir had been up before dawn. She is wide awake now, as every muscle in her core and arms ached with each pull of the oars helping glide a Rutgers shell upstream on the Raritan River. On this nondescript day, rowing training was the first item in a jam-packed itinerary of a Scarlet Knight student-athlete, especially one with Merve’s ambition.
Fatigued, sore and scatter-brained, she saw exactly what she needed.
Three words were spray-painted on a wall underneath one of the bridges adorning the Raritan: “It’s Worth It.”
“It’s like it was there for me,” said Merve, a graduating senior of the Rutgers Class of 2020. “I didn’t know it at the time. It was one of those things that came into focus as I’m closing this chapter of my life. It was all worth it.”
For this industrial engineering major and women’s rowing letterwinner, her Rutgers education was worth what she put in – and she could not fit much more in. Merve walked on to the rowing team during her second semester “On the Banks” and spent much of the next four years “Between the Banks.” She earned a seat in the varsity eight her sophomore year and had a large hand in the program’s resurgence and a No. 11 national ranking following her junior season.
She became an R Fund student ambassador, representing Rutgers student-athletes within the department’s development group. In the classroom, she is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and a CRCA Scholar-Athlete. She studied abroad in Japan. Merve is a Division I athlete in a demanding major with hands-on practicum and extracurricular experiences, a challenging, yet rewarding path for any 19-year-old. As she learned, these paths were not mutually exclusive.
“Joining the team was immediately life-changing,” she said. “I became extremely organized. I was up before the sun, had early practice, events, classes. Rowing gave me that discipline to wake up early and put my life into a schedule. I saw immediate improvement in academics. Everything came into perspective.”
Her collegiate career has been all about perspective. She joined R Fund, in part to give back to her school, but also to explore the depth of connections Rutgers alumni have in the workforce. From the understanding professors who took interest in the rowing team’s success, to one impactful meeting at career services, Merve realized the shared experience is her most powerful tool in leveraging her education into a career.
R Fund student ambassadors serve as the voice of the student-athlete within Rutgers Athletics’ development department. Part of the gig is representing the group that is directly affected by scholarship donations and The Bells Must Ring campaign, which has steered funds to most efficiently benefit student-athlete excellence at Rutgers in competition, in the classroom and in the community.
That’s how Merve met Kate Sweeney, a Rutgers lacrosse and basketball letterwinner and a Senior Vice President at Morgan Stanley.
“Another thing I didn’t realize at the time, but I was practicing networking at its finest,” Merve said. “I met so many interesting, genuine and successful people. My pride in being a Scarlet Knight grew immensely. It filled me with so much love for Rutgers seeing how much passion was out there.”
A meeting turned into opportunity. Sweeney, who also served on Rutgers’ Board of Trustees, invited Merve to sit in on a team meeting with another VP, two other Rutgers grads and an intern. A performance coach talked about team building and its link to success. A consummate team player for the rowing squad, Merve started to feel at home.
She applied to and landed an operations internship within the wealth management department at Morgan Stanley. Following graduation this month, Merve will remain there full-time as an operations analyst.
“The R Fund donors I’ve met care so much about what’s going on in our lives,” Merve said. “The interest in what we were doing made me feel so special. They donate their money and time; they offer advice and stick around to see its impact. There is nothing more valuable.”
Merve and the Rutgers rowers are part of a recent success story in R Fund donations making a dramatic impact. An influx in donations helped head coach Justin Price support a booming program with exceptional training equipment. The leadership and facilities improvements made a quick difference as the Scarlet Knights qualified for the NCAA Championships in 2019 for the first time in 18 years.
As she embarks on a new journey, she will not forget the sport that helped shape the future. She trained with hopes of a tryout with the United States Under 23 national team before the 2020 World Championships were canceled. She is looking into joining clubs and gyms to keep rowing in her life.
“It’s crazy because it’s incredibly hard when you start,” she said of the sport. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
Cue the serendipitous spray-painting under the bridge on the Raritan.
“It’s hard to think that far ahead early in college. The best realization I had is to understand that the time is limited, and these are life-changing opportunities. Take advantage of being an R Fund ambassador, walk on to a team, branch out, get involved. It’s worth it.”
Story originally appeared in rfund.scarletknights.com