Acing Tennis and Classes—While Helping Others

Arriving as an international student four years ago, Boris Sorkin, A21, quickly adjusted to life at Tufts, excelling in the classroom and on the tennis court
Boris Sorkin playing tennis. He came to Tufts speaking English as his third language, mastered biochemistry, won tennis championships, and found time to take care of others, too
“Boris embodies what it means to lead by example. By being around him, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a better teammate, tennis player, and leader,” said Tufts sophomore Josh Belandres, E23. Photo: Jenna Schad
May 12, 2021

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It took time for Boris Sorkin to get acclimated at college after he arrived at Tufts four years ago, just as it does for many international students. The Saint Petersburg, Russia native had come to Tufts by way of Spain, and it was his first time in the U.S.

For instance, when his first paper for English class was due, Sorkin turned it in handwritten. He had never used a laptop for academic purposes in high school. His professor accepted the assignment, but asked that all future papers be typed.

But sports helped ease his transition. One of the reasons Sorkin came to Tufts was to play tennis, and he soon found a family in the team. Head coach Karl Gregor had picked him up at the airport and brought him to his dorm. His new teammates welcomed him warmly.

“It was an amazing group of guys when I came here,” Sorkin said. “They really helped me with the adjustment. I immediately had a group of friends. Because we shared a common interest, I felt like I belonged.”

Once he adapted to life at Tufts, Sorkin’s potential was unleashed. A two-time tennis national champion for the Jumbos, he is a biochemistry major with a near-perfect grade point average who devotes much of his spare time to helping others.

 Photo: Jenna Schad“Boris embodies what it means to lead by example. By being around him, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a better teammate, tennis player, and leader,” said Tufts sophomore Josh Belandres, E23, Sorkin’s doubles partner and teammate. “He is the most hardworking and humble person I know.” 

Sorkin went to high school in Spain, after his family moved there from Russia. He had reached out to Gregor expressing an interest in playing tennis for Tufts late in the college application process. Gregor liked what he saw of Sorkin’s tennis on video, but there was uncertainty from others about how he would fit academically at the school. Gregor advocated for Sorkin to be admitted, acting on an instinct that would later prove to be prescient.

Though that first year was difficult at times, Sorkin enjoyed the freedom of college life. He was looking for new experiences and found one right away. He joined the Tufts Stand-Up Comedy Collective and began writing and performing routines on campus. Belying his quiet demeanor, it was an early indication of a student who wasn’t afraid to confront a challenge.

“I felt independent the first time away from my parents, so they couldn’t tell me not to do it,” he said. “I love comedy, so why not try myself in stand-up?”

Sorkin returned to Tufts as a sophomore eager to interact more within the campus community. He became a resident assistant, serving as a mentor and resource for first-year students. He has remained in that role for the last three years.

“From my personal experience, I know that freshman year can be tough, so I wanted to do something that would help other people in my position and make their freshman year easier and more enjoyable,” he said. “Sometimes on campus I see my residents from two years ago, and I still say hi. It’s very nice to talk to them and see how they’re doing. It’s been a meaningful experience for me.”

His greater confidence was also displayed on the tennis court. Sorkin had earned All-Conference recognition as a freshman, but brought his game to a higher level the next year. In September 2018, he won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) New England singles title. Two weeks later he went to Georgia for the ITA fall national championships and won that, too, playing an intelligent style of tennis to become the Tufts team’s first-ever national champion.

“He’s a mentally tough player who knows that if he can hit the ball how he wants, he can out-think an opponent and employ smarter tactics,” Gregor said. “You have some players who have one game and that’s all they can bring and if that doesn’t work against a particular opponent, they’re in trouble. Boris is able to make adjustments, and is confident in his ability to do that.”

His sophomore year was transformational in other ways as well. He decided upon biochemistry as a course of study because he liked the balance between the two sciences. He also began tutoring local middle school and high school students in math, physics, and chemistry through Tufts’ Leonard Carmichael Society

It’s in Sorkin’s nature to want to help others. Diren Pamuk-Turner, a senior lecturer in chemistry and Sorkin’s academic advisor, recalled how during one of their meetings Sorkin expressed his disappointment that a volunteer opportunity in a hospice ward at a local hospital had fallen through. She was moved by the pureness of his desire to help those in need.

“I just couldn’t believe how selfless he was,” she said. “It was not going to pay him back psychologically or monetarily at the end of the day. Boris’ willingness to work for the hospice service was purely to comfort others, without expectations of any kind. He just wanted to help.”

Sorkin has regularly sacrificed his time for others while at Tufts, including volunteering at the Y2Y Youth Homeless Shelter in Harvard Square for the last two years.

“It’s very hard to explain why you do certain things other than because you wanted to do them and you wanted to make a difference,” he said.

He’s become the most decorated player in Tufts tennis history. In October 2019 Sorkin not only won his second ITA New England and national championships, but he also received the James O’Hara Sargent Sportsmanship Award at the national event which was voted on by coaches and officials.

That spring he was a recipient of the prestigious Arthur Ashe Award for the Northeast Region recognizing outstanding sportsmanship and leadership, as well as scholastic, extracurricular, and tennis achievements. He and Belandres were also the runners-up of the New England doubles championship in 2019.

His spring season with the team in 2020 had barely started before it was canceled due to COVID-19. However, he’s been back on the court with his teammates this spring as Tufts has returned to play a limited schedule.

“He shows up every day and leaves everything on the court,” Belandres said. “I’ve watched him battle through fatigue and injury, only to come out on top almost every time. He will never admit it, but he is and will always be a Tufts Men’s Tennis legend and I am just happy to have had my two years on the team with him.”

Sorkin’s performance in the classroom has been so strong that many of his professors nominated him for various awards. In the midst of everything else, he has also worked in Tufts’ Kaplan Lab as an undergraduate research assistant since sophomore year.

“He pushes himself for perfection for sure,” Pamuk-Turner said. “If he doesn’t understand something he doesn’t get away from it. He doesn’t get scared from it. He sees it as a challenge.”

Sorkin’s modest approach to everything he does is what those who know him well marvel at the most. Pamuk-Turner knew him for almost two years before he disclosed to her that he was a national champion and fluent in three languages (Russian, Spanish and English).

“His hesitation to talk about anything that might sound a little bit too proud impresses me,” she said.

He’s only just begun. Sorkin is off to Harvard School of Dental Medicine later this year.

Coming to Tufts “was the best decision of my life,” he said. “I’ll be forever grateful to my parents for giving me this opportunity.”

Paul Sweeney can be reached at paul.sweeney@tufts.edu.