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  • Jackson Garrett, Staff Writer

PNCA-Willamette athletes prove Bearsloths are here to stay

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Leilani Luu (‘26). Photo provided by Leilani Luu.

What do you get when you cross a bear, a cat and a … sloth? When Willamette University merged with the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in 2021, few focused on this question and its implications for Bearcat athletics. Willamette already has a high level of athletic participation — 25% of the student body — but the merger could potentially grow Bearcat athletics even further, as PNCA students can now compete at the DIII level for Willamette. While the practice is uncommon, there are some students who make the commute up to Portland for class and down to Salem for practice.

Athletic Director Rob Passage urges PNCA students who are interested in competing in Salem “to reach out directly to our coaches.” He explained, “Any current or prospective student can reach out to the coach and let them know they are interested. … [Students should] begin that conversation because the coach is going to want to evaluate their ability to be a productive member of their program and if it is going to be the right fit for the student.”

Due to the inconvenience of the commute, Passage does not expect a major increase in sports participation as a result of the new integration. Athletes in team sports will have an especially difficult time splitting time between the two campuses. However, the process seems much more feasible in individual sports, as athletes can potentially train on their own in Portland.

Leilani Luu (‘26), a runner for our cross-country team, is the first Bearsloth athlete, which is the term she prefers instead of “slothcat.” She was originally recruited by Willamette and believed that she was going to be attending classes in Salem before learning that Willamette bought PNCA, which allowed her to pursue a graphic design major while still competing in cross-country. She took on the difficult commute of living in Salem and going to class in Portland because both running and a future in art are important to her. She explained, “I just really like art. I don’t know what else I would do with my career and my set of skills if I didn’t do art and I also don’t want to give up running at the same time.”

Luu is finding success as a Bearsloth. In addition to her contributions to the cross-country team, she recently received a grant to create an art gallery she is calling “Be Normal,” which will showcase her digital art based on the stigma of medicating for mental illness. This will be on display at PNCA starting Nov. 1 through Nov. 15.

While Luu might currently be an outlier, Willamette is working to better support Slothcat athletes. The university does not provide transportation for students who make the commute, but Passage states that they are working on aligning other systems at PNCA, including health services, so that the campuses can have similar resources for students. Luu also urges students who are interested in pursuing an art degree while also playing a sport at Willamette to “make sure to communicate with your advisor about what you need, or else you will not have a schedule that allows it.”

With 900 students attending PNCA, perhaps many more will soon choose the way of the Bearsloth, pursuing their ideal education while still continuing their athletic career.

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