Less than four years ago, Omar Lawrence ’16 accepted a full athletic scholarship from Valparaiso University to play soccer. He had never been outside the Caribbean and couldn’t afford to visit the University, but was fully aware that everything he had been working for since he was a boy playing soccer in the streets of Jamaica was becoming his reality.
“As far back as I can remember, I knew I was different from my entire community — motivated to make a difference, to foster change,” Omar says. “It was my responsibility to come to Valpo, to educate myself in order to help my family and change the circumstances back home. For me, Valpo is a world of opportunity — my greatest gift — granted to me through soccer.”
Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Omar was surrounded by extreme hardship — children lacking education, nourishment, and even shelter. While his family had its share of struggles, his parents made many sacrifices to send Omar to school and to ensure he attended church, was involved in activities such as Cub Scouts, and volunteered in the community. From an early age, Omar was driven to educate himself as well as provide support for his family and initiate change within the Jamaican community. Never losing sight of the bigger picture, he tirelessly pursed soccer, making many sacrifices in order to develop his passion and talent.
Upon his arrival on campus, Omar struggled to adapt to a completely new environment. Everything was different, from the culture to the people to even the food. Though he missed his family and yearned to be back home serving as the mentor his younger siblings desperately needed, Omar says returning to Jamaica without the assets necessary to promote change in the community was not an option.
While initially Omar fought an internal battle over leaving his home behind and embracing a new culture, he now points to innumerable reasons Valpo has been “perfect” inside the classroom and beyond. And, with only a few months until graduation, he now prepares for his two worlds to unite — his mother will board a plane for the first time in her life to watch him compete on the soccer field, witness him walk across the stage at graduation, and meet his wife, Malachia Jones-Bones ’16 Lawrence, a Valpo alumna whom he met on campus and married in August 2015.
As in Jamaica, Omar found refuge in soccer at Valpo. Through soccer, Omar has learned from and formed lasting relationships with a diverse group of men, honed his teamwork skills, and fostered his leadership skills through his two-year position as team captain.
“From the moment I met Omar and through his entire Valpo experience, I have never doubted how much he fully appreciates the opportunity before him to earn a degree from Valparaiso University,” says Mike Avery, head coach of men’s soccer. “In my 25 years of college coaching, I have never encountered another individual who has done more with his time in college than Omar — decorated player on a competitive Division 1 team, leading advocate of the #oneVALPO initiative, and active member of the campus community.”
Perhaps what has impacted Omar the most is the significance of community service to not only the soccer team, but to the University as a whole. Omar takes great pride in being part of a University that possesses a deeply embedded commitment to service.
The Valpo men’s soccer team has even provided a platform for positive societal change. When two of the team’s players were subjected to racial slurs from their opponents during non-conference play, Omar and his teammates created the #oneVALPO initiative, requiring a signature and a promise to show respect for all other cultures and backgrounds. This initiative has been overwhelmingly successful, and the men were granted the Martin Luther King Jr. Award in recognition of their strong commitment to creating an environment where diversity is honored and respected on campus and within the broader community.
“As team captain, Omar has been a true servant leader, setting a high standard of excellence through his commitment, consistency, and compassion,” Coach Avery says. “Omar has been a tremendous addition to our soccer program, and I could not be more proud of all he has accomplished and will continue to accomplish, both on and off the field.”
Omar is a first-generation student majoring in international business, whose fondness for accounting and economics as well as a recently discovered appreciation for travel and the experience of new cultures drew him to the field. Exposure to infinite possibility at Valpo helped Omar uncover his ultimate career aspiration, gaining employment in cross-cultural management, a career he never knew existed.
Pursuing academics diligently, Omar has developed the expertise and confidence necessary to excel as a graduate. He has experienced marked improvement in his communication skills, both written and verbal, and complete immersion in a new culture has taught Omar to understand and appreciate cultural difference, skills that will undoubtedly aid him in his future career.
“I knew virtually nothing about Valpo before my arrival as I was completely focused on soccer,” Omar says. “But, over time, I started to see what Valpo stood for — Christianity, service, community, scholarship, and so much more.”
Omar remains motivated to help his Jamaican community, with the goal of establishing a homeless shelter there. He will always miss his home, but Omar now looks forward to building a life in the U.S. with his wife.