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March 6, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The joke around the University of Virginia women’s basketball program is that senior center Simone Egwu will be President of the United States one day. Except it’s not necessarily a joke.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened,” said Chelsea Shine, a former UVa player who now works for the Virginia Athletics Foundation.

Egwu could make it to Washington long before she runs for any office. She has applied for a summer internship at the White House. Natalie Fitzgerald wrote a letter of recommendation for Egwu, who’s from Odenton, Md., about 15 miles northwest of Annapolis.

“I think what makes her so unusual and makes her so successful is that she is so goal-oriented and so focused,” said Fitzgerald, academic adviser for the women’s basketball team.

“When she arrived here four years ago, she had planned out exactly what the University of Virginia could do for her. She knew she wanted an undergrad degree, she knew she wanted a master’s degree.”

Among the classes Egwu has taken at UVa are Arabic and calculus, “just for fun,” Fitzgerald said. Neither is required for her government major.

“She’s one of the most driven student-athletes I’ve ever worked with,” Fitzgerald said.

A graduate of Arundel High School, Egwu was accepted into UVa’s College Arts and Sciences as part of the prestigious Echols Scholar program. She arrived, Fitzgerald said, with a year’s worth of college credits.

She’ll receive her bachelor’s degree in May. She’s already taking graduate classes in UVa’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, from which she expects to earn a master’s in 2014. The ACC last month awarded Egwu a Weaver-James-Corrigan scholarship, under which she’ll receive $5,000 for her graduate work.

“We say she’s going to be president one day,” Fitzgerald said. “Simone has always known that she wanted to serve others.”

Egwu learned at an early age the importance of education.

“Both of my parents are really intelligent people, and they put an emphasis on learning,” she said. “From Day One, I had to come home and finish all my homework, and then I could go outside and play. And also I just love to read. We always joke in my family that as a little kid, instead of toys I had a bunch of books that I carried around.”

She chose UVa in part because of the school’s tradition in women’s basketball. Equally important was the University’s academic reputation.

“I really, really care about school,” Egwu said. “That’s kind of why I picked Virginia, because it combined athletics and academics the best, to me, out of all my options.”

On the court, the 6-foot-3 Egwu has started 120 games during a college career in which she’s played for two head coaches: Debbie Ryan and Joanne Boyle, who took over the program after the 2010-11 season.

“It’s been awesome,” Egwu said of her basketball experience at UVa. “The transition was really smooth. Coach Ryan’s a great coach, and so is Coach Boyle. So that’s gone really well, and I love my teammates, and I think that’s the most important thing, the bond with your team.”

Egwu was among the seniors honored Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena before UVa’s regular-season finale. She then went out and produced a double-double (17 points and 11 rebounds) to help Virginia upset No. 24 Florida State 72-60.

Next up for the Wahoos is the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. No. 3 seed UVa (16-13) meets No. 11 seed Boston College (11-18) at 8 p.m. Thursday in a first-round game. The winner moves on to face No. 3 seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals Friday.

Egwu started 29 games as a freshman on the UVa team that lost to Green Bay in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The Cavaliers have not been back to the NCAAs since and, Egwu realizes, may not return before she graduates.

“It has been difficult, but rough winds kind of make your roots stronger,” she said. “So while it hasn’t been ideal, it’s definitely not something I would ever change. You learn so much more from adversity than you do from peace.”

Egwu has learned much at UVa, where she’s stayed extraordinarily busy. In addition to playing hoops and carrying a full load of classes, she has served as president of the Student-Athletic Advisory Committee and volunteered in the Charlottesville community. She also wrote a column for the Cavalier Daily.

“It was just something that kind of happened,” Egwu said. “I was really involved in high school, came to college and saw opportunities to get involved in things that I was interested in, and the next thing I knew I was president of the SAAC and on Student Council and writing for the paper. I looked at my résumé, and I was like, `Wow, I’m actually doing a lot of things.’ “

Boyle said she never worried Egwu would overextend herself.

“It’s all about balance,” Boyle said. “Some kids can handle a lot, and some kids really just have to say, `OK, these are my two things: my sports world and my academic world.’ But she hates idle time. There are those young people and those adults who hate idle time. They’re not functioning unless they’re going 100 miles an hour and trying to keep four balls in the air, and that’s Simone.”

Boyle laughed. “If she’s not complaining about how much work she has, she’s not enjoying it.”

When Egwu arrived at UVa in 2009, Fitzgerald asked her a question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Egwu’s answer: I want to be a diplomat.

Asked last week what she saw herself doing in five or 10 years, Egwu was no longer as certain.

“It’s tough,” she said, “because I really do obviously like public policy, and I’m really interested in global development, women’s health, access to education, our foreign-aid system. So I could definitely see myself working with the State Department, and maybe a political career is in the future. But at the same time I really enjoy the world of athletics, and I’m kind of interested in athletics administration. So we’ll see where the wind takes me.”

Being around administrators such as Craig Littlepage, Jon Oliver and Jane Miller in UVa’s athletics department, Boyle said, has sparked Egwu’s interest in that profession. As a graduate student in 2013-14, Egwu will work as an intern for Oliver, Virginia’s executive associate athletics director.

“She will be exposed to a number of areas within athletics administration that I deal with on a daily basis,” Oliver said. “Similar to what I was told when I started in this business as an intern, she will be given as much as she can handle and probably a little bit more. In Simone’s case I believe the sky is the limit. I have been impressed with her overall approach to her responsibilities as a student-athlete, and she has embraced her leadership role with a level of professional maturity that is unique for someone her age.”

If she heard from other soon-to-be college graduates that they wanted to be athletics directors or ambassadors, Boyle said, “I would look at most kids and go, `OK, how are you going to do all that?’ With Simone, it’s kind of like, `Yep, that’ll happen for her.’ For sure.”

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