College athletics are a big deal in the U.S.
And that gives talented international students an inroad to American universities.
Among the more than 460,000 student athletes in the U.S., just over 19,000 are international student athletes, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which oversees all things student athletics. That’s nearly 20 percent.
Coming to the U.S. gave her “the opportunity to grow as a soccer player and as a person,” said Gloriana Villalobos of Costa Rica, who plays for Florida State University’s women’s soccer team.
Villalobos is a freshman pursuing a degree in athletic training, but said she has high hopes for her soccer career. She was named to the Costa Rican roster for the 2015 Women’s World Cup that took place in Canada.
Soccer, the world’s most played and watched sport, offers a large number of internationals sports slots and scholarships on U.S. campuses. There are nearly 3,700 international soccer players competing at NCAA schools at all levels -- Division I, II and III, according to the NCAA.
Division I schools are typically the biggest and have the largest budget for athletics and scholarships. Division II schools typically balance studies and athletics, so are selective about their sports scholarships. Division III schools are not allowed to give out athletic scholarships, so academics are the primary focus for their student athletes.
Megan Connolly, an FSU junior from Cork, Ireland, said the scholarship she received played a big role in her decision.
“It’s a lot more expensive in America than anywhere in Europe to go to college and play soccer,” Connolly said. The scholarship was a deciding factor.
Nearly 2,700 play on men’s soccer teams while nearly 1,000 play on women’s soccer teams. Only tennis has more international women than international men.
To obtain a visa for international collegiate athletes, they first must be accepted by a college or university. Many students say the process can be challenging. The biggest issue for Villalobos was waiting.
It can be nerve-wracking, she said, while you wait to hear back about the approval. Luckily for her, she was approved in time for her to get her season underway.
However,“I don’t think it’s as hard as other countries,” said Canadian international and FSU freshman Gabby Carle.
Geography can be a big part of the process. Carle said that as a Canadian, she did not need a visa.
Settling in a new country and on a new team can be tough for international athletes, especially coming from far away. FSU Junior Natalia Kuikka, from Kemi, Finland, said that playing with other foreign players made the transition much easier.
“I’m from Finland and [Megan Connolly] is from Ireland, so we have a European connection,” Kuikka said. “We have the same background, so it was really easy to get to know each other.”
Ismael Noumansana, a senior at Lenoir-Rhyne University who was born in Mali and spent his childhood in France, is trying to play soccer professionally. Noumansana learned about the opportunity to play collegiately in the United States from an agency in France.
“They told me I can come to the U.S. to play at a good level and get a degree at the same time,” said Noumansana. “Hopefully at the end of this year I can find a professional contract.”
Noumansana also played in the Premier Development League (PDL), an amateur soccer league that caters to collegiate athletes in the summer. It gives them a chance to play in a professional setting and maintain their NCAA eligibility. In summer 2017, he played the Ocean City Nor’easters in New Jersey.
“It is really good to play in the PDL if you want to play professionally,” Noumansana said. “People get to know you.”
Many of the international players cherish their sporting career as much or more than their academic careers. This is not say they do not understand the importance of a degree: Noumansana noted that the degree will help him much more when his playing career is over.
Shaan Stuart played for Wheeling Jesuit University after coming to the United States from his home country of New Zealand. He was also part of the Ocean City Nor’easters PDL team last season with Noumansana.
Stuart has graduated and moved to England to work in marketing and play soccer. He is playing for Brocton Football Club who competes in the Midland Football League, which is the ninth division in England’s soccer pyramid.
His story is one that shows that internationals can benefit both academically and athletically in the United States. This was Stuart’s plan all along, he said.
“I came to the United States to continue playing football [soccer], to learn in the classroom, and to experience a different culture,” he said. “I would undoubtedly recommend [going to the U.S.]. It’s such a fantastic experience.”