After traveling 5,550 miles to study at CSUSM, most would take a minute to acclimate. But that’s just not how Sofia Sandelius rolls. During her second week on campus, this international student from Sweden joined a Campus Rec trip to Big Sur, another 400 miles up the coast.
As it turns out, that fortuitous outing introduced Sofia to CSUSM surfer Kevin Cech—now her best friend—and led to her joining CSUSM’s powerful surf team.
“There was a little bit of luck because they had one spot and they really needed a girl,” says Sofia, who learned to surf during her first stay in California nine years earlier as an au pair for a family in Oceanside. Then 19, she was in her gap before attending university in Stockholm.
Refreshing her skills at CSUSM with regular sunrise surf sessions, Sofia secured that open spot on the team, which had won the first conference title and second national championship in program history just a few months earlier.
Not bad for a small-town girl. Make that a very small-town girl. Born and raised in Lönneberga, Sweden, a village with a population of 500, Sofia refers to her hometown as her comfort zone. It makes sense, since Sofia’s extended family—parents included—still live there.
“It’s so easy for me to go away because I always know that I have my safe spot to go back to,” she says.
Sofia first ventured away from home at age 15 when she and three classmates moved into a house in Torsas, Sweden, to attend Mjolnergymnasiet upper secondary school. More than 100 miles from her hometown, Sofia studied to be a makeup artist and hairdresser. After graduating, she took two years to work—including her stint as an au pair—and then backpack around the world.
Returning to Sweden, she earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing at Stockholm International Business School and then began working at global beauty brand L’Oreal in Stockholm. Now a retail brand manager, Sofia wanted to expand her education in digital marketing and L’Oreal granted her a year of study leave.
Sofia is using her year at CSUSM to learn about all aspects of digital marketing to advance her career skills. “The social media class has been amazing,” she says. “It’s right on point; you do a simulation as a social media manager with posts on all the platforms. It’s great to learn a whole new set of skills. I think about how I can apply them when I do the next launch.”
But international studies are also about embracing your adopted community, which brings us back to the swells off the coast of San Diego.
After joining the surf team, Sofia jumped quickly into her novice competition season.
“The surf team is so good and everyone has been super supportive,” she says. “I’ve learned more in these last few months than I have in the years I’ve been surfing before this.”
Sofia Sandelius prepares her surfboard before hitting the waves. Photo: Carmen Hodl
Her lessons started with how to compete. Sofia, who had never seen a surf competition, pulled from her team’s expertise and her own experience in games as a soccer player when she faced those first waves. What she didn’t anticipate was the individual focus during team competition.
“I was really nervous,” she says about that initial surf contest. “Everyone was watching from the beach. It was like, all eyes on me. The second competition, I knew how it worked and I could settle in and really see the improvements.”
One thing that doesn’t faze Sofia is the famously frigid Pacific Ocean, which is child’s play for someone who grew up swimming in northern latitude waters fed by the Baltic Sea. “I like to swim, even when it’s super cold,” she says. “I am so happy when I am in the ocean.”
When her year at CSUSM is complete, Sofia will also be happy to be near family again. But she already knows she will miss the surfing lifestyle that has become part of her daily rhythm.
“I like to wake up when it’s a little bit foggy and cold, but then you put on that wetsuit and you surf to the sunrise. I can’t even explain the feeling,” Sofia says. “If you start the day like this—even if you are going to have the worst day ever—you will still be happy because it is the best way to start the day.”
For more information about Global Education programs at CSUSM, please visit csusm.edu/global.