The Franklin & Marshall scholar-athlete profile features one Diplomat per month who personifies what it means to be an NCAA student-athlete. The F&M campus is filled with dedicated, passionate, and talented student-athletes who have interesting stories to tell – and it's our goal to let those stories be heard. To be chosen as a scholar-athlete of the month, F&M student-athletes must demonstrate academic excellence, leadership, and community service, or have a noteworthy story that stretches beyond the realm of athletic competition.
To view previous scholar-athletes, click here.
Melissa Epstein's parents were hesitant to allow their youngest daughter to attend Franklin & Marshall College.
On the surface, that statement appears counterintuitive. Both Jay Epstein '80 and Stephanie Simon '81 graduated from the school. Jay was a captain and No. 1 on the men's squash team's ladder while Stephanie competed on the women's tennis team. They met at Spring Arts, one of the College's most cherished traditions held annually on Hartman Green.
Their oldest daughter, Laura Epstein, graduated in 2011 and was active in student government. To make it a perfect four-for-four, their middle child, Nancy Epstein '15, also attended and thrived as a captain on the women's soccer team.
So why discourage their youngest daughter from attending a place so obviously ingrained in the fabric of their family?
"My parents did not want their past choices and those of my sisters dictating my decision regarding school," explained Melissa. "They wanted me to have my own college experience, and not one influenced in any way by their pasts."
Athletics have played a significant role in the Epstein family's experience at F&M and is ultimately the reason Melissa won over her parents when deciding to attend. Just not for the sport she grew up playing.
She was a star basketball player in high school, receiving several college offers to compete at the next level. However, two serious concussions in a span of four days during her senior year derailed her plans. Melissa was forced to step away from basketball, a sport she participated in every season of every year, and was left with severe concussion symptoms for several months. When she recovered, her neurologist encouraged her to give up competitive basketball.
Athletically, there was a void to fill in her life and squash seemed to be the natural, albeit unlikely, fit.
"I still don't remember how or why it happened, but later that year, I somehow ended up on a squash court with my dad and quickly became interested in the sport," said Melissa. "I started hitting every day and squash soon replaced basketball for me."
Suddenly, squash began to play a role in Melissa's college-search process as she started to speak with coaches and look at courts when going on campus visits. She didn't think playing collegiate squash would be an option given her lack of experience, so Melissa did not let it become a determining factor when looking at schools.
When she toured F&M in the spring of her senior year, she asked to meet with Head Coach Gavin Jones, arranging a time to talk with him at the Mayser Center courts while the women's team was practicing.
"As soon as we left the courts I remember my mom turning to me and saying, 'That's it, isn't it? That just made the decision for you.' She was right," recalled Melissa, a native of Marblehead, Mass.
"My conversation with Coach and seeing how the players interacted with each other made me want to be a part of the program. Leaving the courts that day, I knew I wanted to go to F&M."
Jones took a chance on Melissa as a walk-on for the 2015-16 season. He noticed the athleticism that obviously runs in her family's genes, believing that her natural ability would allow her to succeed at the collegiate level.
"Melissa had the talent, drive, and hunger to improve," said Jones, who recently concluded his sixth year with the program. "I have found that students who start playing the game of squash later in life are easier to coach because they are so eager to get better."
Many of her teammates had been playing squash since they were old enough to swing a racquet. The first handful of captain's practices her freshman year were described as some of the most nerve-racking and intimidating hours of her life. She didn't know the rules or the techniques and was just "winging" it. However, the F&M squash family made her feel welcomed and encouraged her to stick with the sport.
"Both my teammates and Coach made me so excited to play and to work hard, and they drove me to try my hardest," said Epstein. "I wanted to get better, not only for myself, but also for Coach and my teammates as well."
Her original goals were modest. Unlike some teammates who came to school eyeing the No. 1 position on the ladder, Melissa was focused on learning the sport, trying her hardest and hopefully making great friends through the team. Competing primarily in exhibition matches during her first year, Melissa began to see progress in her game through hard work and her dedication toward improving. She was named the team's Most Improved Player.
"Melissa has a great work ethic," said Jones. "She always arrives at practice early and always leaves late. Melissa is the type of person who knows what she wants and is not afraid to put in the hard work needed to achieve her goals."
By her sophomore year, Melissa was rewarded with a spot in the top nine. She steadily got better as the season went along and eventually finished with six wins at the No. 8 spot in the order.
"Due to my lack of prior squash experience, I felt as if I have something to prove to everyone," remarked Epstein. "I need to work hard, need to take being on the team seriously, because I want to show everyone that I deserve my place on the team and Coach made the right decision letting me join."
Tenaciously placing all her effort behind an aspect of her life that she focuses on is the same mentality Melissa carries off of the court in her approach to academics. She is a standout student, who has made the Honors List every semester and is a Marshall Fellow recipient - a program designed to award high academic achievement and provide support for academic enrichment. The fellowship provides funds that will allow Melissa to participate in an activity or program to advance her learning.
A government major, Melissa is interested in international relations and law, but doesn't want to look too far ahead to life after graduation. "Right now, I am focusing on continuing to do well in school, enjoying my next two years here at F&M, and improving my squash skills," said Epstein.
Jones also expects the rising junior to continue her upward trajectory the next two years as a vital member of the team - one who leads others by example with her work ethic and high standards both on and off the court.
"This coming season, Melissa will have a bigger role on the team, and I expect her to step up to the next level with her squash play," said Jones. "I am confident that Melissa will work hard over the summer to continue her improvement."
As a former walk-on, Melissa has already exceeded expectations – both her own and of those around her. Being a part of the squash team has allowed her to gain some of her closest friends while growing her appreciation for a new sport that she has learned to love. None of this had seemed possible just a few short years ago when touring a school her family was hesitant about giving their blessing to attend.
"I'm glad I 'fought' them on letting me come here," said Epstein.