Mikela Bjork '03 (on right) delivers a piercing left jab.

Mikela Bjork ’03 (on right) delivers a piercing left jab.

The first time Mikela Bjork ’03 faced an opponent in the ring, she knew she was as ready as she could be.

She had trained for an entire year, but was a new contender. Her opponent had competed in 12 bouts.

First came the announcement: “Welcome to the ring, Mikela ‘The Professor’ Bjork!” The crowd cheered, the bell rang, and Bjork moved in, throwing punches. Slowly, the sound of the crowd faded as she focused, absorbing strikes but delivering more. She won the first and second rounds, but lost the third.

Then came the fourth and final round. “I don’t remember much about that last round,” she says. “We were both tired, and we both landed some great punches.”

Bjork did not win that first fight, but she was encouraged. “The crowd was so affirming and supportive. It was just so empowering. It was such a beautiful experience.”

Though she lost, Bjork learned more about herself in those eight minutes than she had in a whole year of training.

“The loss felt like such a feat for me because I know I gave her a run for her money,” recalls Bjork, who lives in Brooklyn and competed for the New York Golden Gloves boxing title in January. “Other coaches and boxers were talking about the new girl (me). I made a name for myself. It’s all such a gift to be able to turn a loss into such a win.”

Bjork gets advice from her trainer between rounds.

Bjork gets advice from her trainer between rounds.

It was as an undergrad at Smith when Bjork first tried boxing. “I loved it,” she says of her initial foray in the ring, at a gym in Springfield. “I knew immediately that it was something I was naturally good at and would keep getting better at the more I practiced.””

But boxing would have to wait, she knew, until she finished her undergraduate studies. A double major, in anthropology and photography, Bjork also rowed on the Smith crew team.

Her return to boxing came a year ago, following the death of her good friend, Melissa. “After losing her, I made a bucket list of things to do, and did a lot of them. l went surfing and scuba diving, and I went to this gym, where I didn’t know anyone, to try boxing again. A trainer came over to me and said, ‘Do you want to learn to fight?’ That was it. I started training with him and have been boxing ever since.”

Bjork is now a graduate student at the City University of New York, where she is scheduled to complete her doctorate in urban education in 2015—thus, her ringside moniker, “The Professor.”

“My research will look at the experiences of young women in high school with special education labels across social class and race and ethnicity,” she explains. “I am interested in collecting the educational ‘herstories’ of these young women and making connections to if and how their special education labels are produced and reproduced in schools serving various socio-economic populations and what the implications are for these women in a broader political economy.”

When she first entered the boxing world, Bjork was surprised by the other female boxers around her. “I went into the locker room that day of my first fight with a tough attitude,” she recalls, “but I was struck by how kind everyone was.”

Once in the ring, the women become competitors and the fight is on, says Bjork. But most the women were generous and friendly outside the ring. “I think it’s that in such a male-dominated sport, we have to stick together because female boxers are viewed with a much more critical eye.”

Even after completing her doctorate, and heading to Austin, Texas, where she will pursue a teaching career, Bjork plans to continue boxing.

“I spend most of my day in my head, so when I get to the gym, it is an opportunity to get out of that analytical head space,” she says. “I love the feeling of finding my rhythm, staying light in my legs, moving around the ring with ease. I love the dance of it.”