Off the PitchFeb 15, 2019

A Degree 10 Years in the Making

For Portland Timbers defender Zarek Valentin, it was never a matter of if he would finish his degree, but when. 

In just three semesters at the University of Akron, he helped lead the Zips to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, where they ultimately captured the school's first National Championship title in 2010. After two successful seasons, Valentin elected to leave the university, becoming a part of the Zips' impressive draft class that included teammates Perry Kitchen and Darlington Nagbe.  He went on to sign a Generation Adidas contract and was drafted fourth overall in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by Chivas USA. 

Ultimately, Valentin was selected by Montreal in the Expansion Draft, and spent the 2012 season with the Impact before going international and joining  FK Bodø/Glimt in Norway for two years. In 2016, he was traded by Montreal to Portland, and is preparing for his fourth season with the Timbers. 

This past December, Valentin graduated from Akron with a B.S. in Organizational Supervision after working for nearly ten years to finish his degree. He shared his story of persevering through an academic journey that spanned three different countries and why it was so important to him to graduate. 

Q: When did you decide to go back and finish your degree?

I knew right away that I wanted to continue. It was important for me to get my degree, especially from my parents’ point of view. I remember a lot of distinct conversations about leaving school early, which I had the fortune of leaving school after 3 semesters, and they always focused on that I was going to finish. It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. I was going to finish no matter what. 

I took off for about a year and a half when I first went pro just to transition. But I knew if I didn't get right back into it it would be even harder. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who are trying to go back now that they are 27, 28 and it’s very difficult. So I was 20 at this point still and decided you know what I need to get back in it.

Q: What were the challenges of accomplishing this away from a campus?

Thankfully, my academic advisor was fantastic, she made life incredible for me. The most difficult part was trying to get the proper books, especially because I was in Canada and then Norway. A lot of times if they didn’t have a book online I would have to make sure I got them in the offseason, or have my parents ship them to me in Canada or Norway. That was a little bit tricky. 

The classes were challenging in terms of a lot assignments are due Sunday nights. As soccer players know, a lot of times we play Saturday or Sunday so I would have to plan ahead to make sure I was able to get all my work done. I remember basically taking one class and then two and then three and figuring out 'Ok I can take three classes max at once.' For about two months I was taking four classes last year, which was too much to be completely honest, I got a little burnt out. 

Know that the outcome is worth the work and the struggle. It's so nice to have that degree, and no one can take that away from me."

Q: How did you stay motivated to keep going over the years?

I definitely had "senioritis." I was a senior for two actual years and  the last few credits were a little bit challenging actually because I had to go back and do some general education classes.

Always keeping your goals in sight helps. My wife was really encouraging, she has two degrees herself so I had to catch up. To have a support system that really is behind you and pushing you to reach that goal and to know that the outcome is worth the work and the struggle is ultimately what kept me motivated throughout my basically 10 years on the road pushing through schooling. It’s one of those things that was tough, but it’s so nice to have that degree and no one can take that away from me. 

Q: What was the biggest benefit of continuing your education during your playing career?

It helped me be more organized and on top of my routine on the pitch. That might sound weird, but  once I left college I never owned a gaming console. Instead of playing video games, I was doing homework. When you get into a regimented routine you start to think 'Ok I need to make sure I eat properly and diet and take care of my body and make sure I’m doing these things on the road, I need to make sure I’m bettering myself.' I think that ultimately helped me be a better professional, being more regimented. I think the part that scares guys the most is that with athletes these things are kind of just set up for us, an academic advisor tells you what to do. So you have to get past the logistical aspect of it. It’s important because there is life after soccer, we don’t make enough money to just retire.

It was nice that it carried over into my life after school too. I’m trying to read books and better myself and further my education and gain more knowledge. I have this thirst to keep going which is great. I definitely want to continue learning and growing, I’m trying to read a book a month, things like that. When you learn for so long and then you stop essentially with taking classes you kind of feel this need to fulfill that. I’m not sure what’s next but I’m excited to have that desire to keep pushing myself whatever that might be.

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