Dives and diversity: Gavin Julien creates impact on and off the court

Diversity. Inclusivity. Perspective. Acceptance.

To those not raised in the predominant religion at BYU, these characteristics may not initially come to mind when referencing the school’s student population. However, with a men’s volleyball team that is one of the most diverse in the country, athletes like Gavin Julien embody these traits, while also maintaining relationships and grit on and off the court.

Standing at a staggering 6-foot-8 with shaggy hair and a chain around his neck, the junior middle-blocker looks as intimidating off the court as he does on it. Yet as soon as he smiles, he radiates a friendly and inviting spirit to those around him. After talking to him for just a few minutes, it is easy to see why his teammates view him as a brother and friend.

Julien began playing volleyball in eighth grade, and by his freshman year of high school was 6-foot-4 and on the JV-two team. Later that year, he tried out for a club team that ended up being the top team for his age in the state. From there, Julien grew both in height and skill, and began his BYU career as a redshirt in 2020.

“I chose BYU because of the really good volleyball, really good price, and a great experience during my official visit,” Julien said. “I loved the team, I loved the coaches, and the atmosphere with all of the fans… it was hard to beat.”

Despite the great first encounter Julien had with BYU, he addressed the culture shock that he experienced his first year in Provo.

“(Initially) I didn’t expect the lack of diversity; I didn’t even know what a Mormon was,” Julien explained.

Part of the diversity that Julien brings to the men’s team and BYU is his background. His mom is Polish, and all of his maternal relatives still live in Poland. His father’s parents are from Haiti, and his unique Polish-Haitian background and fluency in Polish stand unique to the majority of BYU.

With only two percent of BYU’s student population. — less than 430 students out of 35,000 — being non-members of the predominant faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, those who come to BYU from different backgrounds can find Provo a unique, challenging experience.

Julien experienced an initial culture shock from the lack of diversity but appreciated the welcoming atmosphere. The adjustment to Provo’s culture was also felt by Julien’s teammate, Anthony Cherfan. Cherfan credits his positive adjustment to BYU heavily to the influence and constant friendship of Julien.

“Gavin made it feel like home when I got here… Our relationship is as strong off the court as it is on,” Cherfan said. “Having one of the most diverse teams in the country shows people around the world that BYU is very welcoming and accepting. Gavin and everyone on the team are brothers to me and they treat me the same.”

The incredible bond on the men’s team sprouted from a trip to Chicago that many of the players took, where Julien got all of the recruits to meet up while his family lived in Wisconsin.

“Gavin started our off-the-court bond with that trip… once we started talking, and relating through diverse families and playing this sport, we began that bond,” Cherfan said. “[There] are adversities that we share and overcome through friendship, and every year it is growing. Our time spent off the court shows strongly on the court.”

BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead also recognizes the infectious energy Julien brings to the team. Olmstead, who has been the men’s head coach since 2015, has seen his fair share of athletes, but recognizes the unifying spirit that Julien exhibits.

“He’s got this ‘happy-go-lucky’ personality and really gets along well with his teammates,” Olmstead said. “But he is also open and willing to be coached and to be pushed, because he wants to be the best player and teammate that he can be, every day.”

Julien’s “happy-go-lucky” personality also extends to his education. He is majoring in epidemiology, and after getting a master’s degree wants to work for the United States government, specifically for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Julien is open to possibly playing professional volleyball after he graduates, especially since he is a citizen of Poland, where professional volleyball flourishes. What exactly the future holds for Julien is still up in the air. However, he knows exactly what he’ll take away from his time at BYU.

“The fans… that’s the huge part of BYU,” Julien said. “I’ll never play volleyball in front of a crowd this big again in my life, even if I play professionally. It’s super unique and definitely what I’ll remember. Just the support from everybody.”

The support of Cougar fans and his teammates is something meaningful that Julien has received from BYU. However, the influence he has had on his team, coach, and those in Provo shows that BYU has benefitted greatly from Gavin Julien, too. 

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