The Place To Be

Dec. 3, 2015

By Jon Cooper | BUZZ Magazine (Winter 2015 edition)

It’s no exaggeration when Georgia Tech coaches say they’ll leave no stone unturned to recruit the best and the brightest student-athletes the world has to offer.

With technology making the world a smaller place, finding these talented and academically inspired kids is easier and easier and, as a result, more and more of them than ever are choosing to pursue higher education in Atlanta.

At the beginning of the 2015 fall semester, a record 35 student-athletes from outside of the United States participated in Georgia Tech Athletics. Take a look at the rosters of just about every Yellow Jackets team, and you’re bound to find a representative born outside the United States.

Be it football (DE Adam Gotsis, Australia), women’s tennis (Paige Hourigan, New Zealand), men’s tennis (Carlos Benito, Spain; among three others, all from different countries), men’s basketball (Abdoulaye Gueye, Senegal; and Sylvester Ogbonda, Nigeria), women’s basketball (Antonia Peresson, Italy; Efe Edeferioka, Nigeria; Irene Gari, Spain; amongst the six on the squad), volleyball (Gabriela Stavnetchei, Brazil; and Anna Kavalchuk, Belarus), swimming and diving (Yuval Safra, Israel; among the 13 from eight different nations), the list goes on and on.

In all, six of the world’s seven continents are represented (North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia), and 24 countries have representation. Gender-wise it’s a near even split, with 18 men and 17 women.

“Our coaches are going after the best and the brightest not only domestically but internationally,” said Phyllis LaBaw, Associate AD for Student Services. “It is a win-win, and it a special part of what we do and what we do for students but also just a combination, a diversity. But that’s what we should all be about. It’s absolutely beautiful to have the diversity we have across the board.

“They are such dedicated students,” she added.

“They will not go home without their degree because, for many of them, their families have given up a lot for them to be here. Not all of them are full-scholarship student-athletes. They’ve given up their family in many cases because they don’t have the opportunity to come and go as many as our domestic students.”

One might think that those coming to a new country to study as a top collegiate institution might have a difficult time with simply communicating. Yet, with Georgia Tech student-athletes, that’s frequently not the case.

Not being able to get home can actually be a bigger issue with international students than any issue with the language or even the curriculum.

“When I was young I lived in Nigeria for, like, seven years, and I attended an American International school,” said Safra, a 2014 Academic All-American, who is top-five in school history in three different events (500 free, 1650 free, 200 back). “So I think that’s why my English is better because until age eight I would speak only English. Then I went back to Israel, so I spoke only Hebrew. So my English isn’t perfect, but it’s not bad.”

“I’ve been here for a year and a half, but the hardest part for me is the English,” said Stavnetchei. “Since Georgia Tech is a really hard school, you have to go to class, and in the beginning, I couldn’t understand what the professors were saying. For me to write an assignment was really hard, harder than everybody else. But those are things that I’ve been through and I’ve gotten much better at. I can say that’s not tough anymore.”

LaBaw says that the language barrier isn’t as great as might be expected, because it’s something that’s part of the recruiting process.

“They come in and pretty much can meet all the qualification as an incoming Georgia Tech student. So they’re very fluent in English and multilingual,” she said. “That’s what’s so amazing about this population. They’re not only fluent in English, but often times fluent in three and four other languages. They’re fluent in English and their test scores need to relay that also, and they take the same SAT, the same ACT so their scores and going to show that fluency in both reading and writing.”

Inevitable struggles in grasping concepts in classes can be alleviated by something as simple as a tape recorder.

Often a bigger issue is time-management.

“The hardest part for me was trying to put 100 percent into tennis while also trying to put 100 percent into school work. It was really hard to get a balance,” said Hourigan, a 2015 second-team All-ACC selection as a freshman, whose sport requires her playing both a fall and spring season. “At first it was a little bit of a struggle. Academic advisors are awesome, and that’s what helped me last year a lot, because they always made sure I was on track and doing everything right.”

Sometimes, however, even the best student and most focused athlete has to deal with something that the finest on-field success and highest-quality academic work can’t fix. That’s homesickness, something exacerbated by the extreme distance they are from their native country.

“I miss my mom, I miss my brothers. I haven’t seen them in like four years since I’ve been here,” said Ogbonda, a freshman post player who hails from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, more than 6,000 miles away from Atlanta, and attended high school in Fort Washington, Maryland. “I miss the food. When I was in Maryland, I used to eat Nigerian food, but it wasn’t like home. So that’s what I miss. I miss my friends at home.”

Even upperclassmen have an issue with the distance from their home countries.

“My sister just had a baby. I want to see the baby. So, yeah, I miss my family and the food,” said Edeferioka, a junior transfer from Hofstra, who also is of Nigerian descent. “There’s no food like home food. Even though I get African food here, it’s not like homemade food from my mom. I really hope I can go home this Christmas, because I haven’t been home for Christmas for almost five years now.”

Keeping busy has proven the best cure for homesickness for Edeferioka’s teammate Gari, a native of Oliva, Spain. Of course, Gari, a graduate student enrolling at Georgia Tech after receiving her bachelor’s degree at UTEP, also has been away from home since age 14 when she moved to Barcelona to participate in the nation’s high-performances sports center.

“Here I’m really busy, so I don’t have time to even think about home,” she said. “We wake up at 5:30 a.m. to do weights at 6, then I go to class, have lunch and then go back to class, then practice and then study and go to sleep. So I don’t really have time.

“I miss them at Christmas, especially, but I just don’t think about it,” she added. “I’m here and I have to enjoy this moment because probably next year I’m going to be back in Europe and I’m going to be able to enjoy all these moments in college.”

Gotsis embraced the moment and seeing the opportunity coming to Georgia Tech presented, but was sympathetic to those who do.

“I adjusted pretty easy but I know a lot [international student-athletes] do struggle with just the distance and not really having the opportunity to go home and things like that,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re here for a reason. That is to get your degree and play your sport. They’re paying for THAT. You can’t sit here and be upset about not having the opportunity to go home when you’re getting a free education and the opportunity to play on a big stage.

“I remember coming in and just seeing everyone and being like, ‘This is insane.’ I know no one. It was just a weird feeling. A lot of these guys know of each other or of each other’s high schools or people that have come out of certain high schools,” he added. “I just came in, put my head down and worked. That’s the biggest thing you can do is just come in and work every day and live with the result. If you don’t make the most of the opportunity, make the most of every day here, you’re just wasting time.”

Safra is especially making the most of his time in the United States. His four years in Atlanta have allowed him to defer mandatory service in the Israeli military – something he will do when he returns following his graduation.

He’s grateful for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association and the Office of International Education for their help in getting him and fellow international athletes assimilated.

“There are like two aspects. There’s a social aspect and then there’s the academic aspect here,” he said. “Academic-wise the A.A. does a great job of helping international students get into the rhythm, if it’s tutoring or extra sessions or whatever they need. That helped me a lot because when you come here you’re in shock. You have no idea what’s happening. You need to register for courses, and you don’t even know what that means, so that really helps you. When I came in they told me what I need to do, which was a ton of help for me at the beginning.”

Having a familiar dialect has been crucial. Stavnetchei is in a unique situation, as volleyball head coach Michelle Collier is from Brazil (along with her husband, volunteer assistant coach Rafael Silva) and played at the University of South Florida.

“I think the fact that I was once in their position helps me to have a better understanding of what they are going through and help them accommodate better to their new experience,” said Collier, who starred at USF from 1998-2002. “Every student, whether national or international, will react differently to the transition into this new life experience. It helps to have lived a similar experience and be able to relate to them.”

LaBaw cited several clubs on campus that are available for internationals for that occasional taste of home that feels that the team factor can be big in getting comfortable with college life.

“We have a very globally diverse institute in regards to student population, but then they’re coming to a family. They’re coming into a team,” she said. “So more than anything, the premise we work by and our philosophy is just that pure family aspect. That’s what really embraces them and captures them into the program and they do so well. They just continue to add value to our domestic students.”

The boom of international student-athletes is here to stay at Georgia Tech and will likely only continue to grow. LaBaw hopes it will lead to similar growth in domestic students venturing abroad.

“I see this population as stimulating opportunities for our domestic students,” she said. “I look more at our domestic students studying abroad at maybe some of the home countries of some of these students and then also piquing the interest to speak another language for our domestic students. So they’re a great population for your domestic students to learn from.”

Then there’s the thrill of the hunt in finding the next big thing.

“That’s what’s kind of exciting for our coaches, too. I know MaChelle Joseph spends time in Italy and wherever else. The same with [men’s basketball] Coach [Brian] Gregory,” LaBaw said. “Then, also, the added value is this group of 35 international student-athletes, they’re an educational experience for all of us. It’s amazing to talk to them in regards to their family and their experiences and how it’s different here, and then seeing them somewhat become Americanized but then vice versa. What they teach the others. That’s the special part of this relationship.”

Story addendum: Adam Gotsis and former swimmer Nico van Duijn (Switzerland) are among the 29 student-athletes graduating this later this month from Georgia Tech.

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