Rock Chalk Weekly: Time of Her Life

Written by Morgan Barrett, Kansas Communications Student Assistant

Kansas women’s tennis senior and team leader Maria Belen Luduena (who goes by “Belen”) did not begin her Jayhawk career like a typical student. Luduena is from Curicó, Chile and her life would’ve been much different had she just stayed home, but her fate changed four years ago when Luduena was approached by KU with an opportunity of a lifetime.
“In the beginning I didn’t want to come to college because I wanted to just play professional tennis,” said Luduena. “Then I heard about KU and the opportunities they had for me and I was happily surprised with everything they offered.”
Luduena first picked up a racket at the early age of four and has tried her best to never put it down.
“Every aspect of tennis draws me to it,” said Luduena. “I don’t know life without tennis, it’s just part of me.”
She had always envisioned herself playing tennis for the rest of her life, but in her native home Luduena had to choose between school and playing tennis. Therefore, Jayhawk tennis seemed like the way to go. Luduena saw this as an opportunity to get everything she needed to succeed. Next came the decision to move to the United States and away from her family.
“It was a crazy decision,” said Luduena. “I didn’t know English, I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know what I was coming to. I came with high hopes, but in the beginning I was really scared.”
Luduena could barely speak a word of English upon arrival to The University of Kansas four years ago. Like other foreign students, she was put into English classes her first year to help transition her into her major course work.  She worked with Kansas Athletics’ coordinator of international student-athlete support, Phil Lowcock, to get her situated into the curriculum in an effort to succeed in her time at KU.
“The first year was especially hard for me because before coming to college I was just playing tennis and I forgot a little bit of the academic side,” said Luduena. “Combining both things was kind of hard, but there were many people and resources to help me.”
Based on her initial proficiency exam with the Applied English Center at KU, she tested into a mix of level 2 and 3 coursework.  The AEC program numbers correspond to level 1 (no English) to level 5 (almost fully proficient in English).  In a practical sense, Luduena could understand the basic idea of some of what was said around her, but had such a weak understanding of the English vocabulary that she could express almost nothing of what she was thinking when trying to communicate in English.  
The culture and language barrier were not only factors in her academics, but also in communication among teammates.
A main difference she had to adjust to was the idea of team tennis. Back in Chile, Luduena focused only on singles and her individual match play.
“In the beginning it was hard to adjust my playing,” said Luduena. “But in the end I realized that playing for a team was much better than just playing for yourself.”
With all the culture shock, Luduena was pushed to a limit where many would’ve given up. She recalled a low point in her freshmen year at a Big 12 Conference match at Iowa State.  
“I just remember feeling really down and nervous,” Luduena recalled. “As a team we were struggling and I wasn’t playing my best tennis. I never thought about going back home, I just wanted to push harder and get better so that it wouldn’t happen again.”
Luduena’s positive attitude and gratefulness for the opportunity she was given allowed her to continue to succeed not only in the classroom, but on the court as well and now she has even evolved into a team leader.
Originally, Luduena was at a “see spot run” level of English. Typical students progress about one level in AEC per full-time semester [from level 2 to 3, then 3 to 4, then 4 to 5, and finally from 5 to regular KU classes in English].  At that rate, she would have been expected to become English fluent in about a year and a half to two years of AEC coursework.  Instead, the hard-working Luduena jumped all the way to level 5 AEC courses in the very first semester and graduated from the program at the conclusion of the summer 2012 term.
“In order to keep up my academics I’ve had to work hard outside the classroom and do extra work to catch up,” admitted Luduena.
This extra work has proven to be successful for the now-veteran of the Jayhawk tennis program. According to Lowcock, Luduena’s outstanding work in the classroom has continued ever since she completed the AEC program.  Luduena currently boasts a 3.91 cumulative grade point average while studying economics with a minor in business, a challenging combination.
“I am very excited to have the opportunity to nominate Belen for academic all-district and All-American at the conclusion of this season,” said Lowcock. “I think she is an outstanding candidate. She has been a fabulous representative for KU both on and off of the court. She is a wonderful young lady who sets a perfect example of serious work ethic, both athletically and academically, for her younger teammates. It has been a privilege to be her advisor.”
As the lone senior on the young Jayhawk team, Luduena has accepted the leadership spot and has high hopes for her young teammates.
“There are so many freshmen on the team and it was kind of hard in the beginning to take on the leadership,” said Luduena. “I’ve been able to show my younger teammates the rules and I help relax them. They usually get really nervous since they don’t know what to expect and don’t know how everything works. After a semester though, they have reacted in the right way and now they know what they’re doing, so that makes my job a little bit easier.”
As a whole, the team has high hopes and lofty goals for this year. The Jayhawks have their sights set on a top-five finish in the Big 12 Conference, with aspirations of continuing their season into the NCAA Tournament.
“We wanted to make it to the NCAAs last year and we were really close,” said Luduena, whose post-graduation ambitions include possibly staying on campus and attending graduate school or going back home to Chile and using her economics degree to work for a product company. “We didn’t make it in the end, but I think this year we can get there.”
Luduena is a positive role model and leader to her fellow KU teammates. Despite the obstacles she has faced due to the language and cultural barriers in making the transition to the United States, her graciousness and determination has allowed her succeed greatly in her years as a Jayhawk.
“My years here at KU have been the time of my life,” said Luduena.

  Fill out my online form. Find more great content like this and other stories from Kansas Athletics inside this week’s edition of Rock Chalk Weekly, available via app on your tablet and smart phone, or in the web content viewer at
Inside this week’s issue:

Download the app: