A Political Economics major and German minor at UC Berkeley, Derek Van Rheenen didn’t know what he was going to do after college.
“Really, I thought I was going to be a spy,” he admitted to Insight. “And I’m not saying I’m not a spy; I’m just saying I thought I was going to be a spy. I couldn’t tell you if I was [sic] a spy because then I’d have to kill you.”
In addition to training (or not training) to be a spy, Van Rheenen played varsity soccer starting his freshman year at Berkeley. He was eligible to play for four years, so he took his junior year off to go to Göttingen, Germany and returned to Cal to play soccer for another two seasons, graduating in 1986.
When asked why Germany, he said that his reasoning was two-fold. First of all, thanks to his German minor, he thought he spoke pretty good German. All of the classes were taught in Deutsch (German), so he thought he’d be all set. Secondly, he played club soccer in the sixteen-and-under league, and his coach was German. This coach took the whole team to Germany to visit his family, and Van Rheenen was completely bewitched by the experience. When he returned home, he took German classes during his junior and senior years of high school and continued to learn the language in college.
“I wasn’t thinking I was going to play soccer,” he said. “I was going as a student to take my academics seriously.”
In retrospect, he may have chosen another country like Spain, Italy, or France over Germany, but he doesn’t regret going to Germany. It further instilled in him two principles that Berkeley had already begun to teach him: wanderlust (or the love of travel) and cultural sensitivity or how to travel with respect.
Born in West Africa, he probably already had a streak of wanderlust in him before his trip to Germany. However, the trip also taught him the value of being uncomfortable in a new place or experience. He said that a year was the best amount of time to be abroad because it allowed him to fully immerse himself in the culture and the language.
“It’s not easy,” he said of studying abroad, “but it’s not meant to be easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it. […] It’s always a challenge. Be self-critical. [Ask yourself,] ‘Am I doing the easy, touristy thing that is not pushing the boundaries?’”
Upon his graduation from Berkeley, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do. He worked for a German business in America for a while, but he became frustrated after he realized it would not send him to Germany as originally expected. When some friends from Germany invited him to join them in India where they were making a film, he dropped his job and headed to the source of the Ganges River, a place of astounding spiritual purity. There, he had a very important role.
“I was the pack mule,” he said. “I had no particular skill except for being very strong. I would carry things […] just like ‘pack him up.’”
When he returned from India, he still had “absolutely no idea what to do.” It was then that soccer “kept [him] grounded, [was] [his] saving grace.” After playing club soccer for a little while, he got drafted and became a professional soccer player for the San Francisco Bay Black Hawks. He was the captain of the team. In 1990, they lost by penalty kicks, but in 1991, they won the national championship. This experience too taught him an important lesson about thriving in potentially uncomfortable situations.
He said, “I think the comfort level comes from saying, ‘I recognize that things are coming at me very quickly, but it’s okay. I’m also moving very quickly, and I can adjust accordingly.’”
Though soccer had kept him happily active up until this point, during the buildup to the 1994 World Cup hosted in the U.S., there was a lull in the soccer action. Van Rheenen decided that it was time to move on.
Of course, he ended up at UC Berkeley again to get his master’s in Education and doctorate in Cultural Studies. His anthropology professor, the late Alan Dundes, inspired him by saying, “One minor genre of folklore is children’s’ games, and you, because of your background in athletics and sports, would be perfect to look at this.”
Convinced that sports represented an “international currency” or an “international language of their own,” Van Rheenen began to study the way sports intersected with national and regional identities, social class, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality.
With a family full of intellects, it should come as no surprise that Van Rheenen took to the world of academia so easily. However, Van Rheenen was well aware of the “dumb jock” stereotypes and was bent on deconstructing them.
“You can have a well-exercised mind and body simultaneously. They aren’t in conflict necessarily,” he said.
When asked how he managed to bounce from professional soccer to higher education so gracefully, Van Rheenen said, “Everything sort of happens for a reason. It’s kind of serendipitous the way things align themselves. […] For me, I just had to trust my soul in a way. […] I don’t think I could ever do something that I’m not committed to. I don’t think I could stay in it. When I’m ready to move on, I move on.”
Today, Van Rheenen teaches at UC Berkeley, has written a book called Out of Bounds and several articles on sports from an anthropological viewpoint, coordinates the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education (CSSE) Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley, and still has a healthy dose of wanderlust.
Bursting with good advice, he urges students to make active decisions, connect with people who are not like them, push against close-minded thinking, go outside their comfort zones, and open their senses while at home and abroad.
After many years of soccer, Van Rheenen advises all students, “Challenge yourself, every step of the way. […] Many players will never ever develop their left foot. They’re right footed. They’ll keep playing their right foot because they know they’re good at it. For younger people, my advice is to develop the left foot. Develop it now.”
To the Golden Bears of the world specifically, though, he says this: “Berkeley prepares young people to be confident that they can [move between different opportunities]. […] We go out, and we create our jobs. We create the world. We change the world. We can do that. That’s why we’re Berkeley students. We’re not following. We’re leading. That has always served me incredibly well. Make sure you’re true to your heart and make sure you’re true to your soul and do something you’re passionate about.”