General By Chuck Wasserstrom, Feature Writer

International Institution: Temple Has Become A Destination Location For Student-Athletes Around The World

If you have a few minutes, flip through the Temple University rosters on the site and take a look at the hometowns of the university's student-athletes.
Obviously, cities from the state of Pennsylvania are well-represented on the respective team rosters. So, too, are towns in neighboring states from New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Delaware.
Keep looking closely, though, and you'll notice something relatively new – a sizable number of student-athletes from outside the United States. The men's basketball team has players from Ghana and Argentina. The women's volleyball team includes student-athletes from Turkey, Croatia, Serbia and Germany. Men's soccer features players from Spain, Germany, England, Finland and Trinidad. The women's tennis roster has players from Uzbekistan, Peru, Italy, Russia, Indonesia and Thailand. And the list continues to grow.
This fall, more than 30 student-athletes traveled to Temple University from overseas. Owls coaches are actively recruiting and integrating these athletes into the culture of their respective teams, the city of Philadelphia and the country.
The lure of athletic competition at the Division I level has brought these student-athletes to the United States. The lure of playing competitive sports while getting an excellent education has made Temple a destination school for student-athletes around the world.
"It's a fascinating experience for these students – to be part of the team and to be part of the Philadelphia experience," said Justin Miller, who is Temple's Senior Director of the Nancy & Donald Resnick Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes. "One of the things I really like about it is when you have international student-athletes on a team, it's not only the exposure the international student-athlete gets, but their teammates now benefit from learning about their traditions and their cultures. I don't think a lot of people get that instantly. When you realize it, it's really cool.
"Student-athletes are with each other constantly and have these tremendous relationships and bonds. When you're able to form these bonds with people from other countries, it certainly adds a lot of value to our programs."
What sets Temple apart? Miller talked at length about the university's academic reputation, the many majors the school offers and the importance of being in the middle of a large metropolitan area.
"One of the things that make Philadelphia so attractive for a lot of international students is its size," he said. "Given Philadelphia's size, there are restaurants or areas of the city where these students can go and be around people. For instance, I remember we were recruiting a student from Greece. There were areas of the city we showed him where he could watch Greek soccer with other Greek fans if he wanted to. It's one of the real benefits of being in a melting pot city like Philadelphia; there's somewhere for everybody. I can't guarantee it's going to be as good as mom's home cooking, but we can find a place that they'll feel comfortable with if they need a touch of home. It's a really good benefit that we have over most college towns. It's a real asset for us."
Before these student-athletes can enroll at Temple, there are hurdles and special challenges that these students face. For a lot of these prospective students, English isn't their native language – so one of the first steps is getting their transcripts reviewed. These student-athletes must take the SATs and meet NCAA qualifications. As you can imagine, every country does things differently.
Miller said that the university's international undergraduate admissions department oversees all of this in conjunction with the academic support staff.
"After determining academic eligibility, then it's working with the coaches," he said. "Some of the time, the students come to see our campus. A majority of the time, it's doing Skype interviews. We talk to them and get a sense of who they are as students. It's no different than what we do with prospective student-athletes from the United States. We provide the opportunity to let these student-athletes know and let their families know that when they come to Temple, they'll get a lot of support. We're here to look out for them and we're here from Day One. From there, it's working with them on their course selection, much as we would for a native student. Once they get here, we put support systems in place to make sure their transition is positive.
"The biggest challenge, just like it is for most young students, is being homesick. It's hard to be away from home. There are ups-and-downs and good weeks and bad weeks. Couple that with a different language and add the stress that student-athletes face – and it can be a lot."
Miller knows first-hand what it's like to study overseas, having studied abroad in Australia. "Literally the day I got off the plane in Australia, they told me I didn't have any housing – and I had to find a place to live. So knowing what that can feel like … it's overwhelming. At least I spoke the language. So it goes to the general philosophy of our office of making the bigness seem small. Temple is a big place. America is a big place. So having it where they know there's someone they can trust, there's someone they can access, there's someone they can call if they need anything … we work together on that initial transition to minimize the effects of it being overwhelming.
"But I can tell you that these are the adventurous students. These are students who are flying across the world, and there's a level of confidence that's already wired in them."
They may be adventurous, but it takes a special kind of student to travel abroad for college. It's not easy to call mom and dad at the end of a long day – with time zones five-plus hours ahead of the Eastern time zone. Consider the case of Ernest Aflakpui, a sophomore center on the Owls' basketball team, who is over 5,000 miles from his parents in Ghana.
"I wanted to come here. I figured out early that an education in the United States was a lot better than being at home," said Aflakpui – who came to the U.S. in 2012 and spent three years at Archbishop Carroll High School before enrolling at Temple. "So when I got an opportunity to come here for an education, it was a no-brainer for me. It was harder on my family than it was for me. I really wanted to come here. The hardest part about academics was figuring out how sentences were worded. The way sentences are put together in English is very different from the English I was taught back home. But you get used to it. The basketball part – I had to learn and get better. That was a big struggle for me."
"It takes a lot of courage to leave your home country and the environment you're comfortable with and go to a different country to attend a university and be a part of an athletic team," said women's volleyball coach Bakeer Ganesharatnam – who is in his sixth year at Temple. Born in Sri Lanka, Ganesharatnam moved to Germany when he was five years old. Initially, he went to St. John's University when he came to the U.S. for college, but didn't feel comfortable until transferring to Queens College in New York.
Ganesharatnam acknowledged that, looking back, it was a really big step to come to the United States.
"It was very surprising to me to see the cultural differences. I thought America would be just like Germany and that there weren't going to be too many differences," he said. "I had a very hard time my first semester, getting used to everything and making friends and adjusting. Once I transferred to Queens College and started playing volleyball again, that really helped me get acclimated to the country.
"Even though you're in a different country, you're still part of a team, which allows you to have a safety net. The kids we have on our teams who are from different countries … they're all very smart. Academically, they're very strong. And they all have a desire to be in a different country to experience a new culture and to get better at a new language; they've already studied this language in their own country. So they take it as a challenge. A lot of times in their own country, they don't have the opportunity to combine being at a higher educational institution and being able to play sports at a very high level. Most of the time, they have to pick one or the other. The United States is very unique in that aspect; it allows you to do both at a very high level. That's one of the main reasons that we have these international kids coming here, as they can pursue both opportunities."
For Anais Nussaume, a senior on Temple's women's tennis team, she found the option to go to a good business school in France to be somewhat limited. So Nussaume – who was born in Thailand (her mother is Thai) and went to high school and trained in France (her father is French) – looked at schools across the Atlantic Ocean.
"In high school, I still liked playing tennis – and I knew I could get an education in the United States and keep playing," said Nussaume, a double major in marketing and entrepreneurship. "I had watched movies and TV shows that made American colleges look like fun and a great experience, and I made it a goal. I knew I could get a great education and continue to play tennis.
"Coming to college in the U.S. gave me some good options – the city, location, academics and sports."
Nussaume was intrigued enough by the Temple experience that she came to Philadelphia on her own to check out the campus.
"I came out in July, and there was literally no one on campus – which was a little bit weird," she said. "I didn't really get a feel for what American college life was like, but I knew Temple had a really good business school – and I got a chance to enjoy the city. It was a nervous experience, because I was on my own deciding whether to come to this school. I was impressed by everything that you have in the United States."
Nussaume had initially reached out to Steve Mauro, the head coach for Temple's men's and women's tennis programs, and he was just as eager to recruit Nussaume as she was to visit the university.
"We did some research on her, and we thought she would be a good fit," Mauro said. "When she was here, we talked with her extensively, and we felt that she had a good head on her shoulders and that she would be a good fit for our program. She's very happy here, and she's thinking of staying here in Philadelphia after she graduates. She's doing an internship right now, and she hopes to get a job here. She loves everything about Philadelphia. She's done very well academically and on the tennis court."
Mauro, who is in his 11th season at Temple, has always had a high percentage of international student-athletes on his teams – as tennis is a worldwide sport and tennis players tend to travel extensively during their junior careers.
"My philosophy is to look for the best student-athletes no matter the country," he said. "I've been very fortunate that all of the student-athletes I've had, both from here and overseas, have done very well off the court. Academically, international student-athletes that have chosen Temple have always done well. They have been good fit for our school and our program."
Thanks to modern technology, there are various ways different Temple coaches have been able to recruit internationally. Yes, Mauro's "old-fashioned" way of utilizing contacts around the world still exists. But if you can't travel to watch prospective student-athletes in-person, coaches have been able to cast their recruiting nets wider through e-mail and Skype and livestreaming of games.
For men's soccer coach David MacWilliams, nothing substitutes seeing prospective student-athletes face-to-face. While soccer is a worldwide sport, the college game in the U.S. is played differently than in other parts of the world.
"When you're recruiting, you're trying to look for players that can adjust to the college game and the speed of the game – particularly at the Division I level. We're trying to get the best American kids locally and across the country along with international kids," said MacWilliams, who is in his 17th year with the Owls. "Particularly in the last couple of years, we've done quite well with the international kids we've brought in.
"Temple is a great university. We talk very highly of Temple and all of the majors that are offered here. We talk about an urban setting, being only a couple miles from Center City. Academically, it's a great fit – particularly for people who want to be in a big city. There's always something to do here. And then we talk about our program. I think between the academics and the soccer part of it – and being in one of the top conferences in the country – that's what we're selling."
On the volleyball side, Ganesharatnam has slowly incorporated international student-athletes into the program. "We don't necessarily try to recruit international kids; we just try to recruit the best kids we can possibly get," he said. "Obviously, volleyball skills are important to us. But they have to be academically strong to excel here at Temple University. And we look at the character. How will they fit in? If it happens to be an international kid, we're not afraid of it because of the success we've had previously."
One of his top players is junior Dara Peric, who hails from Belgrade, Serbia.
"I was sending e-mails to a lot of schools in America. Basically, that's the only way for most international students to introduce ourselves to the coaches," said Peric, who is majoring in finance. "One of the schools I paid special attention to was Temple University; I knew that the school of business was very good. That's something I talked to Coach Bake about. At the time, we weren't really a team with a lot of international girls; now, we have a few more.
"My process was mostly Skype; at that time, he couldn't come and actually watch me play. But he watched a lot of my videos and games online; that's how they could see me and recruit me. We never actually met before I got here."
Ganesharatnam said he and Peric sat through several Skype sessions, and he remembers when she was ready to commit to Temple.
"Her mom actually came on the Skype session, and I had to promise her mom that we would take care of her kid. We have a big responsibility, because parents put a lot of trust in you," he said. "Dara was very fluent and didn't have any issues communicating with us. In fact, all of the international kids we have recruited are very fluent in English. It would be very difficult for them to be successful academically if they weren't."
"It's really good to meet other people who are from somewhere else. It doesn't have to be your own country, but another country," Peric said. "It's really good to have someone know what you're going through. Not just our teammates … other kids we have classes with or people from other sports. We never really talk about our countries that much. It's more of like … some of our teammates ask us all the time – do you think in English or do you think in your native language? It's something that they want to know and it's interesting to them. All in all, we get used to the way life is here. You always want to go home – that desire never goes away – but you get used to this."
To go to another country … and go study abroad for four years of your life … takes a special student.
"Most of our international students are amazing and perform very well academically," Miller said. "I think it speaks to their courage and their work ethic. I think for us, it's setting them up in the right way.
""Whether from Bucks County or Trinidad, Temple University offers all student-athletes an opportunity to excel in the classroom.  We take great pride in the diversity of our students and the rich experience it provides during their time in Philadelphia."
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