May 23, 2024

When people think of intercollegiate athletics, they usually consider high school athletes transitioning to the college level, but it can be easy to forget about international student-athletes who leave their home countries to compete in the U.S.

There are over 21,000 international student-athletes enrolled and competing at NCAA schools, according to NCAA. While many international student-athletes decide to join U.S. college teams, they face both academic and athletic challenges during the shift.

Anna Mate, graduate MBA student from Hungary and member of the women’s cross country team, is one of those who chose to seek the American dream. She said she has encountered differences in the academic schedule in the U.S. that has affected her routine in a positive way.

“At home, I would not have time to run at all because I would need to spend 8-10 hours a day in class,”

Mate said. “On the other hand, here I only have one or two classes a day, so I do not have to worry about whether I should go to practice or not because I know I will have time to do it and recover properly.”

Emiel Deconinck, graduate student in sport and performance psychology and member of the men’s soccer team, agreed that being a student-athlete in Europe is much more challenging and different because in his home country of Belgium, universities and sports teams are separate.

“Students who want to play sports need to find a club outside of the university,” Deconinck said. “The fact that they are uncoordinated and separate makes it harder to combine them. My previous university also did not have a big campus where students can live or spend time together. Instead, the university has a building for each faculty across the city, and students live in apartments all over the city.”

In addition to having different school systems in their home countries, international student-athletes also face differences when competing for an American college because of the sheer size of competitions.

“In Hungary, I always competed against 5-6 people, while in the U.S. I run against hundreds of athletes in every cross-country race,” Mate said. “As a result, I never know who I am going to be racing against in the U.S., whereas at home, I always know before the race starts who is potentially going to win the race.”

Overall, Mate believes that cross country is more difficult in Europe because the courses are rougher and muddier than the flat, hilly golf courses often found in America.

Although there are many benefits to the U.S. college athletics system, joining an American college team does require time to adapt to new environments and rules for international students.

“NCAA college soccer is unique and different than soccer in Europe,” Deconinck said. “Because of the structure of the conference, games are very intense and fast-paced. It took me a while to get used to the pace of the game and the many different rules, but I enjoyed having this different perspective on soccer.

The unlimited number of subs, for example, and the countdown at the end of each half were not something I was used to.”

While the challenge seems daunting for international student-athletes, Mate and Deconinck agreed that coming to the U.S. was a chance to excel in both academics and sports.

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