Foreign athletes face unique challenges

With college sports becoming a booming business in the United States, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the players who are often viewed as celebrities or “big men on campus” are, for the most part, no different from any other college student.

Though most student-athletes are recognized primarily for their athletic endeavors, all of them have schoolwork, social lives and families to focus on, along with the complex maturation process that every college student must go through.

This transitional phase can be tough, as nearly all students will attest. But the challenge becomes much more difficult when the commute from hometown to campus is not merely a quick drive up the 110 freeway or the cheapest flight Southwest Airlines can offer. For international students coming from overseas, the adjustment to life as a college student — and student-athlete — in the United States can be a daunting one.


At USC, there are currently more than 55 international student-athletes on varsity rosters, according to the Athletic Department’s website. Many of them arrived on campus under similar circumstances — with excitement for a new challenge, but unsure of how to adapt.

“The first [semester] was really rough,” said Ivan Kustic, a redshirt junior from Croatia who plays utility on the men’s water polo team. “I wasn’t very good at English. I would say the language barrier was the hardest thing at the beginning, but everybody helped me, so [the transition] was pretty smooth.”

Kustic, like many international student-athletes, was drawn to USC’s athletic tradition and location in sunny and eclectic Los Angeles, but didn’t know how to best acclimate to his new surroundings. Fortunately for him, the structured routine student-athletes are subject to helped him grow accustomed to life as a college student.

“Freshman year was just amazing,” Kustic said. “I would do tutoring five hours a week and they were all helping me. It was really, really helpful. It was kind of hard because I was out all the time, either in class, tutoring or practice, but it helped me a lot.”

Even more helpful for Kustic than the academic resources were his teammates, who gave him an already-established initial group of friends.

“It wasn’t too hard, to be honest,” Kustic said. “All the guys were really nice to me and ready to help all the time, so it was a really easy adjustment.”

Creating a strong team bond early in the school year is crucial for making international student-athletes feel at home, said Magdi El Shahawy, director of the USC Student-Athlete Academic Services. Unity is the easiest way for international student-athletes to quickly feel relaxed in their new environment.

“We encourage the coaching staffs to foster some team-building opportunities so that their domestic student-athletes will intermingle with international student-athletes more,” El Shahawy said.

Though players can adjust to life in America on their own, the SAAS takes measures to ensure that international student-athletes receive sufficient help upon arriving in the United States.

“The one thing you will find more when dealing with an international student-athlete is a cultural adjustment,” El Shahawy said. “We spend time addressing that with our international student-athlete population during their orientation session, talking about the different resources that are available to them on campus, like the Office of International Students.”

In addition to helping student-athletes become comfortable on campus once they arrive at USC, El Shahawy is also looking into how and why these foreign students chose USC, of all places in the world, to go to college.

“I looked up water polo in the United States, and USC was the top one, so that was immediately my first choice,” said Kostas Genidounias, a junior from Athens, Greece, who plays driver for the men’s water polo team, adding that the prevalence of foreign players in the program played little to no role in his decision-making process.

For others, the motivation to go out and explore the world comes from the desire to continue both athletic and academic pursuits. Other parts of the world do not offer college sports to students, meaning that once high school ends, many have to choose between attending college or becoming a professional athlete. The United States and the National Collegiate Athletic Association give international students the chance to do both, a fact that students and administrators are well aware of.

“I think they come to an American institution to get an education and further develop their skills in their sport,” El Shahawy said. “Our coaches go out and recruit and make USC sound very appealing. They get a chance to get a free education, where sports don’t provide that for them in their own country.”

For Strahinja Gavrilovic, a sophomore from Serbia who plays forward on the men’s basketball team, USC gave him the chance to follow his dream of pursuing a career in professional basketball while still allowing him to prepare for life after his basketball career comes to an end.

“I like the system here. In my country, you have to choose either to play professionally or go to school,” Gavrilovic said. “Here, I have the opportunity to do both — study and play basketball.”

Like Kustic, Gavrilovic initially had difficulties adjusting to life in the United States, but is now comfortable in Los Angeles and feels at home at USC. His travel experience has paid dividends for his teammate, freshman forward Nikola Jovanovic, who is also from Serbia. Jovanovic credits Gavrilovic in helping ease the sometimes awkward growing pains that come with leaving home for the first time.

“He’s done a really great job,” Jovanovic said of Gavrilovic. “This is his second year, and he’s kind of shown me around and made my life much easier and helped me adapt.”

Which is often really what any new college student is looking for — friends that will make the four (or five) years in between youth and adulthood as memorable as possible. When their years at USC end, many international student-athletes enjoy their time at USC so much that they want to stay in the United States after graduation rather than return to their home country.

“Over the course of their experiences at USC, a lot of them fall in love with Los Angeles,” El Shahawy said. “There is a desire to stay here a little while longer, and that is not atypical from any other student who’s not from overseas. They come here, and they don’t want to go back because they enjoy their time in California.”


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