For foreign student-athletes, there are many challenges to overcome

International student-athletes at Norwich University encounter hardships with finances, fitting in, and leaving home, according to N.U. coaches and athletes.

Attending college at Norwich is a “big time and financial commitment for the international student-athletes,” said Adam Pfeifer, Norwich’s head men’s soccer coach. However according to foreign students interviewed, the end product will be worth the all the financial, emotional, and lifestyle changes they are overcoming.

International student-athletes enrolling at Norwich is an increasingly popular trend during the past decade, according to NU coaches. Interviews offer a perspective on the challenges such athletes face and how they overcome them – and also how coaches are trying to adapt to their presence.

“In my 25 years here, having an international student has not occurred very often,” said Paul Booth, Norwich University’s head men’s basketball coach. “Over the last four or five years, we have had several kids that have enrolled from other destinations besides the United States.”

There has been a steady increase recently in the number of these athletes attending Norwich University. The number is still minute when compared to other colleges and universities who have formed educational connections with various other countries, according to Pfeifer.

“We don’t obviously have the recruiting budget to just go over and chase kids from all over the place,” Pfeifer said. “It would take a lot of time and money to travel internationally to visit every kid who showed interest in playing athletics at N.U.”

“Recruiting kids internationally is tricky, but getting the kid enough aid to make them comfortable enrolling here is even more challenging.”
Basketball coach Paul Booth

Given the lack of available funds to recruit, it becomes the foreign student’s responsibility to “reach out to us,” Pfeifer explained. For a potential athletic prospect at Norwich, it is up to them to contact the coaches and make their interest in being an athlete at Norwich known.

The budget athletics is given to recruit athletes varies for each athletic team. After dividing a recruiting budget between 20 teams, there are not enough funds to travel internationally and attempt to recruit students abroad.

“Recruiting kids internationally is tricky,” Booth said, “but getting the kid enough aid to make them comfortable enrolling here is even more challenging.”

Foreign students do not qualify for federal aid when attending school inside the U.S., leaving these athletes to rely solely on “Norwich scholarship and family support,” said sophomore Caio Teixeira, 19, a men’s basketball point guard, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Norwich University is a Division III NCAA institution and athletic scholarships are not available to Division III schools. This further inhibits the funds that can be provided to support the financial needs of these athletes.

“The financial background and available support varies kid to kid,” Pfeifer said. “Finances can make or break an international student-athlete from attending Norwich.” By necessity, international student-athletes have become creative in finding means to make education in the United States more affordable. These students noted that financial assistance is sometimes possible with help from a sponsor.

That is what happened with Zygimantas Sirvydas, who was lucky enough to find a sponsor who took on the financial responsibility of helping him attend Norwich. Such a scholarship is “very hard to come by,” said Sirvydas, 23, a men’s basketball senior point guard, from Silale, Lithuania.

Finances are just the first obstacle that international student-athletes have to overcome when choosing to attend Norwich. The students and coaches cite numerous other things that can overwhelm international students when they decide to try and come here to partake in athletics at Norwich.

A key step before enrolling at N.U. is “applying for a student visa at a U.S. Embassy,” said Mike Hogervorst, 21, who is a center on the men’s basketball team and a senior from Leiden, South Holland, Netherlands. This is necessary for any international student who is planning to attend a college inside the U.S.

“The application for an educational visa must be completed and hand-delivered to a U.S. Embassy on their own time,” Booth explained. “This requires self-motivation.”

“Applying for a student visa was a long and hard process,” Sirvydas said,. “But, I knew it was necessary to be a student in the U.S.”

The approval process for a visa has to be finished before they can enroll as a student at Norwich. This leaves only a “few months to get a lot of time-consuming work done,” Hogervorst said. This step prolongs the whole collegiate application process and it requires additional time and money even before a foot is laid on campus. Hogervorst said he had from “November to May” to get everything finished.

An additional financial burden is that foreign students are not allowed to work because their student visas do not permit them to have a job while in the U.S. A student visa allows students to only study abroad, while a work visa is needed to be allowed to work abroad.

“[Since] I am not allowed to work while in the U.S., [I am left] to rely on saving money during the summer and some from my parents,” Teixeira said

For international student-athletes, something else to consider is the big differences in playing sports at Norwich compared to their home country. All the athletes pointed out ways in which the game varied over here and how adjusting to the changes took time.

Making the adjustments that allow for effective play at NU begins at the very first tryout practice. Sirvydas said playing American style basketball took a while to get used to.

“Basketball in Brazil is much different than here, we just play and move. Here, it is more [about] tactic,” Teixeira said. “Also, there are more practices than what I am used to.”

Coaches said they have to adjust too to try to accommodate different playing styles. Style differs greatly depending on which “region of the world the athlete has experience playing in,” Pfeifer said.

Both players and coaches explained that another key issues is getting foreign athletes comfortable and at home on the team. For most, it was an “adjustment process,” Hogervorst said.

“When a kid arrives from a different culture, the lifestyle is just overall different,” Pfeifer said. “You have to have a different sort of patience with a kid coming in from a different culture.”

Ensuring each athlete feels welcome and accepted as a member of the team can be difficult. But Booth said creating a team bond is “critical in having a successful season.”

“At tryouts, I was just the international kid,” Teixeria said. “Everyone else was from somewhere in the U.S. and they all had something in common.”

Creating a team environment can be a challenge when there is a language barrier, which makes it even more harder for the international players to feel like they fit in with the rest of the team.

“Coming to Norwich and trying out for the team was scary,” Sirvydas said. “I didn’t know anyone and it was hard for people to understand my accent.”

To fit in, foreign athletes have to be able to communicate effectively with teammates. Although all of these students have a basic understanding of the English language, getting caught up on slang used in daily communication is tough. Said Teixeria,, the slang was the most challenging “to learn and understand.”

“When coaching a student with a language barrier, it takes patience,” Pfeifer said. “That’s the only thing you can do to help with the barrier.”

Booth had a slightly different outlook on the language barrier. Booth acknowledged that “terminology might be different between the two cultures, but that he felt that “certainly, there is the common language of the game.”

Foreign students face one other obstacle. Moving away from home is something that most students at Norwich experience, but for the international population, the distance is considerably further as are the cultural changes.

“Being away from home is more than just miles,” Teixeira said. “I have to always think about the time difference before talking with my family in Brazil.”

“The Netherlands is six hours ahead of the time here on campus,” Hogervorst said. “It makes it almost impossible to find a time to talk that works for me and my family back home with the way the time difference falls.”

Something as simple as checking in with family requires “planning and figuring out what time it is back home,” Hogervorst said.

In the unexpected event of an accident or sickness of some kind, foreign athletes have to consider how flying home would disrupt the flow in which they have gotten into on campus, and the time it would require off from school and athletics.

“Something happening here or back home is always on the back of my mind,” Teixeria said. “I am far from home, and it would be expensive to have to go back with no planning.”

International students readily admit there are many struggles that come along with being an international student-athlete. Yet, in the end, they still felt compelled to try and enroll to undertake their education at Norwich and play sports here.

The initial adjustment to being in an entirely new country with, oftentimes, some form of language barrier, is intimidating. But the international student-athletes find a way to persevere and “become part of the Norwich family,” Hogervorst said.

“Some days are much harder than others in accepting the challenges of being international student,” Teixeria said. “But I know in the end it will be worth it.”

An education completed in the United States is how many of the international students are seeking to set themselves apart. Students are seeking ways to build their resume and better their chances for a smooth transition into the workforce upon returning to their home countries.

“I will have an advantage on the people who studied in my home country,” Teixeira said. “I have something more to offer in completing my education inside the United States.”

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