COLUMBIA — Columbia College is 111 miles from the closest international airport and sits a mere 407 miles from the geographic center of the United States.
Despite its location in a small town in the Midwest, this tiny college with only about 1,200 residential students attracts a huge number of international athletes. Columbia College has built a strong network of international contacts that aids in its recruiting process. Although difficulties persist in international recruiting, technology has helped the school to attract athletes from all over the world and has smoothed those players' transition to the United States.
“The athletic department works … to recruit students that are a good fit for the institution,” said Britta Wright, the director of international programs at Columbia College. “They have recruited students from areas of the world that have never been previously represented on campus.”
Only eight percent of all day students at Columbia College are international, yet 25.4 percent of all student athletes (18 out of 71) come to the school from abroad. Currently, students on the men’s and women’s basketball teams, women’s volleyball team, and men’s soccer team represent 11 different countries: Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Kenya, Serbia, Ukraine, Japan, Scotland, England, Australia and Grenada. Recruiting these players involves extra work, but athletic director Bob Burchard says that the process has become easier and more rewarding.
“You get a connection to ... another country,” Burchard said. “They know people. You might recruit a student and they have friends. You get to know their coaches, you get to know their club that they’re involved with. You get to develop a bit of a pipeline.”
Juliana Quadrades, the assistant volleyball coach, was born in Brazil and played for Columbia College. She now spends time in her home country looking for recruits.
“It’s been a great experience recruiting so far,” Quadrades said. “I know a lot of people, those who are in Brazil and wanted to come over here. I will bring one of their friends, and then a friend tells a friend. Sometimes I go back home and see somebody with potential.”
Coaches can also learn about international players at exposure camps. If players from abroad wish to come to the United States, they can sign up with a recruiting agency, which will organize a day where coaches evaluate a large group of players. Conversely, coaches can plan visits to other countries, evaluating players on several teams while they are there. Burchard said, however, that he prefers relying on references rather than cold calls.
“Thinking back to all the international players I’ve coached in basketball, they’ve either come from junior colleges where I knew the coach, and so I could get a good reference on the student, or there was a personal connection,” he said.
Both Burchard and Cindy Fotti, an assistant athletic director, know that it might be tough to attract players to Mid-Missouri. Burchard said that the school’s college-credit English as a Second Language program, its reputation as a top NAIA contender, and the league’s somewhat more relaxed eligibility standards, help to attract the players.
The Internet helps the school limit travel costs and helps students maintain contact with their home countries.
“In many cases, an international student will come based off what they’ve seen on the Internet,” Burchard said. “It’s many times a leap of faith on their part.”
Burchard said that many families rely on the school’s Internet broadcasts of games to keep up with their children’s performance in Columbia. Each game is shown live online, so parents can tune in even if it means waking up at an odd hour to watch.
Fotti also says that the Internet has made players more familiar with American culture. Additionally, many international players come from English-speaking countries or community colleges. Even so, challenges remain, especially for those who have spent little time in English-speaking areas.
“International athletes are not only transitioning to a new culture, language, and academic environment ... they must also develop exceptional time management and study skills to keep up with their coursework while occupied with preseason training, practices and games,” Wright said.
Many of these problems occur off the court. Ola Shawky Nosear, an Egyptian volleyball player, said that the differences in diet between America and their home countries have caused problems.
Shawky Nosear also said that social life in America is different from what she is accustomed to in Egypt. She added that it is difficult to reconcile American customs with her Muslim religious beliefs, and head volleyball coach Melinda Wrye-Washington added that Ramadan was difficult for the Egyptian player.
Burchard said that communication is the most difficult element of the transition. No matter how much formal English language training a player has, he or she will still have trouble adjusting to athletic terminology and metaphors.
He added that, though many athletes struggle with outside pressures like experiencing a new environment, other obstacles like academic struggles, money issues, relationships and family problems are often exaggerated for international students.
"Issues can be exaggerated by distance from a family support system," Burchard said.
However, after spending as much as three hours, six days a week practicing, international players are forced to adjust to their surroundings. Burchard says that players come to the United States because they are talented athletes and that their athleticism is ultimately what helps them to integrate into life at Columbia College.
“Sport is a real equalizer,” he said. “The one thing about sport is it’s competition. You’re either better than somebody or you’re not better. You can either run faster, swim faster, throw it farther, kick it farther. It equalizes, it takes care of a lot of those barriers. When you’re between the lines, you’re a teammate or an opponent, and the whole international thing is a nonfactor.”