Discovery Profiles: Soccer Skills Help U.S. Student Kick It With Fijian Footballers
Tyler Stern didn’t want to sit on the sidelines of the local social scene when he signed up to study abroad in Fiji in 2009.
So before departing for his study abroad semester, he gathered more than the stereotypical tourist information on the island nation’s beaches and palm trees. He looked into what daily life is like in Suva, Fiji’s capital, and figured out local restaurants and meeting places. His goal? To branch out beyond students from his home country so he could meet Fijians and experience the aspects of life in Fiji that starkly contrast with life in the United States.
“Hands down, soccer was the way to do that,” says Stern, a San Diego State University graduate in finance and accounting who counts soccer as one of his biggest passions in life and has played since he was old enough to walk. “If you can smile and kick a ball, you can make friends in almost any country.”
Within hours of dropping his soccer ball on the campus of Fiji’s University of the South Pacific, Stern was attracting the interest of students who love the sport, known locally as “football.”
The first student to approach Stern hailed from the Solomon Islands. Stern didn’t speak Fijian, and the student, Duffy, didn’t speak English, so he gestured for Stern to wait, and went inside to get his soccer cleats.
“He motions me to follow him down this old rabbit path, down a little stairway and across this concrete walkway that led to this small jungle path,” Stern says.
Suddenly, the path opened up into a green field used partly for rugby, partly for soccer. Stern didn’t have his cleats, so he didn’t join the play that day. But two days later, he showed up at the field, called Vaturara, and was soon part of the group of 40-some students from Fiji and neighboring island nations as they rotated on and off for practice play.
“I swear it was like one of those things out of a movie where I walked out onto the field as the only white person and so many heads turned,” Stern says. The students pointed him out to their friends as if to say, “Hey, check out the white kid.”
But soon enough, Stern was a regular on the field and had made several local friends who called him “Taylor.” “They could not wrap their mind around the hard ‘I’ sound,” he says. “I was ‘Taylor’ to them.”
Eventually, Stern’s skills earned him a spot on the USP team, including playing in a major tournament, which the team won in front of a packed stadium. Stern will never forget the experience.
“It was humbling because they were incredibly good,” he says of his fellow players. “It was hands down the most talented team I’ve ever played with.”
From his time studying abroad in Fiji, Stern has carried forward a strong desire to return and a deep love for exploring other countries, cultures and ways of life. When those opportunities arise, he knows he’ll be drawn to local soccer games and want to join in.
“One of the kids I talked with the most, I ended up giving him my soccer cleats,” Stern says. “He’d pretty much worn through his.”
That student returned the gesture by sending Stern a Solomon Islands national jersey.
“I wear it proudly,” Stern says, “and safeguard it from all kinds of stains.”