IT HAS been an eventful two years for Ronaldo Jacob. A month after Trinidad and Tobago recorded its first covid19 case in 2020, he left to begin a new chapter of his life at Lyon College, Arkansas, United States.
Jacob, 22, visited TT for Christmas break and spoke about his experiences abroad and expectations for the future at a friend's Laventille home on Wednesday.
Despite being a relatively recent addition to the student roster, Jacob said he had no problems settling into campus life, beginning pre-season football training two weeks after registering. He's on an athletic scholarship, and plays left back and centre back at the college.
In addition to competing against some of the best student athletes in the southern US, Jacob must also find time to keep up with a demanding course schedule and his job in the campus cafeteria.
He says while the fast pace of the campus environment can be overwhelming, he has adjusted well, crediting his organisational skills and work ethic to lessons he learned in TT.
"I've had this dream my entire life, so it's not to say I'm worried or panicking. My entire life I've been pushing hard, so it's not to say that this is too much stress.
"The one thing the university ensures is that without a proper GPA they put you out, because you must maintain a certain GPA to maintain your eligibility so they push you academically as well. So that's what helps.
"By the time I got up there, everything went smoothly. I know what I was preparing for – I watched enough movies and enough football programmes to know it's a lot of work and you just have to get to work immediately."
Jacob's day begins at 6 am, giving him enough time to go to the gym for an hour-long workout before getting ready for class at 8 am.
Class time continues to 2 pm, when he begins his job at the cafeteria before football training at 4.30 pm.
He says training usually lasts for two hours before he gets home and begins studying, which can take him to 11 pm.
While this rigid routine has worked well, Jacob admits he had some difficulty getting used to the change in climate and air quality, but says his passion for the game was a main factor in keeping him focused.
"It was a little difficult at the beginning, because the air is a lot different over there, it's a lot thinner. But my body eventually got accustomed to it and I started to enjoy training a lot more because I felt I had to push my body more."
For this reason Jacob has spent more time on strength and conditioning while abroad and joked that even his father noticed his increase in size when he returned to Trinidad.
Meanwhile, Lyon College moved up six spots in the US schools soccer programme to number 19, the highest they have ever been ranked outperforming long-time rivals Columbia College.
Even with this dedication to football, staying on top of his academics remains a top priority.
Jacob originally planned to study business, but changed to English after reflecting on his personal plans and career goals. He says other young people should carefully consider their options before starting a degree programme, and not just go on their parents' advice.
"It's a good degree programme, but it's not something I would enjoy doing for the rest of my life. I love English, and there are so much options with it in writing, journalism and all that. So I thought I should give it a try, and so far I felt like I made the right choice. It's a lot of writing, but I like to do it, so I don't really feel stressed...
"Initially when everyone is growing up their parents might want them to be a doctor or a scientist. Obviously not everyone can be a doctor or a scientist, everyone has to go into different fields to let the world turn properly.
"Yes it's good to push yourself to the limit and do your best, but find something that you enjoy doing, because if you don't enjoy it you'll only go after it half-heartedly."
The change has worked out well for Jacob, as his GPA was high enough for him to make the honour roll, placing him among the top students at the university.
He says while he worked hard at completing assignments, he was still surprised to hear about his achievement.
"I got a message from my coach telling me I made the honour roll. I was shocked. It was myself and about three or four other guys.
"Even when they were doing some recent recruitment drives, they used me and the other athletes as examples. He said. 'These three guys, yes, they are soccer players, but they pushed their GPA even beyond the base requirement'. He said these are the things teachers like, because it shows the programme is going well."
While he is proud of these achievements, Jacob says he is wary of becoming too comfortable in success and maintains the same hunger and passion as he did when he was a star player for Trinity College, Maraval.
He aims to be an All-American, an honorary title given to outstanding student athletes, and become captain of his school's football team.
With such high ambitions and a heavy schedule, Jacob says he still finds time to enjoy the sights of Arkansas and enjoys new experiences with his friends.
"I have some friends over there, we go to the river or something, or go hiking, because where our school is located is in the rural US. There are a lot of nice hiking spots where you can go to relax. There are a lot of hammock spots."
He also enjoys spending time with his new friends and sharing parts of TT culture, recalling their attempts to imitate pelau in the cafeteria.
"I gave them the recipe and a video to watch on instructions, because I cook as well, but I let them give it a try because they were the ones in control of the International Food Tasting event. So they tried to do the pelau – and it didn't come out anything like what I thought it would be.
"It was a funny experience and a few people actually enjoyed it.
"But I know that's not what it's supposed to be."
Jacob has also introduced his friends to TT cooking, as he prepared curry chicken, cottage cheese spinach and rice for an event which he said was an overwhelming success, as he used curry powder bought in Trinidad.
He says cooking is another passion of his and has considered investing in a small restaurant once he is finished with his studies.
"One of my goals is to open up a business like that –a very small fast food place. It could start off small, but who knows, it could blossom into a franchise. I had that idea a while but I'm taking it one step at a time."
Newsday also spoke to Jacob's father, Simon Jacob Sr, who is very proud of his son and said while it was difficult having him away from home this long, they were in constant communication. Jacob's family includes his mother Leslie-Ann Jacob, and three siblings – Simon Jacob Jnr, Tricia Jacob-Benjamin and Malcolm Jacob.
"I was worried for a while because this is the first time he's been away for so long – 11 months and 15 days – so it was a bit of a strain mentally, because we're always together," said his father.
"When I heard the pandemic escalating in the US I called him and told him to wear his mask. He was actually the first one in the family to get vaccinated. Sometimes he might call me on the phone and I might hear someone passing near him and I would remind him to wear his mask."
The elder Jacob is also proud that his lessons of resilience and consistency stayed with his son, and advised other parents to maintain a presence in the lives of their children.
Jacob's former coach and long-time mentor Michael Paul also said he was proud of his accomplishments and thanked him for continuing to take pride in Laventille as his hometown.
He also said there was potential for other young men to excel once they were given the opportunities and encouragement to be their best.
"I have a joy in my heart for everything he has done. I've known him since he was six years old, being able to see all the work he did with the help of his father.
"Anyone can reach this point, but it's important for the family to give them that support. All the potential in the world won't be enough if children aren't encouraged."
Family friend and football enthusiast Gregory Pierre also praised Jacob and urged the young athlete to continue doing his best and empower others to push themselves.
With two more years left in his degree programme, Jacob is determined to leave his mark on a university far from the country and neighbourhood where he grew up. He has grown to be a better athlete and thinker, but his passion and drive for success remain the same.