Sports give international students a gateway to U.S. college life

Students in Spokane, Washington, cheer during a college basketball game between Gonzaga University in Spokane and Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. (© AP Images)

Everyone knows that playing sports can help you get fit, develop friendships and ease stress. But did you know that sports can also be a springboard to success for international students at U.S. colleges and universities?

Sports are an integral part of the U.S. college experience. Sports programs promote school spirit and campuswide social integration — a bonus for anyone who’s adjusting to a new school, especially if that school is in a new country.

If you excel at a sport and decide to try out for, say, your school’s basketball or swim team, you might earn the coveted status of student-athlete — an option that typically doesn’t exist at universities outside the United States. This means you can earn your degree while also training and competing in your chosen sport, an important advantage if you hope to pursue a sports-related career.

Villanova University’s Dylan Ennis (31) shoots against New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Vlad Shustov, of Russia, during a college basketball game in Villanova, Pennsylvania. (© AP Images)

One student-athlete who’s winning accolades — and fans — is Soclaina van Gurp, known as “Suka” to her friends.

A native of Curaçao, van Gurp grew up in a sports-minded family and enrolled at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida, in 2013. Already an accomplished athlete, she quickly established herself as a standout player on the college’s women’s softball team.

In 2014, she was named to the All–Southern Conference First Team by the Florida College System Activities Association and was subsequently voted the Southern Conference Player of the Year.

Soclaina “Suka” van Gurp, of Curaçao, who plays on the women’s softball team at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida, is one of the top student-athletes at her school. (Courtesy photo)

In a 2015 interview with Palm Beach State’s online magazine Contact, van Gurp credits her softball teammates with helping her adjust to college life: “Having the support of my teammates was the best thing ever. … Basically, they are my family here; I’m with them 24-7.”

After completing her sophomore year at Palm Beach State, she’ll transfer to the University of North Florida, where she’ll continue to play softball and study sports management. She wants to coach someday.

A recent issue of Swimming World magazine highlights the success of international students attending U.S. schools, including Sam Perry of New Zealand, Christian Brown of Japan, Cassidy Richards of Canada, and Great Britain’s Jing Leung and Isabella Hindley.

Perry and Brown both swim for Stanford University, while Richards and Hindley swim for Yale University. Leung is a diver at Harvard University.

A student-athlete from Texas A&M University glances at her opponent in the next lane near the end of the 200-yard butterfly event at a college swimming competition in Indianapolis, Indiana. (© AP Images)

Well-funded sports programs at U.S. colleges and universities provide student-athletes with top-notch training facilities, advanced coaching and other resources.

Hindley adds that swimming has smoothed her adjustment to U.S. campus life.

“Swimming has definitely helped my transition into living in a different country,” she says. “As all of your experiences are new and different, having one constant throughout the transition makes it a lot easier. The people I’m swimming with are different, the people that are coaching me are different, the place where I’m swimming is different, but I’m still doing the same thing in the pool, and to me that is very comforting.”

Georgia Institute of Technology students from China try out shoulder pads at the International Football Clinic in Atlanta, where students from countries unfamiliar with American football can learn the basics of the game. (© AP Images)

Even if you aren’t a gifted athlete, you can benefit from your school’s sports programs, both as a spectator bonding with other sports fans and by playing informally with classmates. Students at most U.S. schools use on-campus tennis or squash courts to stay in shape and meet up with friends, for example.

You might even be tempted to try — or follow — a sport you weren’t familiar with and see where it takes you. The ball’s in your court.

To learn the five steps needed to study in the U.S., visit EducationUSA.