International student athletes face challenges, find community in sports programs

Nick Wood

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On top of the regular stresses of balancing academics and athletics, international student athletes face the additional burdens of both adapting to life abroad and competing in a new environment.

Left: First-year golfer Erika Zinser from Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. Contributed Photo. Center: First-year men’s tennis player Atanas Atanasov from Haskovo, Bulgaria. Contributed Photo. Right: Junior basketball player JP Alvarez from Quito, Ecuador.   Photo Credit: Faith Bernstein

JP Alvarez, a junior basketball player, came to Whitman with the specific intention of participating in athletics. Alvarez could not find a solid basketball community in his hometown of Quito. Eventually, he left Ecuador.

“Basketball is so much more popular here,” said Alvarez, who was named Player of the Year twice after leading his Ecuadorian team to state tournament victories as a first-year and sophomore. “That’s why I came to the United States. I wanted to get better. I wanted to play at the highest level I could.”

After two years playing high school and club basketball in Lewiston, Idaho and San Rafael, Calif., Alvarez was recruited by Coach Bridgeland to play at Whitman. The college’s generous financial aid for international students helped secure his enrollment.

First-year men’s tennis player Atanas Atanasov from Haskovo, Bulgaria also chose Whitman because it allowed him to continue participating in his sport.

Atanasov began playing tennis when he was eight. Since he did not attend one of Bulgaria’s sport high schools, he was forced to choose between academics and extracurricular athletics. Though he stopped competing in his first year of high school, when looking at colleges, Atanasov knew he wanted to go to an institution where he could both learn and play tennis.

He found that opportunity abroad.

“Whitman is the perfect balance between school and sports,” Atanasov said.

It was all easy, though. Atanasov had to adjust to the new facilities here in the states.

“I’ve been playing my entire life on clay courts. Coming here and playing on hard courts has been really difficult. The rallies are much faster.”

First-year golfer Erika Zinser,  who lives in Puerta Vallarta and once played on the Mexican national golf team,  recalled similar troubles.

“I’m not used to playing in a sweater,” she said.

Zinser was surprised to encounter different rules and the cold Walla Walla winter climate when she started playing golf at Whitman.

“Getting use to the weather, the rules and how they play here has been a shock,” Zinser said. “The density makes the golf ball fly less and we have a different rules system.”

Despite growing up with prestigious golfer parents, Zinser was unsure whether or not she was going to continue competing in college.

“Even though I decided I was not going to be a professional like my parents, I knew that if I stopped playing golf, I would be sad.”

Like for Atanasov, coming to Whitman offered her the opportunity to pursue both academics and athletics. Zinser was pleasantly surprised by the closeness of the women’s golf team, especially compared to her team experiences back home.

She recalled how back home “There was no such word as team, everyone only cares about themselves. You only wear the   T-shirt that everyone else is wearing.”

Her experience at Whitman has been completely different.

“They gave me gear for the winter, stuff that I never knew existed for golf.” Zinser said. “[My teammates] were very supportive when I was overwhelmed. They are such great people.”

Alvarez and Atanasov expressed a similar sentiment concerning the support of their teammates.

“My best experiences are on the basketball court with my teammates,” Alvarez said.

“It said how close the team was on a [recruiting] video I saw on YouTube, but I never really expected it to be true.” Atanasov recalled. “But I’ve found a wonderful group of people here who I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life.”

Atanasov also reflected on the support granted to him by his unique status as both an athlete and an international student.

“I’ve been blessed because I’ve gotten the best of both worlds. The international community here I also consider to be my family. I’ve had two communities I can turn to for support.”

Despite the various challenges of chilly matches and speedy returns, international student athletes have found support and inspiration from their teammates, coaches and Whitman’s athletic programs.

Alvarez also recognizes the larger impact athletics have had on him.

“The core values we have as a team I’ve been able to apply wherever I go,” he said.

Ultimately, Alvarez hopes to bring his experiences with Whitman athletics back to Ecuador.

“I want to be a coach at some point back home. There’s talent, it’s just not as developed. I want to give back everything I’ve learned and help develop basketball in Ecuador, help kids who might have been in my position.”

“The weather affected me so much.” First-year golfer Erika Zinser recalled. “I’m not used to playing in a sweater.”

In addition to the regular stresses of balancing academics and athletics, Zinser and her fellow international student athletes have the additional burdens of both adapting to life abroad and a new competitive environment.

Zinser, who played on the Mexican national team, was startled to discover rules changes and the cold Walla Walla winter climate when she started playing golf at Whitman. “Getting use to the weather, the rules and how they play here has been a shock.” Zinser said. “The density makes the golf ball fly less and we have a different rules system.”

First-year tennis player Atanas Atanasov hails from Haskovo, Bulgaria. He had to make a similar adjustment to new facilities. “I’ve been playing my entire life on clay courts. Coming here and playing on hard courts has been really difficult. The rallies are much faster.”

JP Alvarez, a junior basketball player, reflected on the relative unpopularity of his sport in Ecuador. “Basketball is so much more popular here.” Alvarez said. “That’s why I came to the United States. I wanted to get better. I wanted to play at the highest level I can.”

Whitman athletics provided him with such an opportunity. After two years playing high school and club basketball in San Rafael, Calif., Alvarez was recruited by Coach Bridgeland to play at Whitman. The college’s generous financial aid for international students helped solidify his enrollment.

Alvarez is pleased with his decision to attend Whitman and participate in the college’s athletics program. “My best experiences are on the basketball court with my teammates,” he said.

Zinser and Atanasov expressed a similar sentiment concerning the support of their teammates.

“They gave me gear for the winter, stuff that I never knew existed for golf.” Zinser said. “[My teammates] were very supportive when I was overwhelmed. They are such great people.”

“It said how close the team was on a [recruiting] video I saw on YouTube, but I never really expected it to be true.” Atanasov recalled. “But I’ve found a wonderful group of people here who I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life.”

Atanasov also reflected on the support granted to him by his unique status as both an athlete and an international student. “I’ve been blessed because I’ve gotten the best of both worlds. The international community here I also consider to be my family. I’ve had two communities I can turn to for support.”

Ultimately, Whitman provides internationals student athletes with much more than an opportunity to practice their sport.

“Whitman is the perfect balance between school and sports,” Atanasov shared.

“As much as I came to play basketball I’m getting a great degree from a great school.” Alvarez said.

Is this ending to sappy/Whitman propoganda? Edit me editor.

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