COLUMBIA — This fall, when Erin Pavlin first arrived from Springfield to play volleyball at Columbia College, trying to decipher Portuguese wasn't something she planned on doing.
But that’s something that the freshman defensive specialist has had to do, because Portuguese is one of five languages spoken on the team with seven of the 14 players coming from foreign countries. Because of the diversity, playing for the Cougars is as much of a cultural experience as it is an athletic one.
"I thought it was so cool when I first heard Paula (Ferreira) and Tally (Mattos) speaking to each other in Portuguese," Pavlin said. "Now it is kind of gibberish to me. I just block it out."
As the novelty of new languages has worn off, the team has grown together, despite cultural differences.
"It's just life," Cougars coach Melinda Wrye-Washington said. "But it's a little more extreme when you have people from different countries, and it is a challenge to be accepting and understanding and work towards a common goal despite your differences."
Whether it is a Brazilian setting a pass to a Serbian, or a Canadian blocking side-by-side with an Egyptian, the team has successfully worked towards their common goal of reaching the national tournament. The diverse Cougars (38-2) go into the national tournament late this month in Sioux City, Iowa, as the No. 5 ranked team in the NAIA.
Serena Jenkins, an outside hitter on the team, said that the diversity, along with the success of the volleyball program, was one of the main selling points compelling the Jefferson City native to transfer to Columbia College from Lindenwood.
"I like the diversity, being a minority myself," said Jenkins, who is black. "Everyone on the team is different. Everyone came from different cultures. I like the diversity, that was one of the reasons I wanted to come here."
The team has players from Serbia, Colombia, Canada, Brazil, Egypt and the United States.
"I think the coolest part about it is that there can be six girls out on the court and they were all born in different countries," Pavlin said.
The players tease each other about their different cultures. The Americans will tease the foreigners about pronunciations of English words, and the foreigners will give the Americans words to say in different languages.
"Sometimes they tell us words to say and they don't even tell us what they mean," Pavlin said.
They have grown together as a team and plan to continue their friendships beyond the volleyball court after graduation.
"After we graduate and we aren't teammates anymore, I'm going to be flying to Brazil, I'm going to be flying to Egypt, I'm going to be traveling the world to visit my old teammates," Pavlin said.
Pavlin has already agreed to visit Mattos in Brazil with one caveat: It has to be for her wedding.
"I want to see her world," Pavlin said.
Mattos was happy to brag about her country.
"I would love to have my teammates come visit me, I would show them everything and do everything," Mattos said. "The problem is that they are going to love Brazil and not want to go back."
Jenkins also wants to go to Brazil, and plans on going next summer with her sister. Mattos said she would be happy to show her around her home country.
Jenkins hopes that the lessons the team learns will be helpful after they graduate and move on from athletics.
"When we go into the real world and get jobs, we aren't going to be around people from just Missouri,” Jenkins said. “Being on this team we learn things and learn how to cope with different cultures.”