By Zoya Timoshenko, Contributing Writer
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), there are 17,000 international student-athletes competing in NCAA schools alone.
Oklahoma Baptist University hosts around 73 international student-athletes, and roughly 40 different countries are represented on OBU’s 2,093-student campus.
Naturally, one might think international students bring an exciting flair to the American culture and its universities.
Specifically, international students do bring cultural diversity to college campuses.
“I think international students help others in the student body to gain a broader perspective of the world,” said Joy Carl, the director of international student services at OBU.
“Each international student has a unique perspective and individual passions. It’s through getting to know individual international students personally that other students at OBU will most benefit from the cultural diversity on our campus.”
Christina Roach, the international admissions counselor for OBU, said she believes international student-athletes not only contribute to cultural diversity but also exemplify hard work and determination.
Roach said she can personally attest to this sentiment after witnessing how international athletes must juggle a multitude of responsibilities and new experiences.
“They have the same demands that any other athlete has in terms of class time, study time, practice time, traveling and competing,” she said. “The big difference is that they must adjust to a different culture all while being a student and an athlete.”
That hard work and determination can be seen as they begin the arduous bureaucratic journey associated with traveling to the United States.
Obtaining a student visa for the United States is complicated and requires diligence and responsibility, but the visa is just one component, however. Students must also complete paperwork for the NCAA, update their medical records and obtain school records—no easy chain of events to complete.
The Process to the United States: Recruiting
The process to compete and study abroad in the United States begins one of three ways. One option is to be recruited by a visiting coach, who might visit a foreign country specifically to see an athlete perform.
They either visit for a specific athlete or go to show-cases where many athletes gather to compete for their future.
Another way to increase visibility with the coaches is to use a managing company, who then videos the athlete perform and publicizes the video on a coach-accessible platform.
Once a coach shows interest in the athlete, he or she then reaches out to the potential student and thus begins the application process.
The final option involves athletes pursuing the coaches for that initial meeting; many students simply contact coaches directly and send them videos and relevant information.
OBU graduate and former swimmer Nicolas Brun, who is from France, said he took matters into his own hands when he decided he wanted to study and compete in the United States.
Initially, his eligibility for the NCAA was complicated by his age and a missing science course from his high school curriculum.
“That’s why I emailed every NAIA and NGCAA school in order to get a swimming scholarship,” he said.
The NAIA and NGCAA had different requirements which made Brun eligible to compete with them with his current age and high school curriculum.
Either way, once a coach shows interest in the athlete, the athlete must then begin the admission process, and that process begins with determining NCAA eligibility.
Academic Requirements and Test Scores
First, the student is required to get his or her official high school transcripts.
Steve Fluke, associate athletic director for compliance with NCAA at OBU, said getting high school transcripts can be difficult—a sentiment that is shared by student-athletes as well.
“Unlike in the United States, a school does not hold the transcripts,” said Abdoulaye Bah, a junior soccer player from France. “There is one organization that holds all the records for every student from elementary school until their graduation.”
Bah said that once he received those transcripts, he then had to send them to a company in New York City to convert the grading to American standards.
This process not only takes time but also costs around $300. Some countries also require additional proof of graduation via a leaving certificate. A leaving certificate is a transcript with exit exam scores of the graduate.
In addition to the transcripts, prospective students must also take the ACT or the SAT.
If they do not speak English, they are required to take a test called Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which determines the level of English proficiency. The results determine if the student is prepared to participate in classes or if he or she will need participation in an English program.
If the English scores qualify these students to join college classes, they must show they have taken the minimum required courses in high school—a step which illustrates a commiserate level of primary education.
Specifically, students must have completed a required curriculum in their area of study in order to compete.
Sherine Van der Westhuizen, a South African track and field runner, said the many curriculum mandates can be daunting. She said she knew she wanted to pursue a career in accounting and study in the United States, so she chose classes pertaining to her area of study in South Africa.
However, the NCAA also requires high school students to have some history credits, which Van der Westhuizen did not have because she chose to study accounting instead. Because she lacked the academic requirements, she could only compete in division two universities.
These kinds of issues become common in the “clearing” process for international students, she said. These are not the only academic standards for division two universities in the NCAA, Fluke said.
These requirements are mandatory for any athlete, international or domestic.
However, international athletes face a more daunting process because their grading systems often differ from the American grading systems.
Hence, the requirements below must be converted from their grading system to the American grading system.
“[Students] must earn 16 core credits from their high school,” he said. “They must earn at least a 2.2 grade point average and, depending on their grade point average, it will determine what their score of their ACT or SAT test score must be. This is a sliding scale that the NCAA Eligibility Center uses.”
If the athlete does not meet the immediate required academic standards, he or she can redshirt on the red-shirt academic standards for a year.
Unfortunately, these are just some of the requirements established for one division; each one has different academic and demographic standards that must be navigated.
For example, division one and two sports only allow student-athletes one year of grace period before their eligibility expires to compete collegiately.
Some sports also require the athletes to be under 21 years of age.
Athletes who do not meet amateur status cannot compete for a NCAA university.
Finally, athletes must prove amateurism status to compete in division one and two, Fluke said.
According to the NCAA, the amateur status is affected by an athlete signing with an agent, receiving cash or benefits for their athletic ability, or signing and playing with professional teams or athletes.
According to the NCAA website, “membership established the process to bring about national uniformity and fairness.”
Student Visas and Immigration Laws
While the student is gathering necessary records for admission into the NCAA and his or her school of choice, athletes must also apply for their student visas.
Basically, this means United States Immigration gives that student their blessing to study in America.
The student must first receive an I20 form from the school they are planning to attend. At OBU, Joy Carl issues the I20 to eligible students, which enables students to be considered for a student visa; it is also necessary for students because it allows them to travel around the United States once they are here.
Once they receive their I20 in their country, they must take it to an American consulate to apply for their student visas.
Once the student is approved, they are ready to travel to the United States, but the average wait time for a visa is around 120 days.
The United States does not have a restriction on the number of visas granted yearly, but the process is still tedious and difficult.
In 2016, the United States Immigration Services handed out 482,033 visas.
Arriving in the United States
When international students land in the airport, the first person they often meet is Carl, OBU’s primary designated school official (PDSO).
Carl said she just joined the staff here, and she enjoys that component of her job tremendously.
“My favorite part of being the director of international student services is definitely the opportunity to build relationships with students from all over the world and to encourage and support them as they pursue their passions,” she said.
She said she is diligent about tracking logistics like making sure students have their documents up to date, have their I20 for travelling, have rides to and from air-ports and other needs of this sort. Carl is also in charge of OBU’s host family program.
The host family program provides international students with families during the years they are studying abroad, and they can help athletes feel at home—especially during school breaks. Kateryna Shkot, a tennis player from Ukraine, raved about her host family.
“My host family in America impacted me a lot. My host mom is very nice and kind. I can always ask her for any help and she is always open to help me. Since my family is so far away from me, she understands how hard it can be for me. Therefore, she does the best she can do to make me feel less lonely in America. She wants me to know I can always rely on her.”
Jonathan Martinez, a soccer player from Colombia, said he has also benefited from having a host family.
“My family helped me to learn English, supported me with school and treated me like their own son,” he said.
Understanding the Struggle
While there are many resources for international students during their time here, it can be difficult to balance academic responsibilities, financial needs and culture shock.
Shimoya Currie, a senior track athlete from Jamaica, testifies of her struggle in being in the United States and far from home.
“It is hard to be an international if you are poor,” she said. “The hardest part about it all is knowing that your parents want to help so bad, but they can’t because it’s really hard in your country. That’s heartbreaking.”
During her time at OBU, Currie has been a good student and successful athlete while working a job and sometimes even two jobs.
“The hardest part about going to school, doing track, and working is keeping sane, literally,” she said.
“Because at times the pressure to succeed at all is very overwhelming. It’s hard to work a five-and-a-half-hour shift standing all night, then leaving work to stay up until one or two in the morning trying to get your paper done or study for an exam,” Currie said.
“It’s tough. And then you have to wake early for classes or finish what you couldn’t do the last night.
“Then go to class and you’re falling asleep because you’re so exhausted, then go to practice and give it your all. It’s hard mentally, on the body and emotionally.”
Currie talked about the struggle of her college life and how she still managed to stay positive.
“The hardest part is watching everyone else going on breaks and having fun, enjoying their college days and I am just a passerby looking onwards to the things that could be different if I didn’t have to work a lot or think about how I am going to eat or pay my bills,” she said.
“I often wonder when it’s going to be my time to enjoy life even if briefly. I still don’t know how I do it. How I wake up each morning with the motivation to finish.
“But I have a lot of people that love me and that pray for me and that’s how I get by. I find comfort in the fact that just like a storm has to run its course, it too will pass before I can see the rainbow, so I am grateful,” Currie said.
Carl said there are employment options for international students, but they can be limited because student visas only permit on-campus jobs.
Unfortunately, there are only so many jobs available on campus, and international students must also compete with full-time residents for employment.
Even if employment is secured, it may then be harder to balance a job with school and a sport while still trying to perfect the language.
Luckily, that adjustment period can be smoothed greatly by invested campus faculty and a sense of community with other international students.
“The international welcoming committee did a marvel-ous job when I first came,” said Katie Reyes, a senior softball player from Canada. “I first came to Shawnee and we had a meeting with all the international students, which honestly forced me into making friends right away,” she said.
“However, they are now my international family and am glad I got to meet them on the first day I arrived. I felt more welcomed and less nervous because I knew others were going through the same thing I was.”
International students complete pages of paperwork, commute for long hours when traveling, endure homesickness, study for hours in a second language and spend long days getting accustomed to a new culture. From the start, their journey is a challenging one. . . a challenge that can be mitigated by greater support.