Life as an International Student-Athlete

Swarthmore boasts a diverse student body, full of students with all sorts of talents, interests, and backgrounds. Although only 1640 undergraduates are enrolled at Swarthmore, 53 countries are represented at the college. Along with the distinct student population of Swarthmore comes a multitude of 22 diverse varsity athletic teams, 10 of which have an international student on the roster. Life as both an international student and athlete at Swarthmore is unique. Despite being few and far between, the international student-athletes at Swarthmore have stories as interesting as any here on campus.

Harry Nevins ‘22 is a first-year men’s soccer player who has helped the Garnet win six of their  first ten games. When Nevins has been healthy, he has started every game, anchoring a Swarthmore defense that has contained offenses from Muhlenberg and #11 Franklin and Marshall. While Nevins was familiar with the United States before attending Swarthmore, home for him is London, England.

“Although I was born in New York, I have lived a majority of my life abroad in London,” says Nevins. “I often visit family back in the U.S. and travel back to our family home in New York a couple times a year for vacation.” Nevins’ family moved to London for work –  it was there he attended the American School of London.

When asked about how he knew of Swarthmore, Nevins pointed to its academic reputation. “I knew that Swarthmore was one of the best colleges in the U.S. and what I was in the recruiting process, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the [recruiting] camp,” remembers Nevins. “This was one of the first schools I looked when I started the process but I fell in love with the campus right away.”

As with many college athletes, Nevins started playing sports at a very young age. In fact, at age 15, Nevins was in the academy system of Southampton FC, an English Premier League Club. At Swarthmore, Nevins may not experience the quality of soccer of an English academy. Overseas, youth academy players, like the ones at Southampton, all have aspirations of signing professional contracts and eventually making the first team.

Quality of play is not the only difference between American and English soccer.

“Living in England, soccer was the only sport played,” says Nevins. “It’s a way of life and I grew up playing the beautiful game from grassroots.”

Soccer is certainly not the only prevalent sport at Swarthmore. It also could not be accurately described as a “lifestyle”, but Nevins says a few months at Swarthmore has taught him many things: “Playing soccer at Swarthmore teaches me how to balance. It’s an incredible opportunity to be a student athlete here and I’m very thankful. I’m learning to be more organized … [to] interact with a variety of people, and make relationships with professors and students.”

Ankur Malik ‘21 is a sophomore golfer who says that the answer to the question “Where is home?” is a bit complicated. “Although both my parents are Indian, I was born in London and have never lived in India,” says Malik. “Having grown up mostly in Singapore, I would call that home, especially since my parents are planning to stay there. I get to go back every six months during breaks.”

Malik is an example of someone who discovered Swarthmore through sports. Malik, who wanted to play competitive collegiate golf, spent every summer in his high school years playing tournaments in the U.S., given that many coaches do not know about the level of play abroad. International prospective athletes are not afforded the same luxuries as domestic prospective athletes. At a small school like Swarthmore, coaches have limited recruiting resources. Sometimes coaches will travel to tournaments in California to see players, but mostly, it’s the athletes who pursue contact with coaches. As an international student, this usually means visiting the United States to attend showcases in the area of their desired college. For Malik, a long flight from Singapore to the United States was required to just put himself out there. Then, there was the matter of choosing what tournaments to attend.

“My parents and I didn’t really know which tournaments to play and how to structure my summer schedules, [so] we used a college golf advisor to help us,” Malik says. “That was how I found out about Swarthmore.”

Swarthmore golf has meant a lot to Malik in the one year he’s been at the college. “When I first arrived at campus my freshman year, I already had a great group of guys to hang out with and get advice from,” reflects Malik. “Those friendships have only grown since then.” Without the golf team, Malik feels as if he would have “too much free time,” if that’s possible at a school like Swarthmore.

Christine Ayoh ‘21 is a thrower for the women’s track and field team at Swarthmore. For Ayoh, home is Lagos, Nigeria, where she gets to return every Christmas and summer. Ayoh first learned about Swarthmore through family. “My dad went to Wharton, so he’s very familiar with the area,” says Ayoh. “He always talked about Swarthmore, and when the application process rolled around, I did more research and decided to apply.”

Ayoh went to a boarding school in New Jersey, where she first tried throwing shot put in order to meet an athletic requirement set by the school. “I wanted to try a sport I’ve never done before and the options were track and field, softball, and lacrosse,” remembers Ayoh. “I’d played softball before and lacrosse confuses me, so sophomore spring I decided to join track and field.”

In Nigeria, Ayoh played everything from soccer to softball. For her, the main difference between athletics in the states and in Nigeria is the level of dedication and structure of practice. “At home, there wasn’t really a lot of structure,” Ayoh said. “We would just play the sport until time is up and not focus on improving certain skills.”

At Swarthmore, Ayoh believes that practices are catered to the individual and do really well at helping everyone be the best they can be. However, there are some challenges with being an international student athlete. “I guess people back home don’t understand my sport,” Ayoh said. “And my parents can never come to a meet.”

However, being a thrower has enhanced Ayoh’s Swarthmore experience.  “All my memories are good ones so far, but my favorite has to be at the concert last Saturday when all the throwers wore matching fake ‘Supreme’ shirts,” says Ayoh. “I like everyone on the team and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have met them without throwing.” She pauses. “I also like having something to do other than class on this campus.”

Kenji Yoshii ‘20 is a baseball player from Tokyo, Japan, who feels lucky to be able to go home every summer and winter. Yoshii is another person who heard about Swarthmore through his parents. “All I knew was that it was a small liberal arts school with an amazing education, but actually coming here showed me it was a whole lot more than just that,” says Yoshii.

Yoshii began playing baseball at age three, casually playing catch with his parents. However, as soon as he saw MLB games playing on his TV, Yoshii’s fascination really took off. “I’ve loved the game ever since,” says Yoshii.

Getting recruited to Swarthmore was difficult for Yoshii. “Although I had the chance to be in the U.S. for a summer to play in tournaments and showcases, it was a lot hard try to meet coaches and getting them interested in seeing me play,” said Yoshii. “Especially since I only had a couple of chances to play in front of them. When a coach would be interested me and wanted to see me play again, I couldn’t just hop on a plane for a showcase.”

Baseball at Swarthmore has been valuable to Yoshii. The overall transition was smoother than he expected. “I haven’t had any difficulties being an international student athlete at Swarthmore,” said Yoshii. “Of course, I had trouble adjusting to the culture and whatnot, but my teammates have been supportive and accepting of me, something I was extremely worried about before coming to campus.” Additionally, according to Yoshii, baseball is a lot more laid back in the U.S. “We have a lot more freedom playing the game,” said Yoshii. “In Japan, practices are a lot longer, and coaches put a lot more emphasis on discipline. The freedom we are given here allows us to have so much more fun playing the game.”  

Yoshii’s favorite memory at Swarthmore, by a long shot, is winning the Centennial Conference championship at home last spring. He states, “Not only coming from behind and winning that game, but to be able to do it in front of hundreds of our fans was absolutely incredible.”

Joseph Barile

Joe '21 is from River Vale, NJ. Besides writing for the sports section of the Phoenix, he plays on the Swarthmore Men’s Soccer team and works in admissions as a tour guide.

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