Most mornings you can find Joe Sofia hitting the soccer field. His evenings are equally demanding as he hits the books. The third-year communications major and UCLA standout soccer player has managed to enjoy the best of both worlds during his time here on campus.
And it has certainly paid off.
During the 2012 season, the Bruin defender, a second-team All-Pac-12 pick, helped lead the Bruins to six shutouts in 19 games and led the team in minutes played, with 1,789.
Joe Sofia (right) has made incredible strides on the field, both in the classroom and in the community during his time as a Bruin.
He has also had significant breakaways academically, including earning first-team Pac-12 All-Academic honors for the second consecutive year and holding the highest cumulative GPA, a solid 3.96, topping all student athletes who have completed more than two years of study at UCLA. Sofia was one of 324 UCLA student-athletes who secured a spot on that list last fall.
"I’m very competitive on the soccer field, and I carry that over to academics as well, so I always strive to push myself in both areas," he said.
One reason why he always works very hard to excel in the classroom is that his parents have constantly reinforced the importance of getting an education, he said. The dedication he applies to his studies goes equally into his role as a Bruin athlete.
But how does he do it?
It’s all about excellent time management, planning and, of course, balance.
"I don’t value academics over soccer, or soccer over academics; I work very hard to balance them equally," he said, noting that the preparation, practice, conditioning, travel and actual game play pretty much constitute a full-time job when soccer season is in full swing.
When you factor in rest, proper nutrition and hydration, it’s really more of an around-the-clock routine. "In many ways, it’s a 24-hour commitment," said Sofia, adding that UCLA’s quarter system gives the team a bit of an edge; soccer season commences weeks in advance of the start of September classes, giving them an opportunity to focus primarily on soccer (six days a week, sometimes with double practices) while their competitors have already started their studies.
His preoccupation with soccer doesn’t end with the season because even in the off-season, players are still dedicating roughly 20 hours a week to their sport.
"It’s a lot of structure in your life, but it’s also good because it forces you to budget your time wisely."
It also requires support from academic advisers who work with athletes to register for classes that will work well with their team schedules, and professors who will be empathetic when classes are missed or when exams must be rescheduled. Those long miles on the road en route to games and back allow time for studying and getting work done, though.
"Our coaches and the administration really push not only doing well in your sport, but also doing well in the classroom," said the Mission Viejo High School graduate who is on track to graduate this fall, which will allow him to possibly play professional soccer as early as January 2014. "If I do get the opportunity to pursue that route, I don’t want to leave without a degree. Education is something you’re always going to have. You can’t play sports for the rest of your life."
This message of working hard and playing hard is one that Sofia and members of his team recently shared with students at Emerson Middle School, where they led the school’s sports academy program in soccer drills and taught the students specific skills that the Bruins use on the field.
Sofia, on left, works with students who are part of Prime Time Team, a full-inclusion, peer mentor sports program that serves economically disadvantaged and underserved students who attend Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles.
"We were also able to give them advice on what they need to prepare themselves if they want to go to college," he said. "I was able to tell them how I got to UCLA and the study habits that they need to develop early, ones that will carry on into higher education."
The team also fielded questions from the group and further encouraged them to work hard, stay motivated and pursue their dreams.
Players are also engaged with future Bruins through efforts like "Marathon Kids", "I'm Going to College" and "Prime Time Team." These events usually take place on the UCLA campus and involve many student athletes representing various sports teams. "With all of the support we get from the community at our sporting events, it is very fulfilling to be able to give back to members of the community."
For Sofia, the road to UCLA wasn’t a particularly long one — literally or figuratively. The Dove Canyon, Calif., native grew up surrounded by Bruin tradition. His mother and a cousin are both UCLA graduates. In addition, many of his neighbors and former teachers are "loud and proud" alumni.
"When I got the offer to play soccer here, it was like a dream come true," said Sofia. "I’ve always wanted to go here, and when I was making my decision about which college to go to, I was trying to find a great balance of academics and athletics. Out of all the schools that contacted me, UCLA had the best of both worlds. I’ve gotten to win a few PAC-12 championships and have a great education at the same time. It was the perfect choice for me to come here."