The 1 million international students who attend U.S. universities know the importance of hitting the books. But for one athletic Japanese student, mastering the art of shooting free throws and dribbling a basketball has also paid off in a big way.
Yuta Watanabe, a George Washington University junior, is the first basketball player from Japan to receive a full athletic scholarship to a major U.S. university. The 22-year-old helped his team win a prestigious national tournament last spring and dreams of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
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Watanabe, a 2-meter-tall forward from Kagawa prefecture, receives full tuition, room and board.
He’s among nearly 16,000 international student athletes attending U.S. colleges on athletic scholarships. Like U.S. players, they must meet academic standards, but colleges offer help with learning English.
American coaches recruit far and wide for track, tennis, swimming, ice hockey, golf, volleyball and other sports.
Basketball prowess runs in the Watanabe family. Both parents played professionally. Their son, once called “the chosen one” by the Japan Times, has a huge following back home. Sports Illustrated magazine famously used that phrase for a cover story on future NBA great LeBron James at age 17.
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“It’s cool. It makes me excited,” Watanabe said.
Patricio Garino, recently graduated from George Washington, was on the Argentina squad at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Japan hosts the 2020 Olympic Games, and Watanabe would like a chance to play Garino in a Japan-Argentina matchup in Tokyo.
To join the 100 international players on NBA rosters, Watanabe realizes he must add muscle to his 89-kilogram frame.
His advice to young athletes: “Keep working hard. I’m having fun now living in the United States, but I also had lots of hard times, especially when I first came and couldn’t speak any English. Get prepared, mentally and physically.”
Of course, academics, not athletics, is the real draw for international students. Want to earn your degree in science, engineering or a myriad of other fields in the United States? Learn about life at U.S. colleges and visit EducationUSA to plan your studies.
A version of this story was published on November 14, 2016.