Dec. 21, 2009
By Nicole Chavez - Media Relations Assistant
As Bob Dylan eloquently noted, many aspects of our lives can be chalked up to a simple twist of fate. Though Valerie Kast's serendipitous emigration to America is more favorable than Dylan's ruminations of lost love, both appreciate the byproduct of chance occurrence. Kast, a 6-6 senior post and fan favorite on the UNM women's basketball team, concedes that her path to New Mexico has been anything but typical. But she's embraced it every step of the way.
Kast was born in Tallinn, Estonia, a city that lies on the banks of the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. When Kast was 6 years old her father made a business decision that moved the family from Estonia to America. She lived in Colorado Springs, Colo. until she was nine years old and the family moved back to Estonia in 1996. Kast was growing taller and taller during this time, and her parents were first given an indication of her future height.
"When I was 11 years old, my parents decided that it would be a good idea to do something with my height," said Kast. "We had a family friend who was a basketball coach, and he suggested that I go check out practice."
Kast took to the sport quickly. She eventually played for the Estonia U18 team, and was named MVP of the 2003 team when she was 16 years old. Kast spent that entire summer working on her basketball skills, developing into a promising young player.
Enter Gallup, New Mexico. Kast's mother was targeted by a recruiting service that hired international teachers to boost diversity in rural American cities. Kast's mother wasn't even looking for the job -- she accompanied a friend to the interview as a translator, but was recruited because of her fluency in English. She was placed in Gallup, and Kast recalls an initial Google search for the city turning up virtually nothing.
"She didn't know what to expect, but she went anyway," Kast said of her mother's relocation. "She moved there in 2003 [without me], but she kept telling me that basketball was really big there. I visited her in the summer of 2004 and I decided to stay. It was definitely a crazy twist of fate."
At first, it was a very difficult move. Kast describes Tallinn as a fairly urbanized, modern city and Gallup was a stark contrast. Nothing was open late. Coffee shops and clubs were nonexistent. The entire young adult social scene was structured differently. Fortunately, the people in Gallup were very welcoming and this eased the transition. Kast also had more time to focus on basketball.
"The more education you have, the better equipped you are for life."
Valerie Kast, senior Lobo women's basketball player
"I feel like Gallup is a great place to grow up, because the schools, the parents, and the entire community supported high school sports," said Kast. "We had so many fans for our basketball games. My mom still lives there and it's considered my second home. It's a small place, but there are a lot of gems there."
For a basketball program that was known for small, quick teams, its run `n' gun style, and the three-point shot, Kast's 6-6 post presence definitely transformed Gallup girls' basketball during her years there. Kast says the level of talent during her senior year in New Mexico was unrivalled, citing the powerhouses of Mayfield, Sandia, Hobbs, and Clovis. She says Gallup wasn't the favorite, but they had talent and an intense desire to win. Gallup beat Mayfield 39-37 in The Pit to win a New Mexico 5A State Championship in 2006, and Kast was given a glimpse into her own future as a Lobo fan favorite.
"I remember when we came down The Pit ramp onto the court," said Kast. "There were more than 18,000 people there and most of them were from Gallup. When we walked out after winning, everybody started screaming and it was so uplifting. The amount of people was amazing."
Outside of basketball, Kast cites art, photography, cooking, and traveling as passions. She's refreshingly aware of her surroundings, is very interested in other cultures, and loves meeting new people. Russian is her first language, but she is fluent in Estonian and English, studied German for four years, and is currently studying Portuguese. Her native Estonia is a very culturally divided country -- Kast considers herself Russian Estonian and identifies greatly with her Russian roots.
"Cooking is a big deal in Russian culture," said Kast. "I have some Russian friends here, and we get together to cook native food. I really miss the food there. It's much more organic and natural compared to American food, as most European food is."
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Kast is majoring in Communications with a concentration in Intercultural Communications while minoring in Portuguese. She will graduate in May 2010. Graduate school on the East Coast is definitely a possibility for her, though she is still comparing various degree programs. Kast loves New York and said she tries to visit the city every summer to get a better feel for it. She will explore any options with basketball, though, before inevitably continuing her education.
"The more education you have, the better equipped you are for life," said Kast. "I focused on intercultural communication because there are so many aspects of it that are important in today's world. In my opinion, cultural awareness is becoming much more important and I feel that communication is a 20th century field. Many people don't have the intercultural awareness that is necessary to relate to other people today."
She doesn't take anything for granted, and is incredibly appreciative to Lobo fans for cheering her on as one of their favorite players. After having a conversation with her, it's easy to imagine Kast quickly assimilating into the vibrant New York lifestyle. Her diverse path hasn't been an easy one, but it has provided her with all the necessary tools to be a success anywhere she goes.