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‘Age is just some number’: A former pro soccer player pursues a second dream at Stanford

This story is the first in a series of profiles on Stanford’s 2021-22 transfer students. The unique cohort of 60+ undergraduates, who range in age from 18 to 51, brings a multitude of perspectives and life experiences to campus.

(Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

As a professional soccer player, Johann Smith traveled the world for more than a decade, playing in England, Canada, Croatia, Finland and Sweden. At age 30, he decided it was time to embark on life’s next journey.

It was a decision that eventually led to Stanford, where Smith, now 34, is a sophomore majoring in American history and taking the classes he will need to apply to medical school.

“I’ve lived one life already; I’ve lived one dream,” he said. “And now I’m here to realize another.”

Smith has long been fascinated with the past and curious about how it affects the present.

“I want to know why things are the way they are now, and how we can steer humanity in the right direction,” he said. “As a doctor, I’ll need to understand the history of the people I am serving and the country we live in. The medical field benefits from humanities majors who approach medicine from unique perspectives.”

Smith said the brilliant students and faculty members he has met during his short time on campus are changing the way he thinks about the world.

He especially looks forward to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons when he has “Colonial and Revolutionary America,” a course taught by Caroline Winterer, the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies.

“Professor Winterer pulls from different times and places to make connections that resonate with us,” he said. “She also helps you look at American history from a different viewpoint, urging you to start tabula rasa and rethink our country’s history. Every single lecture is like a documentary, and I find myself seeing historical events play out in my mind’s eye.”

Being in class with 18-year-olds is “a bit strange,” Smith says, “but I don’t have an ego about that stuff. I have a young spirit, anyway. I have energy. I understand life enough to know that age is just some number.”

Smith hasn’t left the world of soccer entirely behind. Since arriving on campus, he has been serving as a volunteer coach for Stanford Men’s Soccer, working mostly with wingers and strikers – the positions he once played.

And he’s found community in his diverse cohort of transfer students, who number more than 60 and range in age from 19 to 51.

“Everybody has a really cool story,” he said. “Everyone helps one another out. If you have a problem, you can give one of your transfer buddies a ring and talk things out. It’s been a good experience.”