Congratulations to the winners of the NIU Fierce Gamer Scholarship – NIU Today | Team Cansler

Last spring, Dr. Levi Harrison, an orthopedist known as “the sports doctor,” announced that he will award a $1,000 scholarship to an NIU student for the 2022-23 school year. However, the best of plans can go awry, and after the grant committee narrowed the field, Dr. Harrison was faced with two applications so extraordinary he couldn’t decide between them. His solution? Award two scholarships: to NIU students Angelica Navarrete and James Westlund.

Navarrete and Westlund are both exceptional students and gamers with very different backgrounds, academic pursuits and approaches to video games. Together they represent one of the ideals that Dr. Harrison to create the grant: an inclusive gaming community that includes and supports people from all backgrounds. In their own way, each also demonstrates the other motivating ideal of Dr. Harrison: promoting healthy gaming practices.

“This scholarship is all about raising awareness of the power of the esports community,” says Dr. Harrison. “The application was open to any NIU student because I want to spread the word about the positive aspects of healthy video gaming. It can minimize your stress. I also believe it can maximize your academic achievements. It can also help you build community wherever you go, so you know you’re not alone.”

Get to know the scholarship recipients

James Westlund has been playing video games for as long as he can remember – at least since he was four years old. A senior with a management major, Westlund plays Overwatch on the NIU varsity esports team, as well as many other games including his favorite, Gears of War. Westlund is pursuing his professional sales certification at the NIU College of Business and completed a marketing internship at a digital medicine company last summer. After graduating in May 2023, Westland hopes to pursue a position in sales or marketing.

For Westlund, who lives in DeKalb and spends almost every day on campus, the NIU Esports Arena has become a second home and the other players he has met on campus are among his closest friends, study partners and support network become.

“I came here as a transfer student and attended all the events Esports hosted,” says Westlund. “I’ve met so many people like me who have been playing games since they were young and there has been amazing connections and support. Having the community be physical instead of just online is a big change. I used to never meet anyone in person when I played games – it was always virtual – so sitting here next to someone and playing with them is a completely different experience.”

Navarrete approached video games when she was a little older to connect with her brother who was four and a half years her junior.

“I wanted to connect more with my brother, so I told him we’ll play whatever you want – just help me!” says Navarrete. “We started out playing simple games like Wii Sports and Nintendo Switch Sports and then moved on to more competitive esports. We love playing Super Smash Bros. against each other, and we have very strong opinions about who the best character is. (It’s Kirby, by the way.)”

Navarrete, a senior with a major in psychology, soon took to video games herself and has been playing ever since. After completing her studies in May 2023, Navarrete hopes to pursue a career as an academic advisor in a college.

“Like most psychology students, I want to help people!” says Navarrete. “Being a tutor and student intern in high school, I realized that I love working with students in an academic environment. I want to use what I learned here at NIU to get a job as an academic advisor and help college students find their academic path to success. I’ve been fortunate to have great advisors, both at my community college and here at NIU, and I want to be that for someone else – because college isn’t easy to navigate on your own.

As an off-campus student who earned her NIU degree from Harper College’s University Center, Navarrete rarely comes to DeKalb. For her, video games are an escape after a long day at school and a way to build a community with her brother and friends.

The importance of healthy gaming

Both Navarrete and Westlund were thrilled to apply for the Fierce Gamer Scholarship as it combines academics and video games and shows that the two can go hand in hand and be part of a healthy, balanced approach to college life.

“Growing up, there was this message that you shouldn’t play video games because it would hurt academics, but for a lot of people it’s actually helpful for academics and social life,” says Westlund. “By playing esports here at NIU, I’ve met people who have helped me learn and who have become my support network. And the financial support helps cover expenses like food, so I can spend more time on schoolwork and things I love like school. B. Play.”

As part of the scholarship application process, Navarrete and Westlund raised the importance of healthy play – something they know from personal experience.

“I’ve grown to love the esports community, but I’ve noticed that when my brother was in full ‘game mode’, he would slack off on his homework and start eating unhealthily,” says Navarrete. “That worried me, especially as a psychology student. I sat down with my brother and explained to him that as much as he loves esports, it’s important to eat right and do homework before we go into ‘game mode’.”

For Westlund, the question of healthy play hit even closer to home.

“Unhealthy gambling: I’ve experienced it,” says Westlund. “At some point in my life I had a summer where I just played video games. My friends would come over and ask what I was doing, checking if I was ok because I was totally focused on the game. I got really unhealthy. I gained weight, I wasn’t eating properly, I wasn’t sleeping. I drank energy drinks to stay awake and keep playing because I wanted to be competitive. And that actually made me fail. I started hating the game, didn’t enjoy it anymore and got angry and bitter.”

This experience prompted Westlund to redesign his life and focus on getting more exercise, getting enough sleep and eating healthy, regular meals.

“I found that when I was doing positive things, like going out and playing basketball, I was actually playing better when I got back to playing,” says Westlund. “No athlete in any sport can go on non-stop without taking a break. You have to take a break, give yourself that rest when you need it – and that’s a way of appreciating yourself as a competitor.”

Learn more about NIU Esports at the NIU Esports website. Learn more about dr. Levi Harrison at

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