Iris Ivanis strolled into the room with an easy gate, comfortable and outgoing. She had come straight from a conditioning workout, layered in a sweatshirt and a jacket, her hair pulled back into a braided ponytail.
Ivanis, a senior on the Seattle University volleyball team, smiled through most of her interview that early October morning. Her laugh, as those who know her are well-aware, is contagious.
As Ivanis spoke, it was obvious that she’s very relatable, even though her experiences are quite unique.
Coming to Seattle University four years ago, Ivanis found herself far from home.
She grew up in Pozega, Croatia, a small town 5,570 miles from Seattle across the Atlantic Ocean.
An “easy” flight means 15 hours with one layover. Otherwise, the trip can take up to 20 hours of travel.
“All of my best friends are there, and my family and my culture,” Ivanis said. “Whatever you grow up with, that’s your culture. That’s your home, and you can never actually separate yourself from that.”
Ivanis finds herself stuck between missing home and loving Seattle. She still visits Croatia during winter and summer breaks.
“Every time I go back for break, I just realize how many things I actually miss, but at the same time, I love being here, so it’s like a double-edged sword where I can’t decide whether I’m super happy to be away or just miss it a lot,” Ivanis said.
But one thing she’s sure of is her decision to come to Seattle U.
“I lived in a small town, and that was good, but there are more opportunities here, so that’s why I appreciate being here,” Ivanis said. “Back home I don’t think I’d be able to be a good athlete and a good student at the same time, whereas here, I do have this opportunity and it gives me a better platform to go further either in my professional career or sports career.”
Ivanis said her transitioning period was made easier by her general excitement over being in America. After the initial excitement wore down, though, she started noticing cultural differences.
But for her, it was all a matter of making the best of things.
She told herself: “I just have to adjust, and that’s it. That’s just a matter of discipline and personal attitude towards things.”
Looking back, Ivanis said that was a big growing experience for her in learning how to own up to certain challenges without her typical support system on the same continent.
Her biggest transition, though? Before the question was even fully asked, Ivanis answered with a laugh – “Food!”
“That was something I could not get used to,” Ivanis said, continuing to laugh about it. “I couldn’t find something that worked for me and that I would just absolutely enjoy eating. Probably the hardest and the longest process I had to go through was just adjusting to food, and knowing what words mean, and what kind of food is something on a menu, and not knowing what kind of taste it had.”
Ivanis said she found the food to be a little gross and weird. Back in Croatia, she was used to simple, natural, home-grown foods.
She said that in Croatia, they wouldn’t eat Thai and Chinese food very often, and even pizza is different.
Maybe typical dine-out foods for another college student, but for Ivanis, it definitely wasn’t normal.
She found everything to be just slightly off.
Three foods make the top of her list of things she found weird but she’s now used to seeing: peanut butter, cheese, and fruit in salads.
“I hated peanut butter, but now I can tolerate it,” Ivanis said. “And I just don’t understand why there are so many foods with cheese that shouldn’t (have it)! And salads with fruits.”
“Fruit is a dessert!”
Playing volleyball is the reason Ivanis has had all of these new experiences. It brought her to the United States, to Seattle, to a new culture, and to a collegiate volleyball team.
But Ivanis hasn’t always played volleyball. That wasn’t always the plan.
She started gymnastics when she was five-years-old. It was a great way for her parents to give their active daughter somewhere to release that energy.
“I was always a very energetic child, so my parents found it as a way of putting my energy to something useful,” Ivanis said, again with that infectious laugh. It was somewhere to go so she wouldn’t be “breaking things around the house and breaking my parents’ backs, probably, because I was everywhere, all over them.”
Ivanis reflected on the things she broke in and around their small house in Croatia – a chair, trees in the backyard, a couple windows.
“My parents forgave me, and that’s all I care about,” Ivanis said, adding lightheartedly, “And we fixed the window in the end, so it ended up being good.”
It wasn’t until Ivanis was 15-years-old when she started making volleyball her priority, and by 16, she was focused solely on that sport.
“I had to decide what was more useful for me, which sport was better for me in the future,” Ivanis said.
At 5-foot-11, Ivanis admits she would have been a tall gymnast, and that she didn’t necessarily have the “physical predispositions” to continue with gymnastics.
“The level at which I played volleyball compared to the level of gymnastics I competed at was much higher, so I decided to go with that,” Ivanis said.
Ivanis competed on the Croatian youth national team, as well as the junior national team. She said it was a great experience for her to be able to play at a higher level internationally so she could start adjusting her expectations for what volleyball in America might look like for her.
She had originally committed to play at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., under coaches James Finley and Nikola Petrovic. However, during the spring of her senior year of high school, Finley and Petrovic went to coach at Seattle U.
“What was important was who’s going to be my coach,” Ivanis said. “After exploring a little bit what Seattle looks like, and knowing it from Grey’s Anatomy and different shows in general, it was cool already.”
But on top of knowing the coaches through her VCU recruitment process and then having an idea of what Seattle was like because of TV shows, she wanted to make sure she was serious about pursuing her education, too.
“Knowing that Seattle University is a good academic school was something that after I found out, added a lot of value to why I was coming here,” Ivanis said. “Unfortunately, sports are not something, volleyball especially, that are for long-term, so I have to be able to have good schooling and good education and background for me to continue and pursue my career afterwards.”
Her backup plan was to attend a university in Croatia with a double major in Russian and Portuguese.
Instead, Ivanis would end up attending Seattle U, playing volleyball, earning countless awards from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), and majoring in strategic communications with a goal of pursuing a master’s degree in international studies somewhere in Europe.
For Ivanis, education is as important as volleyball.
She has been named Academic All-WAC multiple times, proving she focuses on both.
“I have to thank my parents,” Ivanis said. “My mom especially was my biggest motivator and disciplinarian. She taught me what it means to try to be excellent at both sides (student and athlete)…She was always there to force me to try certain things, and I hated it, but it taught me something – it gave me perspective, which I never admitted to her, but of course I knew it.”
Ivanis credits her mom for showing her how to be level-headed in controlling her drive in a positive manner.
“I love volleyball and I love using my natural talents for it, but I do have to be educated, and I would like to be independent in the future,” Ivanis said. “No one else can motivate you if you don’t want to do it, and that’s something that I learned very early, luckily.”
Her parents, especially mother, helped build a foundation for Ivanis.
Her time at Seattle U helped her grow.
“It built me up a lot,” Ivanis said. “I think I became resilient to a lot of things mentally and emotionally that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t come here.”
Ivanis has dealt with various personal challenges, including loss of family members. She’s allowed those experiences to build her up rather than tear her down.
It’s also allowed her to learn to be a good teammate.
“You push through those little issues that you have to make it better for everyone else, because at the end of the day, it is what you do for your team rather than what you do for yourself,” Ivanis said. “You don’t want to disappoint your team, you don’t want to disappoint your coaches…I heighten my standards for hard work and what hard work really means.”
Ivanis prides herself on her ability to tackle issues and effectively solve them herself.
Her senior year as a Redhawk threw her one more challenge. An outside hitter her entire career, Ivanis was switched to libero.
“I wasn’t excited,” Ivanis honestly admits. “I loved being an outside hitter. I loved being the one who finishes the point and has all the attractive moves.”
She owned that position and didn’t want to let go. But, a few weeks after she was declared the Seattle U libero, she changed her attitude.
“I made it a good challenge, a positive challenge for myself that if I own up to it, I’m going to do the best that I can,” Ivanis said.
Again, her team-first mentality shines through.
“At the end of the day, it’s for the team. It’s not really for me,” Ivanis said. “I’ve grown out of being the selfish player that you really want to have it for yourself so people can clap for you.”
Ivanis said she knows that she is useful to the team as a libero, and as hard as it was for her to come to terms with switching positions, she wanted to do what was best for the team.
Ivanis’s volleyball career at Seattle U has come to an end, but she’s excited to see what the program’s future holds.
She hopes she has impacted the program in a way that will help it move forward after she’s graduated.
“I really want to see it achieve good things because we have a lot of talent accumulated in one spot,” Ivanis said. “We have great days and we have bad days as every team does, but I want to learn at the end that I influenced something.”
She wants to have brought a positive change to the program because she loves her team.
“I love being here and just being in this system,” Ivanis said. “Contributing to those high standards that we set out for ourselves and that our coach sets out for academic success, or athletic success, and our individual goals…Just being able to achieve those and look back and see the growth from one year to another, and see that I changed something to be better and better for people around me.”
Ivanis had shared her story. Her path to Seattle and everything in-between. In the end, gratitude was her parting thought.
“I just appreciate a lot of people that I met here, and that’s something I’m going to always miss,” Ivanis said.
Before leaving, Ivanis had one simple request.
So, as promised, this:
“Can you please just put a small shout-out to everyone back home, whoever supported me? Because it’s a huge thing being able to be good friends and even good family members – a good support system – from that far away, and that’s something that I will always cherish the most, because I needed it when other people weren’t here.”