Senior Spring: Alex Adelabu ’15 on a journey of growth

by Ray Lu | 4/23/15 7:25pm

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Alex Adelabu ’15 led the men’s soccer team to an Ivy League title in his senior year.
Source: Alice Harrison/The Dartmouth Staff

Stoic and engaged, Alex Adelabu ’15 raises his hand in the Rockefeller Global Leadership Program to contribute his own perspective on intercultural awareness. The Big Green men’s soccer team wrapped up an Ivy League title in the fall, and Adelabu has been keeping busy. Considering his background, he will have a lot to share.

Adelabu was born in Ibadan, the capital city of Oyo state in Nigeria, and his family moved to Houston when he was 11. Naturally, Adelabu’s experiences have given him an extremely unique background. Yet it is the way he reflects on and engages with his surroundings that demonstrates his character.

Growing up, Adelabu lived on the campus of a school for the disabled, where his dad served as the principal. While Ibadan is Nigeria’s third largest metropolitan area, Adelabu had the small town feel while living in a more isolated area.

“I guess that’s where I got used to being different and not being judgmental,” Adelabu said. “We had a church right next to the mosque, because it was a school and you had to respect different students who practice different beliefs and whatnot.”

At the school, Adelabu also discovered his passion for soccer around three or four years of age. One day, he followed his two older brothers to the soccer field in the center of the school.

“[My brother] shot a ball and it hit me right in the stomach, and I think it shot me like two or three feet back, and I started crying,” said Adelabu.

His parents had told the brothers not to take Adelabu to the field, because it was getting dark.

“They didn’t want me crying [when I went] home because my parents would be mad,” Adelabu said. “So they gave me the ball, and then I just started playing. After that, they just started taking me to the field.”

When Adelabu was eight years old, his parents sent him to boarding school. His love of soccer didn’t stop there. His favorite team, Arsenal Football Club, was a powerhouse in the early 2000s, led by star striker Thierry Henry. Adelabu can recount sneaking into the TV room late at night several times with his friends in order to catch a soccer game. Break time was always a point of contention for the students.

“At boarding school, there were a lot of kids that wanted to watch Barney,” Adelabu said. “So it was either Barney or soccer.”

When Adelabu and his family moved to Texas, it was the second major change in living experience he had in his first 11 years. The changes this time around, however, were less tangible.

The humid Houston weather was fine for Adelabu, who likened the climate to Nigeria’s. The biggest adjustment for Adelabu, however, was the food. He refused to eat pizza for the first time until five years ago, and in middle school he often replaced the patty in his hamburger with a cookie.

More noticeable to Adelabu, however, was the cultural difference.

“In Nigeria, there are people from different ethnic groups, but the race question wasn’t thrown at me,” Adelabu said. “But in the [United States], the race question got to me, and I really had to experience difference on another level.”

When Adelabu’s family came to the U.S., his mother and father often preached about the importance of working hard and taking full advantage of the opportunities they were given. This mentality, Adelabu said, is common of most immigrants. As a result, differences between his family, African immigrants and native Houston African-Americans were extremely salient to Adelabu.

“We kind of looked down at black [Americans] like ‘Oh, they’re not taking advantage of this system, they’re not working hard enough,’ but not understanding how the system is built against them,” Adelabu said. “When I was in Houston, it was always ‘Don’t be like these people because they don’t work hard.’ It was really a judgmental perspective of minority groups.”

In seventh grade, Adelabu also tried to take up football in Houston. Little did he know that football in America, especially in Texas, meant an oval ball and full-body padding.

“A coach gave me a helmet and I was like ‘What’s going on?’” Adelabu said. “Some kid then ran me over, and it was like ‘Yo, this is some weird football.’”

Fortunately, Adelabu found himself back on the pitch, trying out for and making the soccer team in eighth grade. In high school, his skills translated to two Most Valuable Player awards for Alief Taylor High School. His senior year, he committed to play at Pennsylvania State University. The decision wouldn’t stick, however, and in May of Adelabu’s final year of high school, head soccer coach at Penn State for the last 22 years Barry Gorman retired. His replacement, Bob Warming, ended up taking only two members of Gorman’s initial recruiting class. Adelabu was one of the five students left without a school.

That’s when Dartmouth came into the picture and offered Adelabu a spot on its soccer team. At that point, though, it was already too late for the admissions process. Not wanting to waste a year of eligibility, Adelabu enrolled for an extra year of high school at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. That year made the transition to the College much smoother, Adelabu said.

Nonetheless, Adelabu struggled his freshman year.

“It was rough. Soccer-wise it was tough just because I wasn’t used to sitting on the bench… There were practices where I just went ballistic,” Adelabu said. “I was kicking people. I was mad because I wasn’t getting playing time, and I was working hard but things were just not clicking.”

He said that Jeff Cook, who stepped down as the men’s head coach in 2013, brought Adelabu into his office and told him to begin considering the other members of the team as people who were working with him, rather than competing against him.

Adelabu started his freshman year on the right foot, scoring back-to-back goals at the Dartmouth Classic in early September. When school began in late September, though, Adelabu began to struggle and failed to score another goal for the rest of the year. Adelabu said that he couldn’t wait for his first season to be over.

With the soccer season winding down, Adelabu was able to devote more of his focus on school in the winter, when he met more international students and started to settle into his place at the College. His most transformative experience, however, came in the summer.

Through the Tucker Foundation, Adelabu participated in Dartmouth Partners in Community Service, working as a case manager for a homeless shelter in Houston.

“It was depressing to some extent because you see people who don’t have that many things,” Adelabu said. “Everyday you’re talking to them, and sometimes you realize that you’re very young, you still have a lot ahead of you and you can make the most of it.”

Combining his volunteer work with his struggles in his first season donning a Big Green kit, Adelabu renewed his energies and trained hard during that summer. The results: a breakout sophomore season with a team-leading nine goals and 21 points.

In a late-season game against Harvard University, the Big Green went down in the eighth minute. Adelabu tied up the game with a strike 22 minutes in. In the second half, however, he completely took over, taking advantage of a defensive miscue to slot the go-ahead goal before assisting Alberto Gorini ’16 to put the game away in the 82nd minute.

“I felt like that was me coming into the spotlight,” Adelabu said. “At home, against Harvard, you just can’t set up a better moment than that.”

Just as Adelabu was growing more comfortable in his position, the team underwent a coaching change, and then-assistant coach Chad Riley came to the helm.

“It was tough because we were trying to understand each other,” Adelabu said. “Obviously he was the assistant coach the year before, but when coaches come in they have different views, and it’s really important that you try to understand each other and how different players work.”

This past season brought the men’s soccer team back to the top of the Ivy League. The Big Green opened up the season against the University of Notre Dame, suffering a 4-1 loss to the then-defending national champions. The team, however, was not deterred. After bonding over a training trip in the wilderness, morale was at an all-time high.

“We have a video of [training in the water], and that moment when we were all singing in the water, we knew that there was something special that was going to happen,” Adelabu said.

The season ended with a loss to Providence College in the NCAA Tournament, but overall the team’s season was a success.

“Dartmouth is just really dear to my heart,” Adelabu said. “It’s been a great four years, and it ended in a really great way. I couldn’t have asked for a much better ending to it.”

Currently, Adelabu is still training with the soccer team. He is staying fit and looking to play at the professional level. Whatever comes next, he knows his experiences will stay with him.

“I try to stay humble,” Adelabu said. “With anything you have to put the hard work in, that’s always a prerequisite.”