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Student-athletes test themselves by studying abroad

By Michelle Hiskey
For NCAA.org

When you live in a yurt, as Macalester College soccer player Jesse Geary did for four months, the soccer field is a big wide desert. No out of bounds, just an endless view to the horizon.

"My last day in Bayankhongor Province, where I lived in a yurt with a host family for two weeks. Pictured are my host-mother Gereltuuya, and three-year-old host-sister Otgintuul. This was my favorite place in Mongolia." - Jesse Geary

“My days were spent cleaning cattle pens, combing goats for cashmere, and bringing herds of yaks and sheep to water,” Geary said. “Games are one of the many things that transcend language, so soccer often helped break the ice between my Mongolian host families and me.”

Macalester is one of several NCAA athletic programs that promote study abroad. About 60 percent of their student-athletes take part, most for a full semester. That rate matches the student body. 

Even though the absence of Geary and others like him force their respective teams to adjust, these athletic programs value the opportunity for their student-athletes to challenge themselves in a foreign arena, and return with new skills.

“My time in Mongolia has made me more confident in everything that I do, including soccer,” said Geary, who lived in the countryside outside Ulan Bator in the spring semester of 2010.

“Since I have returned, I have also been a vocal leader on the field. Living in rural areas for weeks on end without anyone who spoke my native language not only left me starved for English, but also shed some light on the importance of communication.”

In Divisions I and II, pollution and rickshaws

Other programs across NCAA divisions also promote study abroad for a few weeks to an entire year. Athletes have returned with profound experiences that have changed their view of the world and themselves.

In Division I, Cornell field hockey player Carolyn Horner spent two months in Beijing. She signed a pledge to only speak Mandarin, which carried into the field hockey club she joined. Language was only one challenge.

“Everyone talks about the pollution, but I don't think people realize the toll it takes on athletes,” she said. “After about a month of running outside, I developed a pretty persistent cough and found that I had real trouble breathing on my runs.

 “I also tweaked my groin (and) found that I couldn't rehab it the way I usually do because it is hard to find ice in China and my heating pad wouldn't work due to the different outlets. I had to resort to trying to 'ice' with cold water bottles!
Overall it was an amazing experience that helped me realize even half way around the world I can still take pride in calling myself a student-athlete.”

In Division II, student-athletes at Queens (N.C.) tap into the John Belk International Program, which sends more than 90 percent of Queens undergraduates abroad. 

“One of the most fun and unique things we did in China was being carried down a mountain by a rickshaw after having toured one of China’s oldest and most historic monasteries,” said senior golfer Mallory Rhuling, a political science major.

“Climbing 320 stairs to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, through narrow hallways, was all worth it for the amazing views,” said golfer Justin Fedje of his time in Italy.

At schools like Division III Macalester, coaches and administrators find that study abroad helps fulfill the ideal of equipping students to thrive after graduation in an increasingly globalized society. 

 “We will always speak positively about study abroad and it does impact our team as our players are more responsible and assured,” said Ian Barker, Geary’s coach at Macalester, who has guided the Scots for 13 seasons.

“Our student-athletes come back markedly changed for the experience. They seem (more mature) and more sensitive to a world beyond their family, friends and campus.”

Macalester student-athletes usually study abroad during their junior year. To lessen the impact on their team, they aim for their off-season, if possible.

“Even for winter sports athletes we try to find a way for them to incorporate a study abroad program into their college experience,” said Associate Director of Athletics Vanessa Seljeskog, a varsity track athlete at Arizona State and St. Olaf. “I didn’t study abroad during college and it is the one thing I wish I had done as a college student.”

Scheduling basketball player Colin Jarvis’ study abroad was a bit tricky, because his sport competes across semesters.

Jarvis wanted to work on fluency in Spanish, and targeted countries in the Southern Hemisphere that would be starting their fall semester near the end of Macalester’s basketball season.

“I actually played our last season game on Feb. 19th and caught my plane to Buenos Aires the next morning, on the 20th,” he said. “It worked out perfectly.”

Macalester coaches use study abroad tradition as a recruiting tool.

“Macalester’s commitment to global understanding as demonstrated through its strong study abroad opportunities is a significant message our coaches share with prospective students,” Seljeskog said.

“Our coaches are often are asked, ‘Can I be a varsity student athlete and still study abroad?’  And the answer is always an unequivocal, ‘Yes, absolutely!’”

This fall, 17 Scots are studying abroad, and Macalester is tracking them through an interactive online map that links to their blogs. 

Their first-person reports help spread the word to younger student-athletes who may be curious about study abroad.

Geary’s nomadic experience in Mongolia included competing with his host family’s five children to use their one computer, and watching the teenage boys play the same video games as many Americans. He bought riding boots on the black market and learned to ride a horse. He ate delicious meat but was never sure what animal supplied it.

In Argentina, a trip with a public health nonprofit to a little pueblo called Burro Pozo showed Jarvis the great needs of the Third World.

"This pictue was taken at Mt. Aspiring National Park on the South Island of New Zealand.  I am standing above the tree line looking east down the Matukituki Valley where four friends and I just hiked through." - Lucy Miner

“They are surrounded with horribly inadequate infrastructure -- when it rains, the roads are impassible…. the roads aren't much more than pothole-riddled dirt paths,” he said. “This nonprofit is these communities only means of medical care. Each community may only get visited once or twice a year.”

Macalester senior Lucy Miner, a soccer and tennis player from Seattle, missed tennis season to study in New Zealand at a biodiversity and conservation program called EcoQuest. She relied on new friends during hiking, camping and snorkeling trips.

“From soccer I am used to cooperating with a team and…with only 25 students in my program, I was constantly working closely with other people in order to have successful learning experiences,” she said.

“From tennis I have learned to be responsible for my own actions and be independent.  These traits helped me succeed in New Zealand because I sometimes had to complete assignments on my own and take control of my own learning.” 

Macalester softball utility player Courtney Nussbaumer is spending this semester -- her off-season -- in Madrid.

It’s her first trip to Europe, and she had some trepidation about testing her fluency in a new language and staying in shape for softball, which is not played much in Spain.

Courtney Nussbaumer

One vocabulary word helped ease the transition – disfruta, which means “to enjoy.” Nussbaumer likes puns, so she named her blog Disfruta and kicked it off with a photo of a fruit market in Madrid.

She is there with the blessing of her team.

“While I regret I will be missing 12 fall practices and the fall alumni game, I know studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Nussbaumer said. “I will also miss some of the team bonding and camaraderie that will occur, especially with the new first-years (freshmen), but the team is already pretty close, and I know they would want me to take advantage of this great opportunity.”

The global field vision of Division III

In Division III, study abroad is a staple for many schools. The men’s soccer players from Wisconsin-Superior attend the “Wisconsin in Scotland” program, which their coach Joe Mooney also went on as an undergraduate.

Six members of the Yellowjacket men's soccer team, shown outside their living quarters in Scotland, where they are studying this semester.

In the highlands town of Dalkeith, a recent group of six Yellowjackets lived and studied in a castle, and watched European soccer amid rabid fans.

Soccer “is as large as football in the United States, and people live and die by it,” junior defender Michael Bodner said. “It is awesome to be in a place where the sport I participate in is highly regarded.”

Softball player Kaylee Kucharski left Southwestern University in Texas for a summer program in Costa Rica. She learned Spanish which staying in shape for her sport.

“My workout consisted of running around the parks, playing soccer with the locals, walking around town with my ‘mama tica’ (host mother), and also a lot of body resistance training as well.... it made me have more creative workouts and also made me realize how universal sports are. Sports help build relationships, and allowed me to meet many of the locals.”

Southwestern volleyball All-American Christina Nicholls returned from China with plans to return after graduation to the small town in the Yunnan province near Tibet. One of the towns she visited was Shangri-la.

The first picture is of me and four girls I taught English to in the Yunnan province. They were Tibetan students from rural areas who went to this school that helped them make the transition from their rural lifestyles to an urban life." - Christina Nicholls

“I fell in love with this small town and the students, and because of these girls and the other brilliant students, I’ve decided I want to go back to China and teach English,” she said.

Central College operates study abroad centers in Wales, Spain, China, the Netherlands, England, Mexico, France and Austria. “The benefit of being a student-athlete is that you get to have it all -- pursue an academic interest, play a sport, lead a student organization, practice an instrument and study abroad,” said Central President Mark Putnam. “Our students need the chance to explore widely.”

“If anything, I’m disappointed more athletes don’t take advantage of the chance to study abroad,” said Central College softball coach George Wares, winningest coach in NCAA Division III history (909-302-3 record, .750 winning pct. over 27 seasons with four national titles and 23 Division III tournament berths).

One of his players, senior co-captain Angela Davis, studied in Granada, Spain and described it as changing her personality. She believes study abroad should be required of all athletes and undergraduates.

“If I had a problem, I was the one who had to ask questions and get the information necessary to solve it. If I needed something, I was the one going to get it. I was the one finding my resources and allies in a place that was unlike anywhere I had been,” she said. “It was incredibly beneficial in discovering my independence, confidence, and capabilities. It was such a change in myself that when my parents came to visit me, they were more than impressed with my newfound "go-getter" attitude. Don't get me wrong, I have never been a shy person, but in the past I have always solved problems on my own rather than asking someone. In Spain, I had no information about anything, so it forced me to have to ask a lot of questions.”

William Smith lacrosse student-athlete Rosie Scheibel, an international relations and Latin American studies double major, studied in South Korea last fall. She earned a Salisbury Summer Internship Stipend and worked creating a recreation center for the Centro Escolar Nuestro Señora de Guadalupe school in Nicaragua for the summer. The main goals of the project were to provide the teachers and students with a  wider range of teaching and learning materials. Her experience was so rewarding, she elected to remain in Nicaragua this fall.

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and a former golf student-athlete at Duke.