Most young adults are expected to experience change when transferring to college life, but 19-year-old Helen Jiao has taken it to a whole new level.
Jiao, a freshman originally from Xi’an, China, came to BYU in May 2019 to pursue her dreams of becoming a highly competitive tennis athlete. Although not of the same faith as most students who attend BYU, Jiao decided to go to BYU because of the recommendation of her coach, Alan Ma.
Ma, originally from Taiwan, was the former coach of the current BYU women’s head coach, Holly Parkinson Hasler. Hasler said Ma was the director of the tennis academy she went to from seventh to 10th grade.
“When you go to these academies by yourself as a young kid, a lot of times your coach also becomes a huge mentor and role model,” she said. “And so he was someone that as I moved on in my tennis career and life I always stayed in touch with,”
Hasler, the BYU women’s tennis coach since 2018, said her goal as the new head coach was to reach out to international tennis connections with hopes of recruiting new players for the BYU team.
While BYU women’s tennis had historically performed strong and ranked in the top 25, it has not been ranked in any of the last 10 years. Hasler said her goal in coming to BYU was to turn the tennis program around.
In order to do that, Hasler said she felt the need to find the best players that nobody else knew about, which meant extending her recruiting efforts to foreign countries. It was then that Hasler called Ma.
“I called him, and he answered, which I couldn’t believe because I hadn’t talked to him (in) about 15 years,” Hasler said. “He answered right away. It was like yesterday and immediately we started talking about players. … He sent me some video footage, and we kind of just went from there.”
At first, it was Jiao’s skillset that caught Hasler’s attention, but later that extended to her bright personality.
Hasler said that in talking with Jiao, it became more apparent that the BYU culture would be a perfect fit for the soon-to-be-freshman tennis star. While many non-member athletes may shy away from BYU’s various restrictions, Jiao grew excited at the possibility of belonging to a university with no tolerance for drugs and alcohol and provided strict regulations and policies.
Former coach Ma explained that he knew Jiao would be the right fit for the private school, as she was heavily disciplined and didn’t like to participate in parties.
When given the Honor Code’s guidelines, Jiao’s reply to Hasler was, “That’s what I’ve always wanted.”
While Jiao was eager to join a university that upheld strong regulations, both she and her parents were worried about the religious aspect that would also be incorporated into her learning experience.
Jiao said that although she does not actively participate with a specific religion, her parents come from a strong Buddhist background — a religion that is vastly different than the religion practiced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the BYU campus.
“The main thing that I explained to (Jiao) is that BYU (has) such a wide variety of foreign students of foreign languages,” Hasler said. “There are so many athletes and students here at BYU that are not LDS and it’s not a requirement … to join the Church.”
In the end, Jiao, a hopeful finance major, said it was the reputation of the Marriott School of Business, and of BYU in general, that changed both her and her parents’ minds.
While Helen Jiao is the only child in her family, Haitao Jiao, Helen’s father, said he encouraged her to leave China and study abroad with the hopes that she would gain more knowledge and increase her tennis skills and capabilities.
“BYU is a university with a long history (of) safety and order, rigorous scholarship and (it has a) beautiful environment,” Haitao Jiao said. “The academic level of the school is very high (and) the teachers have a strong sense of responsibility, professional ability … and (they are) very friendly.”
Haitao Jiao visited the United States for the first time on August 18. Haitao said he was able to tour the campus, eat at the Cougareat and watch a BYU women’s volleyball game during his two-week stay.
Haitao said he appreciated how professional the school appeared and looks forward to coming back to BYU next year.
Now, going into her second semester at BYU, Jiao said she agrees with her father and that she is loving her experience in Provo.
Jiao said she especially loves her new teammates who are from all around the world. She said she appreciates the diversity of the team, which includes players from Ukraine and Russia.
“BYU brought us here,” she said. “I think it’s just fate.”
While Helen said she believes she can assist the team with her tennis skill set, she is also determined to excel in her studies.
The incoming-freshman has set an all-inclusive goal for the tennis team: “We’re going to train so hard. We’re going to study so hard. And we’re coming back,” Helen said. “We’re going to play the best tennis this year.”