At first glance, Tia Juliano may seem like your average American girl. She listens to Taylor Swift, hangs out at the mall with her friends, serves on the student council, and loves volleyball with a passion.
But there’s one big difference between Tia and most other American 15-year-olds: Tia has never really lived in the United States—or even in North America. Like thousands of other children of U.S. Armed Forces personnel (known as “military brats”), Tia has spent her whole life living abroad, moving from base to base, country to country, but has rarely set foot on her native land.
“I’ve lived overseas for almost 13 years,” says Tia, “only going back to the United States every two years to visit family and maybe attend a volleyball camp. Because of this, my own country has become a bit foreign to me.”
Currently living on a U.S. Army base in Vicenza, Italy, with her parents (Tia’s father is in charge of athletics on the base) and her older sister Milan, Tia has also lived in South Korea (twice), Japan and Germany (also twice), seldom staying more than a couple of years in any one place.
Not all the girls on Tia’s volleyball team move around so much. Junior Alessia Catena, for instance, has lived in Italy for eight years—half her life.
“It’s funny,” says Alessia, “when people ask me where I’m from, I say New York, because that’s where my dad’s family is from—even though Italy is where I’ve lived the longest. I think when I move back the States, I’ll start to call Vicenza my home.”
But for Tia, life has been a stream of frequent migrations—not just to new towns and schools, but to whole new countries and cultures. Such a nomadic lifestyle has its challenges, but it’s not without its plus side: in her first 15 years, Tia has done things most Americans won’t experience in a lifetime, like reaching the top of Mt. Fuji, climbing the Great Wall of China, snorkeling in the Similan Islands, hiking all over Europe with her dog Roxy, and joining in the relief effort for tsunami-stricken Thailand.
But throughout all her exotic adventures, Tia’s great passion has always been volleyball, and from her earliest years she has tenaciously pursued the sport—even when her army brat lifestyle made it a somewhat elusive goal.
“Although living in foreign countries made it difficult to follow my dream of playing volleyball, I did whatever I could to be around the sport as much as possible,” the outside hitter says. “Most of the places I’ve lived didn’t have a volleyball program for my age, and if there was one, it was very basic. This resulted in me practicing with my sister’s teams and the community team. I would also go to local clinics, along with camps at Emory University and the University of Georgia. I took stats for my sister and her teams for many years, but mostly I observed.”
In 2008, twelve-year-old Tia got a rare opportunity, when a group of touring AVP superstars made a stop in her town of Ansbach, Germany, to do a clinic.
“I had the privilege of training with four professional beach volleyball players, Jeff Nygaard, Ty Loomis, Angie Akers, and Brooke Hanson. It was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences of my life.”
This training session with the pros boosted Tia’s game, though it had already become clear that both she and her older sister Milan were exceptional players.
“Milan and I made the All-Star team in Aviano [Italy], and in Vilseck [Germany] we made the Elite team.”
And the most impressive accolade of all: Milan was named to the All-Europe First Team in 2010, marking her as one of the top dozen young players on the continent, across all divisions—even though her team, Vicenza, is only a Division-II team. This achievement is all the more remarkable when you realize Milan stands a mere 5’2” tall.
Though Milan’s smaller stature may exclude her from Division-I teams (which typically recruit much taller players), many D-II schools have eagerly courted her, including University of Dallas, Valdosta State University and University of Georgia. That so many stateside schools are pursuing a player who isn’t even on the American radar testifies to Milan’s superior skill.
But while Milan may be the main star in the Juliano constellation right now, she believes Tia will one day shine just as brightly: “I told Tia several years ago that she was better than I was at her age,” says the setter. “I think she will reach my current level.”
Since Tia’s father Mark is not a soldier but rather a Department of Defense civilian, he has never been deployed; but about half the girls on Tia’s team do have active-duty fathers, some of whom have been shipped off to places like Iraq or Afghanistan (one girl’s dad is in Qatar right now). It’s hard for the entire post, says Tia, when soldiers get sent out on missions.
“When a deployment happens, when a soldier is lost, or when we get one of our own named as a Medal of Honor recipient, the whole base feels it. Our school/military/family life counselor usually stays pretty busy. Stress is high before, during, and you may not think it, but also at the return of the service member.”
Considering how many times Tia has moved around, it’s a testament to her character and strong family life that she still maintains a flawless academic record, scoring straight A’s while taking honors courses.
Of course, nobody’s perfect: according to Milan, Tia can be a bit of a prima donna. “She’s a bit high maintenance: uses wine glasses for her milk, uses Tupperware instead of baggies to carry snacks, etc. It’s all good, except when I’m on dishes.”
But considering the unusual life Tia Juliano has been leading for the past 15 years, perhaps an idiosyncrasy or two can be forgiven.
After all: she’s not your average American girl.
Originally published in May 2011