When Ana Milosavljevic realized she wanted to play tennis at MSU, she sent Tim Bauer her highlights tape all the way from South Africa. After evaluating the tape, Bauer said he didn’t need much convincing.
Having previously coached no. 1-ranked players from all over the world, the women’s tennis team head coach said he had confidence in international recruits. When tennis team co-captain and business management sophomore Christine Bader commented on the superior work ethic of international players on the team like Milosavljevic, Bauer agreed and said that’s generally the case. [tennis]
Many other varsity teams at MSU have had international student-athletes grace their rosters as well. The baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football, gymnastics, field hockey, ice hockey, women’s rowing, women’s soccer, women’s tennis and women’s track teams all boast at least one athlete from outside the United States. An annual report issued by the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) found that 7.4 percent of MSU students in 2004 were international, with over 650 new international students enrolled, representing 126 countries. With the university’s international reputation gaining recognition, more and more international students and athletes are selecting MSU.
Although acclimating to life in the United States may be difficult, playing collegiate level sports abroad can have major perks, such as scholarships, tougher competition, excellent training facilities and the opportunity to live in a different country and get an education all at the same time, while also having the support of a team to ease the transition. Through their personal accounts, MSU coaches and international student-athletes weigh the pros and cons of competing away from home.
Women’s field hockey members psychology freshman Geraldine Raynor, business/pre-law freshman Inge Kaars Sijpestjin and no preference sophomore Charlotte van der Laag all came to the United States for this reason. Zimbabwe native Raynor, Netherlands native Kaars Sijpestjin and Holland native van der Laag say the mentality here is different when it comes to sports, especially the attention and funding field hockey receives. [mugraynor]
Raynor, whose older brother and sister have also played sports abroad, wanted to continue playing field hockey and recognized America as a place where the sport commanded more attention. “Here [field hockey] is almost a life in itself,” she said. “Everything is a little bit more intense. You get up, go to class, go to practice…you live for hockey, you live for the game.”
Raynor’s parents supported her decision to attend MSU, even after she got in a car accident two days before her departure. She said her dad found comfort in the fact that if anything happened to her while away from home, she would have access to the best medical care in the world.
MSU\’s international student-athletes can benefit from more than just great healthcare. The OISS provides services to accommodate any international student’s needs. Ghazala Khan, an OISS employee, said the university tries to make the transition for student-athletes as smooth as possible. Khan, who coordinates the fall, spring and summer orientation programs for all international students, organizes campus tours, international student counselors, health insurance information sessions, restaurant hops and driver’s license testing.
But once all the bureaucratic red tape is clear, Khan said the hardest thing for international students to adjust to is the informality of American culture and how people interact with each other. Add in grueling practices, competitions, travel and time commitments, and one can see why an international student-athlete has even more to grapple with upon coming to MSU.
Khan and co-workers, including Nancy Radermacher, view their job as essential to building diversity on campus and making transitions easier for international students. Rademacher said the students who receive assistance are always thankful. “International students are the most appreciative,” she said. “Sometimes they will even bring me a small gift from back home to thank us for our help…they are very grateful.” In return, Rademacher, an avid sports fan, insists the international student-athletes sign the posters in her office. [cluttenquote]
Life as an international student-athlete requires dedication and discipline in all fields. While their American counterparts are usually able to enjoy a break from the constant grind of juggling school and sports by going home during the holidays, international student-athletes don’t always enjoy this luxury. Biochemistry senior Johan Sunryd, a Swedish native, and mechanical engineering junior Basak Oguz, a Turkish native, didn’t go home for Thanksgiving.
Instead, Sunryd and Oguz, who have been dating almost two years, spent the holiday with a Turkish foreign teaching assistant Oguz met during her freshman year. The woman made a traditional Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings and provided the two with what Oguz said was a “second home.”
Sunryd and Oguz are not the only international swimmers at MSU. The men’s team also boasts two members from South Africa and one from Poland. MSU swimming head coach Matt Gianiodis said the phenomenon is a mutually beneficial relationship. While the university gains a top-notch athlete, the athlete benefits from the great facilities MSU has to offer and the standard of varsity sports at American universities. This standard of competition often provides international student-athletes the chance to take their sport to the next level. In countries where sports are primarily organized at the club level and are treated as extracurricular activities that don’t necessitate a time commitment like in the United States, athletes are often drawn to American universities to improve their game.
In Gianiodis’ experience, it is especially true for players from some countries in particular. “The poorer the country, the harder the work ethic,” Gianiodis said. “They don’t want to go back…they are work horses because they live with the fear of going back home.”
Students coming from less-developed countries may experience corrupt authoritarian governments, poverty, rampant crime and disease, social inequity and other factors that make the United States a favorable alternative to attending a university back home. But that does not mean students do not have national and cultural pride for their home countries as well.
\”When the plane touches down after the 18-hour flight, I feel really proud of my country,” said South African swim team member and communications senior Rudolf Wagenaar. “You appreciate your country a lot more. Even though we have problems like AIDS and poverty, we don’t hide them.”
In some cases, athletes from more developed countries may have every intention of returning, but change their minds. Kaars Sijpestjin and van der Laag both originally planned on playing for a year or two, but have since decided to stay longer. While many international student-athletes plan to return home with their degrees after graduation, others like Kaars Sijpestjin and van der Laag see America as not just a temporary home, but as a possible permanent residence.
Wagenaar is an exception to the rule. He doesn’t plan to stay in the United States or return to his native country. His wanderlust has instead led him to pursue a graduate degree in public relations at the University of Queensland in Australia. [rudolfmug]
Although “Rudy,” as his teammates call him, misses his mom’s “good ol’” cooking from back home and says he feels like a true Spartan here in East Lansing (evidence of this can be seen in the form of a massive Spartan tattoo underneath his left arm), he said America is too conservative for him and would prefer to live somewhere else for a while. But despite his desire to travel and explore the world, Rudy still enjoys making the yearly trip back to South Africa. Luckily, when he misses home and wants to reminisce, he can talk to his teammate, civil engineering senior Ian Clutten, a fellow South African. The two shared a room during their freshman year and can speak Afrikaans to each other when they want to keep their conversations secret. [cluttenmug]
Tackling the language barrier, developing a taste for greasy food and figuring out little things like where to get a haircut have taken time, but for most international athletes, their varsity teams have provided the support necessary to adjust. Despite all the difficulties and different learning curves each individual international student-athlete must confront, the one thing all of them agreed upon as being most influential on their experiences at MSU has been the unconditional support of their teammates, who have made not only East Lansing, but the United States, a home away from home.
Clutten reflected on this aspect of an international student-athlete’s life: “When you’re away from home you don’t have the family support so it just kind of works out that your friends kind of take that place,” he said. “You are always doing stuff together and you are always doing everything that way…being part of a team, it’s kind of like a family.”

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