A team is built on a collection of people, driving toward a common goal, working together and inspiring each other to fulfill a purpose. They lift each other. They cheer each other on. They challenge each other. They become your family.  

This life lesson comes from the field and is one that helps many top athletes choose their best life path, starting with their college careers.

Teaggan Ilela and Alayah Hightower, two ECNL alums, found their home and family at Alabama State and Howard University, respectively. Both schools are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and a stark contrast from what both were used to growing up. 

Ilela hails from Westminister, Colorado, a northwest suburb of Denver at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. During her club years, she played for ECNL club Real Colorado, rising through the ranks as a forward. She also played high school soccer at William Hinkley High School, where she was the conference’s Player of the Year for two seasons and was also named to the All-Conference and All-City team her senior year. Ilela knew that there was an opportunity to continue her soccer career beyond high school and began the recruiting process. 

The recruiting process wasn’t ideal for Ilela. During what was an important time for her athletically, she suffered an injury causing her to miss games resulting in feelings of uncertainty and anxiousness. It was an experience that could have cost Ilela her confidence, but once she was introduced to Alabama State this all changed. When Ilela got the chance to tour the campus, experience the school and energy from the students, all of those feelings were quelled. She knew she had found the program that was right for her.

“I came to Alabama State because one of the things I wanted for myself was to attend an HBCU,” Ilela said. “It was also far away from home, which was something I wanted, to be able to branch out. And then when I came on my visit, it was a comfortable space coming here.”

Alabama State proved to be an unfamiliar environment for Ilela, but one that she actively welcomed. It was a far cry from what she had experienced growing up in Colorado, but presented an opportunity like she had never had before.

Growing up, I went to predominantly white schools,” Ilela said. “And then in high school, it was more diverse, and that was something that I really liked, being surrounded by more people that look like me. It’s really important to be in a space where you’re comfortable and I wanted to play soccer with people that looked like me and maybe had been through similar experiences.”

Since arriving at Alabama State, Ilela has thrived, both academically and athletically. As a freshman, she was named to the Preseason All-SWAC First Team, started 20 of the team’s 21 matches, led the team with assists (nine) and finished fourth in points (19). In 2018, she started 17 of the Hornets’ 18 games, once again led the team in assists (five) and finished second in goals (four) and points (13). Ilela played in just one game her junior year before redshirting due to an injury. This year, Ilela has an assist in two games. 

In 2017, Ilela and Alabama State won the SWAC regular season title with a 7-2-0 record and earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. There, the Hornets ran the table, winning the semifinals and final both in penalties. Ilela was a key member in those contests, scoring the lone goal in the semifinals and converting a PK in the championship match, doing all as a true freshman. 

Off the field, Ilela has her eyes set on continuing the legacy of HBCUs in the broader public sphere. In addition to pursuing professional soccer opportunities, she’s also looking into attending graduate school and potentially law school, with a focus on public policy. Her goal: to empower and enact change in her community. 

“Social justice is important to me,” Ilela said. “And I feel like the black community, specifically, doesn’t have enough representation in the legal system and Congress. I want to help spread awareness and give a voice to people that don’t feel like they have it.”

It all harkens back to Ilela’s choice to attend an HBCU. She didn’t discover HBCUs until she was older, but once the opportunity presented itself, Ilela jumped at the chance. And now, with HBCUs becoming more widely and publicly known, Ilela recognizes a true moment for those schools to get the recognition they deserve. 

“I didn’t know a lot about HBCUs until I was in high school,” Ilela said. “I feel like a lot of people just lack the knowledge, which is okay. But it’s important that we educate people on HBCUs, so that younger kids can choose that path if they want. It’s a different college experience, but the education is still the same – and even better.”

Alayah Hightower grew up in Mitchellville, Maryland, just 20 minutes from Howard University’s campus, and played club soccer for another ECNL member club, Maryland United. She went to high school at Severn School, starring in soccer, basketball and lacrosse for the Admirals. Hightower had no plans to stay so close to home when it came to selecting a college to continue her studies and soccer career, but after a visit to Howard, everything changed. 

“I didn’t want to go to Howard, because it’s so close to my house,” Hightower said. “It’s literally only 20 minutes away. But then we went on a recruiting visit. We toured the campus, just trying to get a feel for it, talked to Coach and it ended up being the right school for me. It checked all the marks of what I wanted in a school.”

Howard has been in the news frequently since alumnus Kamala Harris was announced and sworn in as Vice President of the United States. And much like Ilela, attending Howard was a big change for Hightower, who graduated from a private high school.

“I didn’t know it then, but I know now that I definitely needed the culture shock,” Hightower said. “After being at Howard, I know now that I needed it. Attending Howard was the best decision for me because it made me a better person; it made me an individual who’s aware and very confident.”

Hightower attends Howard as a dual-sport athlete, participating in both soccer and lacrosse, and it hasn’t been without its challenges. On top of balancing the heavy workload of studying chemical engineering, Hightowers fulfills two sets of practices and game schedules. 

“It’s definitely difficult, really early mornings, just trying to stay up with my schoolwork,” Hightower said. “It can be difficult to manage your time, but if you really want to do something, you find a way to prioritize and make it work.”

Despite the challenge of playing two sports, Hightower excels on the field. In 2018, Hightower was Howards starting goalkeeper, making 19 appearances and 11 starts, where she racked up 12 shutouts, including seven consecutive in conference play, and had three games of 10-plus saves. She led the conference in goals against average (.807), goals against (15), save percentage (.861) and shutouts per game (.579). She backstopped Howard to the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, where she only allowed one goal (coming in the quarterfinals) and earned shutouts in the semifinals and championship match en route to the league title. For her efforts, Hightower was named to the 2018 All-SWAC Second Team and earned one Goalkeeper of the Week award. 

Heading into the following season, Hightower was named to the Preseason All-SWAC Second Team and the Preseason Defender of the Year. She once again led the league in goals against average (.608), goals against (11), and shutouts per game (.444) while also leading the league in shutouts (8). She started all 18 games for the Bison, was named Goalkeeper of the Week three separate times over the course of the season and was named to the All-SWAC First Team and was the SWAC’s Goalkeeper of the Year. 

While Hightower was successful on the field, she was just as successful in the classroom, as she was also named to the 2019 and 2020 MEAC Commissioner’s All-Academic team.

For Hightower, soccer is about the team mentality, the camaraderie and togetherness. But she also found this same experience in the larger community at Howard and this is at the heart of her love for the school. 

“An important thing for people to know about HBCUs is that it’s really about unity,” Hightower said. “It’s about bringing together minorities, and making us feel like we’re important. We have so many different backgrounds at Howard University that it definitely does bring us all together. The people you meet are also very good people. We’re all hard working. We’re all working towards a common goal, to get an education.”

With Howard’s increased publicity and prominence in the general public, Hightower sees a great opportunity, not only for education but also for advancement. 

“Coming to an HBCU definitely isn’t any lesser than going to a PWI (predominately white institution), not as an athlete or as an academic,” Hightower said. “I think it’s important to know that as an individual, you can come to an HBCU and be top-notch on and off the field. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend an HBCU, you should definitely consider it.”