SAN DIEGO — Football, baseball, basketball: Major American sports have long served as a potential ticket to a college education for student-athletes — or at least a source of some financial support.

Despite the sport’s deep meaning to coastal communities like San Diego, surfing hasn’t traditionally been included on that list.

But now that’s changing: With help from alumni, parents, community members and other boosters, UC San Diego is handing out the first college surf scholarships ever recognized by the National Scholastic Surfing Association, which governs youth competition in the U.S.

Makena Burke, a 19-year-old Ventura native, is the program’s proud first recipient. More young Tritons are expected to receive funds in the near future. Surfing is a club sport at the school, as opposed to NCAA-governed teams, and Burke is one of only a few club athletes to receive such funding.

In a letter to potential donors, the UC San Diego Surf Team explained why it was raising money to help bring more “surf-scholars” to the school and support their education.

“Between 1969 and 2019, the Surf team won seven national championships, making it one of the most successful sports organizations in UC San Diego history,” a spokesperson wrote. “The Tritons remain competitive BUT have not won a national championship in 16 years.

“The team continues to thrive and showcase success in other ways, but they are hungry for the #1 spot.”

Burke got the memo, apparently. Just weeks after receiving the first-of-its-kind scholarship, she became the NSSA’s 2022 national college women’s champion. In an Instagram post celebrating the win, she shouted out her teammates who also medaled in the competition and the team for placing third overall.

The young surfer, a freshman pre-med student, says she never dreamed surfing could boost her career in the classroom.

The UC San Diego Surf Team celebrates its multiple podium finishes at the 2022 NSSA College Championships (Photo: Ethan Garcia/@ethangarcia.23)

“Until now, I never imagined that a scholarship for surfing could exist,” Burke said in a statement provided by the school. “I am honored to be the inaugural recipient of this award and excited that it will encourage a new generation of surf-scholars. … I look forward to continuing to broaden the surfing spirit at UC San Diego and making our connection to the ocean even stronger.”

Burke’s scholarship was possible so quickly after the school started fundraising because they solicited “current-use” funds, which could be used to grant more scholarships in the near term.

Looking to the future, the school hopes to grant more scholarships of $2,500 or $10,000 annually, with recipients getting either one or two years of support. To help make that a reality, donors have started building the Smith Surf Team Scholarship Endowment — which already stands at nearly $100,000, counting multi-year contributions.

Recipients will commit to remaining active on the surf team and in good academic standing to qualify. The school is taking a similar approach to boost its burgeoning esports program (competitive multiplayer videogaming).

People who are interested in donating to the endowment can visit this page. A school spokesperson mentioned that a chancellor’s matching challenge will amplify contributions through the end of the month.