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Austin Meyer: The Story of the Storyteller

BERKELEY, CA - November 16, 2014: The Stanford Cardinal vs Cal Bears men's soccer match in Berkeley, California. Final score, Stanford 3, Cal 2.

Austin Meyer may be a journalism co-term, but if you were to ask him, he’d be much more inclined to call himself a storyteller than a journalist.

“I like to tell stories that really illuminate parts of the human condition,” Meyer said about the motif of his work. What I like to say about it is that it’s not newsworthy, but it’s life-worthy.”

Despite being someone who embraces telling other people’s stories, he rarely focuses on his own.

His story has taken him from his hometown of Santa Rosa, California, to the Farm’s Laird Q. Cagan Stadium, to the improv stage and now to Baltimore for the opportunity of a lifetime with The New York Times. It is full of disappointment and growth, euphoria and laughter, and a never-ending quest to explore the intricacies of the human condition.

***

After attending countless soccer games to watch his two older brothers Brendan and Jordan, Austin tried out the sport for himself when he was around four years old. Wanting to take his game to the next level, he joined a travel team, Santa Rosa United, five years later and played for it until he was 18.

“When I first joined that level of competition, [my parents] said, ‘All right, we’ll do it for one year and after that we’ll probably move on to something else,’” Meyer said. “My mom said that after that first year she knew we’re going to be in it for the long haul because I just loved it so much.”

Despite playing competitively throughout his youth, it was not a given that Meyer would play in college, and he even described himself as a “very average” player going into his freshman year of high school. But over those next few years, he blossomed into a player talented enough that prospect of playing at the collegiate level suddenly became a reality.

Meyer’s commitment to the Farm in February of his junior year certainly would have surprised his younger self: After all, he grew up a huge Cal fan, as he’d lived only a little over an hour away from Berkeley and his oldest brother Jordan had matriculated there.

“All my birthday parties growing up were at Cal soccer games,” Meyer said. “I’d go to Cal football games, Cal soccer games, I always grew up at that field. I always grew up at those stands, cheering on the Bears, thinking that one day I was going to be a Cal soccer player.”

Despite choosing Stanford’s Maloney Field over Berkeley’s Goldman Field, Meyer did not see much actual action on the field his first two years at Stanford. He ended up redshirting his freshman year, and in the following season, he appeared in only two games off the bench and injured his groin towards the end of the season.

“For most athletes that come in as a freshman, you kind of think you’re hot stuff and then you get a rude awakening that you’re not that special and not that talented,” Meyer said. “So it was tough — I went from being the man to suddenly not seeing any of the field.”

He might have made it onto as talented of a team as Stanford, but he had a lot of growing to do — not only in terms of his athleticism and skill, but also as a team player.

“I think my freshman and sophomore years I was very egotistical and had a pretty selfish approach where I didn’t really have a big picture on what it meant to be on a Stanford athletics team and I was very much concerned on how I was doing personally,” he added.

It would take a coaching shift to push Meyer to reach his potential. When former soccer head coach Bret Simon resigned after 11 years at the helm, current head coach Jeremy Gunn took over, and everything changed.

“He pushes us so much harder than any coach I’ve ever had, any of us have ever had,” Meyer said. “It was miserable for a lot of that time.”

“I think he recognized when he came in [that] I wasn’t the full player yet, and there were things he wanted to get out of me that were going to be uncomfortable for me.”

Yet through the intensities and struggles of the Gunn coaching style, Meyer emerged a stronger player, with a reaffirmed love for the game and a belief that one day he would be able to make a difference for his team.

“I was being pushed so far out of my comfort zone that I really had to grapple with how much I loved the sport,” Meyer said. “I ended up pushing through and I wanted to totally stick it out. [I] knew I could make an impact one day.”

And boy, did that day ever come.

After a better junior year, things really picked up for Meyer in his fifth and final year of eligibility. He started all but one game this season and, at the end of the year, found himself playing for a Pac-12 regular season title against none other than his childhood team at the stadium where, when he was younger, he had always dreamed of playing: It was the Cardinal against rival Cal at Edwards Stadium.

The game entered double overtime after a 2-2 gridlock, and, with UCLA having won its game a few minutes earlier, Stanford knew that this was it: It would have to win to claim the title outright — otherwise, the Cardinal would share the title with the Bruins, the eventual runners-up in the national title game and whom they had tied twice in October.

Meyer would be the one to ensure that Stanford emerged as the lone champion.

“I told [fellow midfielder Ty Thompson], ‘I’m going forward, I’m going to get this goal. You hang back. Cover for me,’ because at that point it was such a long journey to this moment. I was like, ‘We’re on the edge of a Pac-12 championship, a culmination of so much hard work.’

“I just wanted it so badly. So badly.”

Badly enough that he broke formation and took matters into his own hands.

“If you watch the play, the position I’m in is so weird. I’ve never been so high up the field, beyond the forward line.”

He found himself in front of the goal and, off of a pass from Corey Baird and as three Cal defenders converged on him, he sent the ball into the bottom right corner, sealing the win, the team’s first Pac-12 title since 2001 and a most memorable climax to his once-disappointing collegiate career.

“In the moment it was just, that’s as pure joy as you can have,” Meyer said. “Probably the best moment of my life.”

***

Meyer’s experience at Stanford was bound to exist beyond the confines of the soccer field. But he probably wouldn’t have guessed that it would’ve taken him to the improv stage.

Meyer and teammate Hunter Gorskie used to frequent the end-of-the-quarter shows of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps). The two did not know anyone in the group, but simply enjoyed the group’s creativity and admired how much fun its members seemed to have.

After taking a beginning improv class during the fall quarter of his junior year, Meyer took a chance and decided to audition for SImps. He not only got accepted into the group, but eventually became one of its leaders.

This past year, he also started his own company with five former SImps members called Collective Capital, which brings improv training and workshops to businesses and other teams or organizations around the world. And to expose Stanford students to the value of an improvisational mindset, he taught a pop-up class this quarter in the Design School that integrated improv and design thinking.

 

“I had to make a lot more sacrifices when it comes to my social life on campus,” Meyer said. “The soccer team and the Stanford Improvisors became my social group, and so when I was with them I was getting a lot of my social gratification.”

Friday and Saturday nights were spent catching up on work, and he came to master time management: No time could be wasted on procrastination or anything short of 100 percent productivity and focus.

The challenges that came with balancing these commitments, if anything, helped Meyer on the soccer field.

“I actually think getting into the Stanford Improvisors was another turning point for me as a soccer player because improv really cultivated in me some of the mindsets of really being a team player that I was missing in the first two years of my soccer career here,” Meyer said.

Participating in SImps also allowed Meyer to balance out the intensity of soccer with a place where he could just let loose.

“A lot of times when you’re at soccer, it’s a very intense, competitive place and it needs to be that and I love that, but I also need to be goofy and make jokes and mess up,” Meyer said. “So it was great that I had that creative outlet as another part of my life here at Stanford.”

***

Even though Meyer’s life has revolved around storytelling for the last few years, it wasn’t always how he’d imagined his life would pan out.

In fact, Meyer came to Stanford thinking about majoring in human biology.

“I loved this podcast called RadioLab — it’s a podcast about science, essentially. I loved the social psychology nature of it,” he said. “I would always listen in high school and I was like, ‘Oh, this stuff is so cool, I totally want to do human biology.’ I even wrote in my application, the ‘Why Stanford is right for you,’ I wrote about the human biology major.”

All it took was one class — English 90, Introduction to Fiction Writing — to make him realize where he truly belonged.

“My mind was just completely blown away,” Meyer said. “All I could think about all quarter was the story I was writing, and the characters, seeing them in the world through my imagination. I just got totally engrossed by this class, and I just wanted to keep following that thread.

“And after taking that class, I realized the reason I loved RadioLab so much was not for the science, but the stories.”

From there, all he wanted were more opportunities to make and tell stories on a multitude of topics using several different media. He got involved with the Stanford Storytelling Project, produced his own narrative videos, wrote articles, stories and plays, partook in live storytelling performances and even tried (in vain) to create a multimedia storytelling major.

And continuing his work with SImps, despite its improvisational nature, proved to be yet another extension of storytelling in Meyer’s life.

“And that’s all Stanford Improvisors is, it’s just making up stories on the spot,” he said. “Everyone thinks that to be a good improviser you just have to be super funny. I don’t really consider myself that funny, but my storytelling mind lends itself to good improv.”

Always seeking to take his passion to the next level, Meyer started looking for his next story to tell and found it in an adventure that would take him across the country and on the other side of the world. He won the Win a Trip with Nicholas Kristof competition. Kristof, a journalist for the New York Times who is one of the most respected op-ed columnists in the industry, holds a competition every year in which he selects a college undergrad or grad student to go on a reporting trip with him somewhere in the world.

Meyer had been keeping his eye on Kristof, who specializes in human and women’s rights, global affairs and health, for a while.

“I love the way he blends his own perspective and knowledge and wisdom in his pieces about really complex and tough topics,” he said. “I think the biggest thing I admire about his work is that he tells some incredibly important stories that don’t get told often enough about human rights abuses, social injustices.

“He tells such difficult stories from this perspective of hope of people who have triumphed and are trying to give back to the community or people who are fighting back, the heroes on the ground, so it’s a perspective that’s really valuable and I think gives people hope that they can make a difference.”

After selecting Meyer from a pool of 450 applicants, Kristof revealed the details of his and Meyer’s trip: The two would be taking two trips, a brief one to Baltimore — in which the pair reported on drug addiction, teen pregnancy, lead poisoning and street violence — which concluded June 3, and a two-week one in the fall to India, Nepal and Pakistan, where the focus will likely be on women’s empowerment, women’s rights and sanitation, although the recent earthquake in Nepal may change the subject and location of this endeavor.

Meyer will not only be expected to take everything in as he is working with one of journalism’s greatest, but he is also planning on writing blog posts, taking pictures and perhaps working on some video content to capture his experiences.

 

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be allowing myself to really appreciate the opportunity and be present in the moment and learning from him while also keeping a very professional eye out on I need to be writing stories and producing content for this.

“It’s such a unique opportunity, this Kristof thing,” he continued. “It’s going to be him and me in Baltimore, just him and me, it’s crazy. I really want to try to leverage who I am as a person and my background and not ignore that and try to be Nick Kristof.

“It’s going to be a really fun challenge to try to embrace that I’m a white, male, Stanford, privileged student from wine-country in a way that I can still embrace who I am and still tell stories that have a profound impact and really get people to care about the people in other parts of the world.”

What lies beyond the Baltimore and South Asia trips remains undetermined for Meyer. Despite his co-term in journalism, he is by no means married to a career in the industry. While his experiences with Kristof and at his videography internship at LA Times this summer will help him to figure out if journalism is what he wants to do with his life, he is looking at his future with an open mind.

Regardless of what he decides to do down the road, it seems that storytelling will always be the common thread throughout his life, weaving together the improvisor, the videographer and the potential journalist with the young soccer player who dreamed of playing at Cal but evolved into a Stanford grad telling the stories that deserve to be told.

Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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