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CCEE alumni form long-lasting bonds through soccer

It began nearly 40 years ago with a casual game of soccer, open to anyone who wanted to kick the ball around for an hour or two.

But it quickly came to be about more than soccer. It was a welcome haven for students who came from faraway places like Colombia, India, Iran and Nepal to study subjects such as engineering, physics, poultry science and forestry at NC State. Some of them simply loved soccer, while others were looking for a way to get some exercise. Many of them were lonely, far from home at a time before the Internet and cellphones made it cheap and easy to connect with family and friends around the globe.

The Saturday Soccer Club, as it came to be known, became such a special experience for some of them that they stayed in touch after their days at NC State were over. They were there for each other’s weddings and kept track of career changes and birth announcements. And in early June, about 20 of them returned to campus to rekindle friendships they made almost 40 years ago.

“You never think this is something that will stick forever, but this was so important for us,” said Gerardo Hurtado, who came to the United States from Colombia in 1980 and earned his doctorate in statistics before going on to a career at the SAS Institute. “Being in graduate school, my social life was very, very minimal. I didn’t have the time. My only social life was to go out there and play.”

Being in graduate school, my social life was very, very minimal. I didn’t have the time. My only social life was to go out there and play.
– Gerardo Hurtado 

It all began on the intramural fields on Main Campus. Weekly pick-up games drew a rotating cast of characters along with the regulars. The games were competitive enough to keep the stronger players interested, but friendly enough to keep the rest coming back. “It just made for a very tight friendship with similarly minded people,” said Robert Ligtenberg, who came from the Netherlands to study physics.

They soon started to hang out off the field as well. They celebrated birthdays together and brought foods from their home countries for potluck dinners. Once, when they had a hankering for Indian food, the closest Indian restaurant they could find was in Charlotte, N.C. So they piled into cars and drove three hours there and then three hours back. They took trips to the beach and Disney World. They were there for each other if someone’s car broke down or needed help packing for a move.

“We had our own mini-United Nations,” said Mehrad Yasrebi, who came to the U.S. from Iran in 1976 to work and attend graduate school. “They made NC State my home away from home.”

Much of the credit for bringing and holding the group together all these years were a pair of small-town North Carolinians who had never traveled outside the country. “We didn’t know anything about anywhere,” said Pam Cook ’85, who grew up in Hickory, N.C., before coming to NC State to study civil engineering. Her eventual husband, Steve Cook ’84, ’94 MS, grew up in Hookerton, N.C., a small community in eastern North Carolina. He also studied civil engineering, and met international students in class. “There seemed to be a lot of students from the Middle East,” he said. “It sort of piqued our interest.”

The Cooks don’t take credit for starting the soccer game, but they helped it become a welcoming place for all. Yasrebi, who did graduate work in electrical engineering at NC State, recalls a young woman greeting him when he first showed up at the soccer fields: “I was by myself, and she left the game she was playing and ran out and said, ‘Welcome.’ It was Pam Cook, as it turns out, and she was as welcoming as anyone can imagine.”

And it was the Cooks who started bringing picnic lunches, or birthday cakes, for players to enjoy after the game. It was the Cooks who organized the first outings away from the field. “It felt like we were able to travel without leaving Raleigh,” said Pam. “We were tasting foods from around the world, hearing other languages. The guys from Colombia and Peru brought guitars and sang at the potlucks.”

We were tasting foods from around the world, hearing other languages. The guys from Colombia and Peru brought guitars and sang at the potlucks.

– Pam Cook 

The international students also welcomed the chance to expand their view of the world. Narayan Rajbhandari ’86 MS, ’96 PHD, who came from Nepal to study forestry at NC State, enjoyed learning Spanish from Peruvians and trying new beers from Holland. “In the first few months, I had some homesickness,” said Rajbhandari, who recently retired as a senior environmental specialist from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “But after meeting all those people, I actually forgot about it.”

Such memories came rushing back as the group got together this summer for a long weekend in Raleigh — with one coming from as far as Columbia — for a dinner at Amedeo’s, a cookout at the Cooks’ house, and a tour of campus. And, of course, a game of soccer. They were older and some had lost their hair or seen it turn white. But it didn’t keep them off the field, even if they were a step slower and they played a much shorter game than they did in their days as students. Many of them acknowledged feeling a bit stiff and sore for the rest of the weekend.

“I loved standing back and watching the guys reconnect,” said Pam Cook. “That was a highlight for me.”


This story was originally published in NC State Magazine.