GOTHENBURG, Sweden — When I listened to Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, address the students at Stanford University’s graduation this past summer, he urged his audience to focus less on what they want to be, and more on who they want to be. I believe that my greatest growth as a person has come from realizing what aspects have been conditioned through where and how I grew up. The moment you can identify why you see things as you do is the moment you gain the power to choose how you will see them from now on.
I was raised by ambitious parents, in a fast-paced New York City suburb. From age 9, I’ve had high aspirations and goals, and my drive is an innate part of my character. Living in Sweden has opened my eyes to how much value is placed on this individualized competitiveness in the United States compared to other cultures. While I love these aspects of myself and will never lose them, living in Europe has made me crave information about how other people view certain aspects of life.
This may sound odd coming from a person who has been around the world, but I just realized a couple weeks ago that I love traveling. For almost as long as I can remember, the process was simply the means to an end — a somewhat stressful trip to an unfamiliar place, paired with the nerves and focus of competing. With a team for a short time, you never truly get to experience a new place. A day off for sightseeing makes for educational moments and quality photos, but it’s nowhere near the same as living in another country for an extended period.
Being in Sweden has helped me to separate certain parts of myself that are inherently American — my sense of urgency, individual drive and competitiveness, and views on cultural diversity. By default, I’ve acclimated to certain facets of Swedish life and fútbol. On the field, I have benefited from a system of play that is more team oriented and forgiving of mistakes. Outside of fútbol, I have gained an appreciation for quality of life over having and/or doing more. The aspects of this culture that I have adopted into my own have made me want to widen my perspective further. I want to see and play in more places, and experience how more people live.
I’ve found that wherever you are in the world, there are always friends. Whether it is somebody you already know that is there by chance, a connection of some sort through a mutual acquaintance, or just a friendly stranger, there are people with whom to connect.
This past week the team had two days off, so I decided to take a train to Norway on a mini-adventure. The trip only increased my appetite to travel, learn more and be exposed to different people. I know an American male player currently trying to find a team in Europe. I took the four-hour train ride to Oslo, and then a short ride to the smaller town of Lillestrom, where he is currently staying. His parents are from Nigeria, so after walking through the town, watching the women’s team train and learning a bit about what life is like in Norway, he cooked me a traditional Nigerian dinner. I like pretty much all food so I didn’t think much of it when he asked if I would like Nigerian food. I not only loved the food but enjoyed learning about how it is eaten in Nigeria and some primary differences between Nigerian, Norwegian and American cultural values. As I soaked in everything I was seeing, hearing and feeling, it was intoxicating.
While in Norway, I also met up with a good family friend. My mom worked with Grete Waitz, the famous Norwegian marathon runner and former world record holder, for many years and became close with her. Grete, who won nine New York City Marathons during her career, died last year. I met her husband at the train station and he gave me a wonderful walking tour of Oslo. He and Grete both grew up there, so it was fascinating to hear his impression of how the city, and country, have changed over time. I also got to see a special sculpture in honor of Grete, that is outside of Oslo’s Bislett Stadium.
These experiences during my time away have brought my attention back to Cory Booker’s wise words at the Stanford graduation. I came to live and play in Sweden to bring me closer to my aspirations — what I want to be. But I plan to continue to focus on and invest heavily in who I want to be.