Degree of Difficulty — International Athletes Combat Language Barriers, Time Crunch to Succeed at NKU

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Marta Romeo, a 21-year-old tennis player from Zaragoza, Spain, closed out her career at NKU this spring. She was the first international women's tennis player at NKU. Marta graduated in May 2014 with a degree in psychology.

Marta Romeo Worked Hard to Become
First International Women's Tennis Player at NKU

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By Ryan Clark
Web Marketing + Communications

Marta Romeo had a decision to make. Should she continue her education, or continue her tennis career? As a teenage athlete in Spain, she could not do both – in high school she would travel to play matches while still trying to keep up with her studies.
 
It was a difficult time, she says. How could she choose between two things she loved so much: Tennis and school? Then one day, she got an email – and life changed, as another option made itself available.
 
“One day, when it was almost my senior year in high school, I received an email saying, ‘Hello, we are trying to take athletes from Spain to the United States to get their degree there and I think you will have an opportunity,’” she said.  “So I told my friends and I was not really convinced because my English was pretty bad.”
 
But the email was real, and after a conversation with her parents, they all decided she should take some English classes. They wanted to see if Marta could learn enough to earn her college degree in America. After many exams, English classes, and much paperwork over the next year, she was able to qualify for education in the U.S.
 
The NCAA’s International Student Records Committee has developed international academic standards for 180 different countries, and each have different core-course requirements, grade-point averages and credentials. International athletes also must answer a number of questions to prove they have maintained their amateurism. (Almost 90 percent of amateurism violations found by the NCAA Eligibility Center staff are committed by international prospective student-athletes, the staff reports).
 
Marta worked with an American-based company to create an online profile with videos and a biography. Then the company helped American tennis coaches pair up with the foreign athletes they represented. Six or seven coaches emailed Marta, she remembers.
 
“My English level was pretty low, and they were asking questions and I wasn’t really able to answer,” she said. “Everything happens pretty quick. NKU coaches emailed me, and I looked at the website and I remember I took an online tour and thought, ‘Oh, that looks nice.’”
 
Marta was on her way to becoming the first international women’s tennis player at Northern Kentucky University.

American Schools Offer Opportunity to Play While Earning Degree

In the fall of 2013, NKU enrolled 15,660 students. According to Elizabeth Chaulk, director of NKU’s Office of International Students and Scholars, 630 of those were international students, and only 20 of those students were athletes, says Kathy Steffen, NKU’s associate athletic director for administration and academics.

Again – just 20 students out of nearly 16,000 are international student-athletes. They are a minority of a minority. And it takes a lot of help for these students to find success. Luckily, NKU is prepared to give all the help they need.

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According to Chaulk, who helps recruit international students to NKU, many international student-athletes take advantage of the opportunity to earn an American degree while continuing to participate in the sport they have loved since they were children – something they would not get to do in their home countries. In many foreign countries, amateur sports do not exist in schools. In America, they can continue to play while earning a college education.

That was the case for Marta, a 21-year-old tennis player from Zaragoza, Spain, a large-sized urban city midway between Barcelona and Madrid. Marta’s parents – who both played basketball growing up – encouraged her to play sports, and by age 5 she was playing tennis.  She naturally rebelled against basketball, which her siblings played, and found she could easily play tennis by herself.

“I started playing for fun,” she said.  “Then every year I won again and again and again, so I just started playing matches.”

But the competitive environment made things different – and difficult.

“In Spain, tennis is really hard,” she said. “And it’s more hard a sport because it’s individual.  It’s not like here, you go to school and then you have your team, which I like. All the time it’s by yourself. So if you go to a tournament, your friends have to take you, you are alone, you are not with your friends, so you don’t really have fun. You have to really love the sport to play it because you go alone everywhere. They take you everywhere, you go alone, you come back.”

She was able to talk to her NKU coaches, as well as two foreign players on the men’s tennis squad, but otherwise she came to the campus sight unseen. And some things were more difficult to get used to than others.  She could not find her way around at all.

“I was scared – it was a very big place,” she said. And the food was something entirely different. “Everything is bad for you,” she said.  “Fried food or fast food – you have to teach yourself how to eat healthy. I’ve seen other international athletes really develop eating problems because of this.”

She also struggled with English. But luckily, she had NKU and the Student Success Center to help her.

“The Office of International Students always support internationals, whether it is taking us to places to buy things to cook, or to help us buy things for our beds to sleep,” Marta said. “And they always plan trips so you can meet other internationals and visit places in this country. We learn so much because of that. And that doesn’t even get into the academics side of things, which they also help us with greatly.”

She says did not really struggle with fitting in. Immediately, people were drawn to her.

“I think maybe because I’m tan, and as soon as I talk, people say, ‘Where are you from?’ They always try to speak Spanish to me, which is funny,” she said. “And people always say they love my accent, but I’m like, ‘I don’t have an accent.’”

International Student-Athletes Have No Time for Loneliness

The number of available international student-athletes is growing more and more every year, which has resulted in more being recruited. According to the NCAA, the number of international student-athletes has grown more than 1,000 percent over the last 10 years.

With more and more international athletes enrolling, American college has become a more comfortable place.

At NKU, Marta says loneliness is not something an international student-athlete has time to feel; most of the schedule is planned out for them, and alone time is not in the plan.

Marta, who graduated with her psychology degree in the spring, has now been accepted to graduate school at NKU to study industrial/organizational psychology. She spends her free time helping other international students on the tennis team, and says she misses Europe, but admits her degree from America is very prestigious.

“It gives you an advantage back home,” she said. “They know you have English, that you have studied overseas.”

And nothing, she says, compared to the feeling of walking across the stage and earning her NKU degree.

“Everyone at NKU has helped me along the way,” she said. “I know this was the best place for me.”

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International Student-Athlete
Population Growing Yearly

By Ryan Clark
Web Marketing + Communications

With the number of international student-athletes growing more than 1,000 percent over the last 10 years, more than ever coaches are now traveling the globe to find elite talent.

But international recruiting is nothing new.

Since the 1950s, American coaches have recruited foreign players, and now some teams are made entirely of international athletes. In 2008, at the University of Texas El Paso, the cross-country team was comprised entirely of seven Kenyan runners, all of whom were on full scholarship.

“If you do not recruit overseas, you are taking yourself out of a major market,” says Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew, who has regularly recruited players from outside the U.S.

Justin Wolstenholme, a 20-year-old sophomore from Sydney, Australia, majors in journalism while playing for the NKU soccer team. By age 16 he was traveling the world to tournaments, where he was noticed by a recruiter.

“I kind of decided that because I knew my dad used to play soccer professionally, but he got injured,” Justin said.  “He did not have an education background, so he gave me that bit of advice. I did a bit of research and no other country does it the way America does.”

A winding path led him to NKU, where he felt comfortable in the safe environment and more intimate classes.

“Most of the athletes are in roughly the same classes when you start out,” he said.  “And then they showed me around the community, really, like where to go, like Kroger across the road, and things like that. It’s smaller here, and I like that. It seems more close-knit, like you see people every day.”

There were plenty of others to bond with on the soccer team – and he even found a surrogate father in coach John Basalyga.

“On our soccer team, most of the kids are foreign,” he said. “We have two Canadians and three English people and four Irish people, so they’re all in the same boat as me. The person who has meant the most to me at NKU has been my coach, John Basalyga. (He) has been there for me as a father figure since my whole family has been back in my native home of Australia. I can always rely on him to help me in tough times."

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Yasmine Xantos, a women’s tennis player from the Gold Coast of Australia, feels the same. The 18-year-old just finished her first year majoring in Sports Business and says she received guidance from her coach, the Office of International Students & Scholars and representatives from the athletic department, among others.

“Competing against other universities, and developing a friendship with my team have been the most exciting things,” she said. “I hope to complete my bachelor's here and continue to improve in my sport.”

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