Her charming grin and mild manner seem befitting to a homeschooler from suburban Oklahoma. Yet she's also a steely competitor, the youngest in a line of high-school and college sports standouts that include her grandparents, parents, and four older brothers. Her dad even played pro football in the World and Canadian leagues, and was drafted by the New England Patriots, before settling back in the Sooner State to raise his family.
Come summer before her senior year in high school, 6'3" Gillian Foster was carving her own notch in family history: She was being watched by multiple NCAA Division-I basketball programs.
Then her back started hurting.
An MRI revealed a shrunken disc in Gillian's spine, which was pinching her sciatic nerve and causing radiating pain. Instead of playing in the competitive summer league -- a homeschooler's chance to wow college scouts -- she suddenly found herself laid up, spine pumped full of steroid epidurals.
She wondered whether her hardwood days were done, whether it was time to focus solely on school. From a young age, she'd absorbed her parents' lessons on earning strong grades in school to diversify beyond sports. By her junior year she'd become a National Merit Finalist, ranking in the top one-half percentile among 1.5 million students in America. Even while sidelined with the injury, she was busy filtering invites from hundreds of colleges and had already been accepted into four highly selective honors programs, including at Baylor and the University of Oklahoma.
School by itself wasn't a bad option. But for Gillian, who gives her all in everything she does, losing the ability to choose for herself was heartbreaking. Fortunately, doctors cleared her to play, and she rallied back and had a good senior season. But by then all her D-I options -- even the D-IIs -- had blacklisted her as too risky and pulled their offers.
And so it was, three days before season's end, playing in the national Christian homeschool championship, Gillian watched in parallel as the clock counted down each contest, and the end of her career.
But CCU was watching, too. Gillian had heard good reviews about CCU, a member of the NCAA's Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, but she'd never seriously considered the small school way out west.
Lately, though, she wasn't keen on her college choices: Good athletics but lacking the desired academics, or vice versa, and some of the Christian schools didn't even display priority on their spiritual foundation. So when CCU's coaches approached her after the tournament, she listened and agreed to visit.
"D-II basketball, a competitive team in a tough conference, coaches who are both encouraging and very experienced," she strings together, excited about what she discovered at the small, suburban campus. Five weeks after the tournament, Gillian enrolled. She'll be a dual threat for the Cougars at both forward and post. But she's even more focused on her major: social science with a minor in global studies. After college, Gillian wants a graduate degree and a career in restoration work -- not on homes and furniture, but people. She has a heart for the broken: for addicts, inmates, prostitutes, human-trafficking victims, and others who want to start over.
"This was it, this was both things, the school I thought didn't exist," she says of CCU, whose faculty impressed her with their credentials, connections, emphasis on faith, and attention to her individual goals.
Gillian admits social work isn't a typical job for the typical D-I-bound athlete (although formerly). Then again, she believes basketball isn't everything, and neither are coveted honors degrees from huge universities. Her heart's heaviest beating is to serve others: "Christ's mission was for the whole person," she says. "I don't want to say 'Jesus loves you' without also saying 'Let's get you back on your feet."'
College is a step in preparing for that. And while some would say she gave up a lot to attend a lesser-known school, Gillian thinks CCU has plenty to offer -- in fact, that it's exactly where God wants her.
"He definitely used the injury to help me find my place," she muses, thankful for four more years to play. In a little while, she'll fold her jersey for good. Right now, her back's doing great.