UCLA Men’s Basketball Player and Engineering Student Wins Elite 90 Award

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA at Alabama

Sam Owens/IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports
UCLA Bruins celebrate the win over Alabama Crimson Tide during the Sweet Sixteen round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 28, 2021, at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. UCLA won the overtime game 88-78.

Apr 14, 2021

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom
From the First Four to the Final Four, the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team advanced to the national semifinals of the 2021 NCAA Tournament in one of the most riveting runs since the team’s last Final Four appearance in 2008.

Strong Russell
Russell Stong
(Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA)
Junior guard Russell Stong, a third-year mechanical engineering student at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, was honored with the prestigious Elite 90 award before the semifinal game. Founded by NCAA, the award is designed to recognize and honor a student-athlete with the “highest cumulative grade-point average [while the individual is] participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 90 championships.”

Stong, who is also pursuing a double major in business-economics, has achieved the highest GPA (3.86) among his Final Four peers at this year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. A graduate of Crespi High School in Encino, California, Stong joined the Bruins team in the 2018-2019 season and has played five games during the 2020-2021 season. He has earned a perfect 4.0 GPA in three of his eight academic quarters and made the UCLA Athletic Director’s honor roll (3.5 GPA or higher) throughout his first two years at the school. We caught up with Stong to learn more about his accomplishments both on the basketball court and as a Bruin engineer.

Q: Please tell us how you feel about the season and how you got involved in the team at UCLA?
A: This season was one to remember! We endured so much as a team and used adversity as a fuel for success. I am honored to be a part of such a historic program and brotherhood here at UCLA. Although we are happy with our Final Four run, we aren’t satisfied. This is just the beginning, and we plan on being an elite program annually.

Growing up in California, it was hard for me to deny both the academic and athletic prowess UCLA represents. As I decided where to attend college, I knew UCLA would give me the best opportunities. I wanted to be a part of a top-notch engineering program, while also continuing my basketball career. So that’s what I did! After being accepted to UCLA Samueli as a mechanical engineer, I contacted the basketball coaching staff and pursued a spot as a walk-on. After months of interviews and meetings, I was finally granted a spot on the roster. It was a dream come true, and I never take it for granted. I am forever grateful.

Q: Congrats on winning the 2021 Elite 90 award. How do you manage to maintain a strong academic and athletic performance at the same time?
A: Academic and physical excellence are both major priorities for me. Ever since a young age, I’ve had a lot on my plate. I played multiple sports growing up, learned how to play guitar, and participated in school clubs. Time management was a necessary skill that I had to learn quickly to keep up with my demanding schedule. I’ve carried this ability with me to UCLA. I also find joy in being productive and finishing tasks, while also bettering myself athletically. The connection of UCLA engineering and basketball is a source of happiness for me, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Q: Why did you decide to major in mechanical engineering and what do you hope to do after you graduate?
A: I chose mechanical engineering because I felt that it was the most well-rounded major. It provides a knowledge base that can be applied to all aspects of life. My technical breadth is in technology management, and I plan on using my fifth year of eligibility to double major in business-economics. I want to follow my entrepreneurial spirit and use what I learn to succeed in the business world. I want to start my own company and/or become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Q: How has remote learning affected you this past year — both as a student and as an athlete?
A: Remote learning has been an obstacle and a blessing all in one. I value interacting directly with my professors and classmates, and it is more difficult to comprehend material remotely. However, remote learning has allowed me to attend classes I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Winter quarter is my most demanding quarter because it was in the heart of my basketball season. Before COVID, I would miss a lot of in-person classes for game travel, and I would have to heavily rely on my friends’ notes. But with remote learning and recordings, I can attend class from anywhere at any time. Remote learning is how things are right now — and it is out of my control — so I make sure to use it to my advantage.

Q: What strategies and resources do you use to help you maintain top performance?
A: Time management is the key to my success. Everything I do revolves around productivity, efficiency and time allocation. I make sure to always work ahead. When assignments are given, I start as soon as possible. I also create daily schedules and checklists for myself that allow me to keep track of the things I need to finish. Additionally, I am not afraid to ask for help. My professors, teaching assistants, counselors and classmates have been great supporters and are always willing to help — whether it’s with conceptual understanding, accommodating conflicts or providing supplemental materials. I couldn’t do it without my Bruin family.

I am inspired by all faculty at UCLA. Their dedication to the students is unmatched, and I am lucky to be a part of it. I am grateful for all of the faculty members and their commitment to making UCLA the top public university. I am proud to be a Bruin.

Q: Are you involved in any student clubs?
A: I represent my basketball team in the UCLA Bruin Athletic Council [a student leadership group that consists of representatives from all 25 Bruin teams]. I provide an important voice to the athletic administration and offer input regarding the student-athlete experience, programming ideas/needs, community-outreach projects, and Pac-12 and NCAA legislation. I communicate information on upcoming events to my team and coaches, while working to create unity among all athletic teams.

Q: Do you have any tips for student athletes on managing STEM courses and athletics?
A:My advice is to dream, believe and achieve. Dream big and take on the world. Believe in yourself no matter how many naysayers there are. Never forget your goals and achieve them with hard work and determination. Follow what you love and everything will fall into place. Even though there were tough times, just knowing that better times were ahead pushed me through. I knew it was going to be hard, but if it were easy, anyone could have done it.

Q: What’s in store for you for the next season as you enter your fourth year at UCLA?
A: I am going to take full advantage of next season. I am excited to get back on the court with my team and pack Pauley Pavilion. I know our potential is limitless and we plan on making history. This next season will remind everyone that UCLA basketball is back! For me personally, I will do whatever my team needs for us to succeed. That has always been my mindset. I have a role that requires me to represent UCLA the best way I can on and off the court, so I plan to do that to the best of my ability.

Q:Who is your role model in life?
A: My parents are my role models. I know it’s cliché, but my parents have inspired me to be a lifelong learner. My ambition and desire to learn about the world around me comes from them. I entered the mechanical engineering field because I wanted to develop my knowledge base and tackle any challenge that stands before me. I wouldn’t be who I am — emotionally or professionally — without my parents. Shoutout to them!

Zoe Curran contributed to the story.

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