From the Classroom

Brooklyn Aguilera: first-gen trailblazer

USC water polo star breaks barriers as first-gen college athlete in family.

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As a high schooler, Brooklyn Aguilera received multiple scholarship offers– but none from the schools she wanted. At least none that could compare to the top water polo programs in the country: the University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford University. Aguilera knew that in college, she wanted to challenge herself and push her boundaries as a competitor. She yearned for a program that offered her the same intensity she needed to compete at a high level.

“If I was going to keep playing water polo in college, I wanted to play for a championship,” she said.

Originally, Aguilera didn’t intend to play for the Trojans. But after visiting the University of California, Santa Barbara, she went on a brief tour of USC’s athletic facilities. The visit changed her perspective on the place she wanted to call home for the next four years.

“I remember the minute I walked on the pool deck,” she said, “I was just like this is where I need to be.”

Unfortunately, Aguilera didn’t end up getting an athletic scholarship from USC. However, she became a preferred walk-on for the water polo team because of her constant communication with Casey Moon, the current head coach of the team. She applied to USC as a normal student, but got placed in a separate admissions pool because of her athletic status. When she got accepted as a Trojan, she was ecstatic.

“I got the call and I cried,” she said. “That was the best day of my life.”

Being a preferred walk-on, Aguilera had a guaranteed roster spot her freshman year, just with no financial assistance. She had immediate success with the Trojans, scoring five goals and helping her team achieve a 12-1 record as a freshman before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their season.

Now, Aguilera has completely bought into the winning culture at USC, and understands the importance of creating a legacy. In the aquatic center, pictures of prominent USC water polo players who left a mark on the program are hung up on the wall. Along with the pictures, there are plaques for every championship won in USC water polo history, with the names of every player on those championship teams. Every day when Aguilera walks in for practice, she sees those pictures and names and is reminded of the legendary athletes who were in her shoes. This inspires her to leave her own legacy on the Trojan water polo program.

“Not many people have their name etched into a piece of USC athletics,” she said.

As she enters her last year at USC, her goals become her main focus.

One – win a second championship.

Second – be a main contributor to the team.

“I want my name to be up there again,” she said. “I want everyone else [on my team] to know how I felt when I first saw my name get put up.”

Before she found a love for water polo, Aguilera played many other sports. She grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, with her Hawaiian family. She participated in hula, yoga, and eventually started swimming. Competitive swimming became her focus when her family moved to San Clemente, California. Aguilera was more advanced for her age and was placed in an older competitive age group to showcase her skills.

But she often felt lonely.

“I was kind of by myself with my coach and [it’s] not that I didn’t like my team”they were just older than me,” she said.

The loneliness settled in as Aguilera continued to compete against older swimmers. Because of this, she wanted to participate in a sport with a team aspect to it. She tried out for a club water polo team and found immediate success. At San Clemente High School, she made varsity as a freshman. Although she was the youngest on the team, her fears disappeared instantly.

“The girls were super inclusive and made sure I felt like a part of the team,” she said.

Her teammates were a key component to her success in high school. At San Clemente, she was the 2019 female athlete of the year and league MVP. During her time at USC, she continues to learn from her teammates.

“I’m still learning each and every day from freshmen or sophomores who are younger than me,” she said.

Back in Hawaii, Aguilera’s family watches all of her games on TV and supports her in every way they can. Aguilera understands the responsibility she has representing her family and her Hawaiian culture.

“[The pressure’s] always there because I want to make them happy. I want them to believe that I made the right choice,” she said.

Although the immense pressure affects Aguilera, she is adamant about setting a good example for her younger sister, Ella, and the rest of her family.

“I want to be someone they can look up to and show that anything’s possible,” she said.

The pressure doesn’t just come from wanting to make her family proud, however. Aguilera is the first one from her family to play a sport in college, and she’s also the first to attend a four-year university. She is a trailblazer for her family and a role model for her younger sister.

“She’s such a role model [because of] how she just never gives up,” Aguilera’s sister, Ella, said. “That’s what I love about her.”

Aguilera says that because she’s the first one going through these processes, her family expects a lot of her. She has immense pressure to succeed in the pool and in her classes because of the fact that no one in her family has ever been in her shoes. Aguilera holds herself to a higher standard as well, embracing the weight on her shoulders.

“I push myself even harder because of that,” she said.

With her family living in Hawaii, she is also often home sick. Aguilera’s intense water polo program is unforgiving when it comes to visiting family during the holidays.

“I feel like I need to do good for them because I’m sacrificing seeing them on holidays,” she said.

Being the trailblazer and paving the way for future generations as an athlete comes with sacrifice and hard work. Aguilera has had a successful three years at USC, winning a championship in 2021 and scoring 14 goals in her career, while also being a member of the NCAA tournament roster in 2022. She has high hopes for her senior year, and the years beyond that. Currently, Aguilera is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health and human sciences. She hopes to start dental school when she graduates in May 2024.

“My dream would be to then do a program like Doctors Without Borders and go to a third world country and help fix teeth for those in need,” she says.

In the meantime, Aguilera is focused on winning her second championship.

“I don’t really plan on playing [water polo] after this year, so I’m going to make it count.”