In early December, former San José State University men’s soccer player Victor Parra flew across the Atlantic Ocean having just fulfilled his lifelong dream of signing a professional soccer contract with S.C. Freamunde of Portugal. It was about to get better even in a year in which he traveled to England chaperoning a youth soccer team and stepping foot on the pitch alongside world’s best soccer player Lionel Messi. Only he did not know what was waiting for him back home.
“When I came back from Portugal where I didn’t have cell phone service, I was at the baggage area of the airport and started to get a bunch of voice mails. It was from the Department of Hospitality Management Chairperson, Dr. Tsu-Hong Yen. His messages were, ‘Are you coming to the ceremony? You are the valedictorian. I need to hear from you,” said Parra.
Unsure on whether he heard the messages correctly, Parra went to see his advisor, Dr. Kate Sullivan, the founding mother of the department.
“Victor was very frantic. He said, ‘Dr. Kate, Dr. Kate, I don’t know why but Dr. Yen keeps trying to reach me and I think he has me mistaken. He’s asking me about speaking at graduation. I think he has me mixed up with another student,’” said Sullivan, recalling her conversation with Parra.
“So I had to go to Dr. Yen’s office to clarify with him and he said, ‘Yes, the vote was a couple of days ago. Victor has a really high GPA and he was nominated by several faculty members.’”
What the department staff did not realize was Parra, who played at SJSU during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, had just returned from Portugal where he signed a contract with a professional soccer team.
Upon confirming the valedictorian status to Parra, Sullivan recalled what he told her, “Dr. Kate, I’m living in a dream. I just signed a professional soccer contract and now this.”
PATH TO BECOMING A VALEDICTORIAN
In the Department of Hospitality Management, a valedictorian is not selected based on the highest grade point average. Six faculty members nominate candidates and vote on two students that they think are outstanding in areas of leadership, contributions to the classroom as well as factoring in the grade point average.
In Parra’s case, he was nominated by several faculty members becoming the first student-athlete to be selected as valedictorian in the department’s 24-year history.
One faculty member was Professor Dr. Jooyeon Ha. Sullivan read out loud Dr. Ha’s assessment on Parra.
“In both my classes, HSPM 12 (Food and Labor Cost Control) and HSPM 177 (Strategic Decision Making, a senior level class), Victor always actively participated in the class discussions and activities. He was extremely enthusiastic to learn and tried his best in class. He was impressive to me. He always had a good attitude, was always polite and respectful.
“In the strategic management class, we asked the students about their future plans and dreams. I clearly remember that Victor said his goal was to become a professional soccer player in Europe. Even though I could only comment on his performance in the classroom, when looking back at his attitude and behavior in my classroom, there is no doubt how he accomplished his goal.
“I believe that he can share his experience as a scholarly student-athlete at SJSU and give an inspiring speech to all our graduates.”
Parra plans to draw from his life experiences for his graduation address which will take place in Morris Daily Auditorium. The ceremony begins at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, December 17.
Raised by Janet Gutierrez, a single mother, in Medellin, Colombia, Parra along with his two older sisters immigrated to Central Falls, Rhode Island, a tough but affordable neighborhood where immigrants from many of the Latin American countries go to try to make an opportunity.
When his mother was faced with health issues, it was his sisters, Alba and Milena, that helped raise the youngest Parra.
“Other than soccer, I didn’t have much growing up. The high school I went to was one of the ten worst high schools in the state. Some days, the only thing that helped me wake up in the morning was to play soccer to see some of my friends,” said Parra.
Upon receiving confirmation from Sullivan that he was indeed the valedictorian, the first person he called was his mother.
“My mom was so happy and proud of me,” said Parra. “She didn’t have the educational opportunities in Colombia. So for me to get this valedictorian honor, all my hard work paid off. I know she feels relieved that I didn’t go down the wrong path considering the area we are from. It motivates me to do really well and make my family proud.”
While Parra’s mother will be in Rhode Island and unable to attend the graduation ceremony due to her health issues, he will have his other family, his closest friends from the SJSU men’s soccer team present.
“Victor is just a kid that if you got a squad of 26 players, I don’t think you’ll ever find anyone that’ll say anything negative about him as a player and a person. When he concluded his eligibility, he came with me to England as a chaperone to the under-14 boys team and likewise, every one of those boys thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” said Spartans men’s soccer head coach Simon Tobin.
“He’s a great role model for young soccer players. He overcame a lot of adversity.”
WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON
The 6-foot midfielder earned a Division I scholarship to San José State by way of Monroe College in New York and is targeting his professional debut next summer.
Before signing his first pro contract with S.C. Freamunde, Parra tried out with clubs in Holland, Sweden and Spain.
“The hardest part is just getting up from where you are and going. If you really want something in life, you have to go after it and chase it. Wherever the opportunity takes me, I’m going. I try my best and that’s all I could do. If things work out, I’ll go from there. If things don’t, I’ll go from there as well. I’ll just work with what I’ve got. I’ve always been like that,” said Parra.
“It’s been an overwhelming, amazing year. Now that the year’s ending, I hope it’ll continue into next year and beyond. Everything’s been happening at once, I have a lot of people to thank, my old coaches and teammates, my professors here at San José State, all the people that supported me.”
Parra says his valedictory address will come from his heart, but given his dedication, humbleness, and positive outlook, you can bet that Parra will continue to chase and fulfill his future dreams.