Zach Nasipak ’15 took some good-natured ribbing from his fellow varsity soccer players last year when they found out he’d received an A-minus in a physics course. “The guys on the team told him that kind of performance simply wasn’t acceptable,” Coach Andy Jennings recalls.
Nasipak had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average in his first two years at Vassar, and he’s had nothing but A’s since he received that lone A-minus. And last month he was formally recognized as one of the top student athletes in the country. His 3.98 grade point average, combined with his outstanding play on the soccer field, earned him first-team Academic All-American honors from the College Sports Information Directors of America. He is the first Vassar soccer player to win the award, given to only 11 student athletes in the United States.
A physics and astronomy double major, Nasipak was team captain this year and a Liberty League second-team all-star. He says he’s grateful for the honor. “Since I came to Vassar, I’ve wanted to achieve something special with soccer or academics, but I never thought about anything like this,” he says.
Nasipak notes the soccer team earned a Team Academic Award from the National Soccer Coaches Association for earning an aggregate GPA of better than 3.0 in 2011, 2012 and again this year. “It was nice to help the team earn that recognition,” he says. “It’s always good to have a goal to aspire to and to live up to your potential.”
Nasipak says he’s been passionate about the sport since he first joined a youth soccer club in his hometown of Chandler, AZ, when he was five years old. And while he was always a good student and always loved science, he developed a passion for astronomy when he landed a job giving tours at the college observatory in the fall of his freshman year. “I knew I wanted to major in science when I got to Vassar, but I had no specific idea beyond that,” he says. “After working at the observatory and taking an introductory astronomy course, I was sold.”
His passion for the field intensified, Nasipak says, when he earned a Tananbaum Fellowship from the college and used it to enroll last summer in an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center just outside Washington, DC. He worked with two NASA astrophysicists studying simulations of black holes that orbit each other and eventually collide.
“That internship helped me decide what I want to do after I graduate from Vassar,” Nasipak says. “I was thinking about pursuing engineering or another applied science, but that experience really crystallized my plans. I want to do research in astrophysics and earn my PhD.”
In his remaining time at Vassar, Nasipak is hoping to raise awareness about astronomy and space exploration. He and several other physics and astronomy majors recently launched a campus organization called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
While his collegiate soccer career has come to an end, Nasipak says he hopes to find a soccer club wherever he goes for graduate school. “It’s been such a big part of my life for so long, I’ll keep playing wherever I can,” Nasipak says, noting he was a member of NASA’s club team last summer.
He says he believes playing soccer at Vassar actually helped him succeed academically. “Playing a varsity sport forces you to budget your time,” he says. “After you play a tough game, you can’t stay up all night so you have to get things done ahead of time.”
Nasipak adds, however, that being on the soccer team did lead indirectly to that lone A-minus. “I had an electromagnetics take-home test that I had to hand in early because we were leaving the campus for a game the day it was due,” he says. “Andy told me that if he’d known that, he would have told me not to play, but there was no way I was going to miss a game.”
Jennings says Nasipak embodies what being an athlete at Vassar is all about. “His accomplishments on the field mirror his accomplishments off the field,” the coach says. “He’s a phenomenal student, but he wasn’t an instant success as a player. He started only one game as a freshman, but he worked hard to become a dominant force on the team. He has led by example, both on the team and in the classroom.”
Professor David Bradley, Nasipak’s physics advisor, was excited to hear his student and research assistant had been named an Academic All-American. “It’s an amazing honor, but I’m not all that surprised,” Bradley says. “He’s an excellent student and an excellent athlete, and he’s also a great guy who has served as a mentor to a lot of students, both on the soccer field and in the lab.”