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Soccer Star Bridges Activism, Leadership and Research

Soccer Star Bridges Activism, Leadership and Research

Outside a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, 18-year-old Dakota Peterson and his youth academy teammates sat late into the evening. As Latin music drifted overhead, Peterson felt life pulling him — not toward a career in professional soccer, as he had once imagined, but toward one that would invoke a similar spirit of collaboration, leadership and global connectedness.

It was the start of a journey that would take the now-political-science major from the world’s top soccer academies to campaigns on the streets of Philadelphia and the halls of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Beyond the Turf

Before coming to Drexel, Peterson was known around his hometown of Denver, Colorado, as a “soccer kid.” He was a starter on his state champion high school team before transitioning to the Colorado Rapids Development Academy, where he built his skills and reputation as an upperclassman. He was recruited by the Real Madrid Youth Academy in Spain for a summer of training and competition, which led to similar opportunities in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires the following summers.

Though he continued to rise the ranks as a collegiate player — signing with Drexel’s Division I soccer team and playing on academy teams in Ocean City — Peterson had shifted his focus away from pro-soccer ambitions.

“I was always doing well at the academies, but not well enough to ‘break through.’ Psychologically, it was a block for me,” he says. “What I discovered at Drexel was that there are other things that I like — and more to life than soccer.”

While Peterson demonstrated his talent as a Drexel Dragon, he also explored his interests in politics and activism. Soccer had been a pastime since childhood, but activism was in his blood. Peterson recalls standing outside his dad’s office eliciting “honks for votes,” canvassing door to door for his politician grandfather, joining his first national campaign at age eight and participating in local elections throughout high school.

Drexel’s home in Philadelphia provided ample opportunity for Peterson to get involved in local causes. He registered voters for “Get Out the Vote” and campaigned for NextGen America, a nonprofit fighting climate change. Talking to passersby about climate change at first appeared to be a lesson in failure, but Peterson soon developed his own “playbook” for sparking conversation.

“I became comfortable with approaching people and figuring out how to catch their attention,” Peterson says. “I had to learn that people might not connect with climate change, but talk about their kid’s air quality, and it starts to touch home. It has made me more confident in my ability to relate to people.”

Redefining Competition

Despite his lifelong interest in politics, Peterson came to Drexel as a biology major with a pre-medical focus. With years of competitive sports training under his belt, he pursued what he considered the most rigorous plan of study related to his interests.

But by the middle of his sophomore year, he found himself struggling under the weight of a heavy course load and the demands of Division I athletics, his grades suffering and his soccer scholarship in jeopardy — combined with the realization that his courses weren’t where his passions lay. With a buckle-down mentality and the support of his coach and parents, he turned his grades around and ended the term on a high note. But the experience was also a turning point for him personally, challenging his perspective on success.

“During sophomore year, there were times when the pressure made it feel like the world was caving in. The experience taught me a lot about myself: how afraid I was of failure and of not meeting expectations, how to persevere through challenges and how to commit to doing something for myself rather than for extrinsic motivators,” he says.

As he looked into changing his major, Peterson took his new perspective back to the soccer field, where he started every game for three years and later became team captain.

“Competition has always been central to my life. While it can cultivate an environment of striving for success, it can also bring out the worst in people and discourage collaboration,” he says. “When I put on the captain’s band at Drexel, I tried to decentralize power and promote each individual’s personality and expertise. I don’t know if it was always successful, but I would do it the same way again, because that’s what I believe in.”

From Grassroots to Government

Dakota Peterson

Peterson returned to his roots and enrolled in his first courses in the Department of Politics, which he says felt like home after only a few days. When his professor, Zoltán Búzás, PhD, assistant professor of politics, offered the class an opportunity to get involved in research, Peterson jumped at the chance. It was the start of a three-year research collaboration, with Búzás and Peterson exploring the marginalization of communities in Europe.

As he learned theories of social justice, Peterson became increasingly involved in activism, volunteering for Hillary for America and independently organizing protests for causes he cares about. He attracted national media attention and was quoted in CNN, The New Republic and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“My experiences in activism were important to my career and my confidence in being able to move people, which is the reason I got into politics,” he says. “It affirmed some of the leadership skills I’d been told I had, as well as my ability to apply them to something I care deeply about — something that will matter to other people and make a difference.”

His experiences and the political science curriculum helped him land prestigious opportunities in policy research and creation. During his co-op at the U.S. Department of Labor in Philadelphia, Peterson helped promote equal employment in companies with federal contracts — performing impact ratio analyses on hiring information to help corporations avoid discriminatory behavior. As a senior, he independently completed an internship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tank and Civil Societies Program, collecting data and performing literature reviews as part of the Asian manuscript team.

In May, Peterson received the Department of Politics award for the most exceptional graduating senior. As he wraps up his final year, he says the connections he’s made at Drexel are among the most cherished aspects of his college experience.

“The professors in the politics department are incredible — they’re great scholars and brilliant teachers. Professors like Zoltán Búzás, Amelia Hoover Green and Phil Ayoub have always been there for me in my career, giving me opportunities and feedback and helping me along the way. They are good people with a sort of endless giving, and I will always want to reconnect with them,” he says.

Peterson plans to pursue a master’s degree in international relations or comparative government and, after that, a research-driven career in foreign affairs. In July, supported by scholarships from Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Politics, he will attend the Sarajevo Symposium in the European nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, gaining connections with foreign leaders and a postgraduate certificate in managing post-conflict transitions.

“I’m interested in bridging the two elements of my life — activism and the research, scholarly side. I would like to take big ideas, connect them to research, and turn them into policy,” he says. “My activism will hopefully play an important role.”

Update: After graduating with a degree in Political Science in the spring of 2018, Dakota traveled to Sarajevo for an internship at the Post Conflict Research Center. He has been offered a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to Bosnia and Herzegovina from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Peterson’s research will investigate the critical role of grassroots NGOs in translating international funds and initiatives into locally-owned peace building programs. He seeks to compare and contrast the roles of diverse organizations in creating sustainable peace.

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