I’m used to breaking down barriers. Where I grew up, life wasn’t always easy. There were many times I had to fight for things – like access to education.
Yet, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world. Everything I’ve gone through has made me fall in love with my home country even more. Wherever I go, I’ll carry it with me. It’s in my DNA. I definitely am who I am because of where and how I grew up.
My name is Fatou Diagne, I’m a senior on Purdue’s basketball team, and was born and raised in Senegal, a country in West Africa.
I grew up in a very loving and caring family. My dad was a great role model who instilled great values in me. Because of him, I’ve always had my priorities straight.
As a teenager, I was very shy. I barely ever left our house which made it hard to meet other kids. But at 14, I discovered basketball, a sport that would change everything.
My brother played and I simply starting tagging along. I was a pretty tall girl and found so much joy in playing defense and blocking the boys’ shots. Girls can play basketball too, you know?
I started to come out of my shell when I was on the court and I could see this spill into other parts of my life. The sport was helping me mature and deal with my shyness. It gave me a reason to want to leave the house.
At first, my dad wasn’t super thrilled about the idea of me playing basketball. It didn’t fully fit into the values he taught me. He was worried it would jeopardize my academics. It took some time to win his approval but as soon as he realized that basketball wasn’t having a negative impact on my grades, he became more and more supportive.
During my senior year of high school in 2013, I wanted to take the next step.
I looked into SEED Academy, a prestigious prep school that was close to home. It was the first basketball student-athlete academy in Africa. It seemed like the perfect fit. There was only one problem. At the time, it was only accessible to boys.
But, I wasn’t going to let that barrier get in my way.
So, in 2013, my friends Khadija Traore, Famata Fall, Rachelle Yanga, Ndeye Ndieme Diallo, Kine Amkou DIOP, and I walked up to the President of the academy and told him that we would not only have better grades than the boys but that we would beat them in basketball as well.
We were confident and wanted to find a way in. And after some time, a trip to the United States, tryouts, and more conversations, we finally did it.
In 2013, the SEED Girls Academy was born. And I was among the first girls to join.
After being with the academy for two years and excelling in both academics and basketball, I got an opportunity to join the Gulf Coast Junior College in Florida.
I was thrilled and packed my bags to start my journey to the United States.
Sure, it took some time to get used to a completely different environment. But despite being away from home, I still carried a lot of my instilled values with me.
Overall, this was an opportunity I didn’t want to take for granted. I put all my free time into school and tried to make the most of it.
While I was doing great academically, I was struggling on the court. My time at the junior college was plagued with injuries. I required shoulder surgery my second year which forced me to sit out most of the season.
And at the end of year two, my time at the junior college came to an end and it was time to look for what’s next.
One of those opportunities ended up being Purdue.
To be honest, when I was first contacted by Purdue, I had never heard of them before.
But after going on a visit and learning about their academics, I was completely sold. The Boilermakers did not just have a great basketball program and compete in the prestigious Big Ten conference, they had an excellent academic reputation. And after all, that was, and still is, my number one priority.
When I first got to West Lafayette, I was still dealing with a nagging foot injury from last few games in Florida. I thought some rest and treatment would take care of it, but unfortunately, it did not. I was forced to have another surgery just a few months after I arrived at Purdue.
In December of 2017, I made my way to the hospital.
Twelve months later, I was playing again. A full year of recovery. Definitely not what I had planned on.
I was just itching to get back on the court with my team. And when I finally did, I was so excited to finally represent Purdue on the basketball court.
We had a pretty good year that came to an end in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten tournament against #3 seed Rutgers.
And now, as my final season is about to start, I want us to do even better this year. My confidence and motivation are at an all-time high – all thanks to a very special opportunity.
Just a few months ago in August, I had the opportunity to represent Senegal at the 2019 FIBA Women’s AfroBasket tournament.
It was an experience of a lifetime. I think it’s every athlete’s dream to represent their home country. I know it’s at least mine. It felt like a dream come true.
Being surrounded by all of the professional basketball players and coaches taught me more than I could ever imagine. It’s just a very different environment. I feel like I reached a whole new level during the tournament both mentally and technically.
The thrill of playing for my country peaked when we made it to the finals of the tournament. In the semifinals against Mozambique, I was even voted the MVP. I was able to fill a variety of roles during that game and it was definitely one I will never forget.
Unfortunately, we lost in the finals to Nigeria.
But, let’s not dwell on the negatives.
I learned so much through this opportunity and I can’t wait to bring it all with me to the college basketball season.
I’m also hopeful that this isn’t the last time I play for Senegal. As the 2020 Olympics approach, I’d like nothing more than to represent the Lionnes in Tokyo next year.
As I mentioned at the very beginning of this story, I have a strong connection to my home country.
But when I stood there in Senegal’s colors at the opening ceremony during the Women’s AfroBasket tournament, I felt a bond I had never experienced before. The pride and joy of doing what I love for the country I carry in my blood is hard to describe.
It made me realize that I want to help other girls in Senegal make similar memories.
When I graduate, I plan on playing basketball for a couple more years. But after, I want to go back home and be a role model and mentor to the girls who, like me when I was younger, may run into barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their dreams. I want them to know they can be anything they want, support them in their athletic endeavors, and simply make a difference in their lives.
And I can’t wait to tell them all about my amazing time here at Purdue and our historic final season.
That’s the goal. So, let’s break barriers and make it happen!