Sept. 27, 2006
By Elliott Finebloom
FSU Sports Information
The 2006 Florida State Seminoles have 11 native Floridians on its roster. If you add up how far away each of their homes is from Tallahassee, you get 3,368 miles. That is just about a third of the way to Selin Kuralay's home in Melbourne, Australia. Kuralay is one of six international players on the Seminoles roster and for them the decision on which college to attend involves a lot more than deciding whether to leave the state or not.
For International students the decision is about leaving your family and friends for long periods of time. When other students can get in a car and go home for a weekend, you would need to take a flight that could last up to 24 hours to see your family. And for some it means that you may rarely even get to her their voices.
"I am the furthest away from home. That is difficult," said Kuralay who is from Melbourne, Australia, 9,600 miles away. "The time differences make it tougher for me to keep in contact with my family. It is almost impossible to talk with them. When I am awake they are asleep and the other way around. I struggle at times with that."
That is just one of the many struggles facing international student-athletes. Coming to America from thousands of miles away, not knowing anybody and often times not having a complete grasp of the English language is more difficult than many of us realize. It was difficult for Florida State All-American India Trotter to fully understand until she traveled around the world this past summer with the U.S. National Team.
"Traveling this summer I experienced a little bit of what they go through, especially with the language barrier," said Trotter. "It is tough to communicate. The other thing you notice is how different the cultures are and that is an adjustment as well. It humbles you and makes you sympathize with how much our international players go through on a daily basis."
If you ask any of Florida State's six international players, they will tell you the two hardest things to overcome are adjusting to the language and the culture in America. While the language would seem to be a pretty obvious difficulty, it is the cultural differences that many of us probably wouldn't realize would be so hard to get used to.
"The hardest part I think is learning the social aspect of life in the US," said senior Colette Swensen who was Japanese national Mami Yamaguchi's guide for much of her first year in America. "We try to help them and explain why our culture is the way it is. It helps them adjust if they can understand the reason behind our customs."
There are so many cultural differences that you often don't realize how hard an adjustment that is until you talk to the players. Kirsten van de Ven notices how little time friends in America actually spend talking to one another compared to back home. In Holland she would spend all night at a café talking to her friends. In America she goes to the movies and sits silent for two hours with very few words being passed.
For Yamaguchi the cultural differences between Japan and America range from being as large as the way Americans show their emotions compared to the much more demure way Japanese people act to things as little as dancing.
"Americans show their feelings. They show excitement or whatever their emotions are. I really like that," said Yamaguchi. "Japanese people hide their feelings more. It is not a good thing to show your emotions in Japan but it is the opposite in America. I like that a lot. Also everyone in America can dance so good."
On top of their unanimous agreement in the most difficult obstacles in coming to study and play soccer in America, the Seminoles' international players are also in unison on how appreciative they are to be in the United States. For many it is literally a dream come true.
"It was a dream for me to come to America," said German Maike Seuren. "When I was young I wanted to come here. After I finished school, I wanted to go to another country and experience soccer there. That was the main reason I chose to play at Florida State."
"I always wanted to come to the USA and get to know this country. I had the opportunity to come and spend some time in America and I wasn't going to pass that up," said Spain's Iraia Iturregi. "When I go home I will always have the experience of being in America with me."
The impression that America is making on Florida State's international athletes is one they expect to carry with them for a lifetime. It goes beyond the friendships with their teammates and memories on the field. Being able to experience America is making a lifelong imprint on these six international students-athletes.
"I will always look back on my time in America as a good part of my life," said van de Ven. "I already do. I am so happy I decided to come and play soccer here. I remember when I was making the decision my coach in Holland convinced me I should come to the US. I spoke to him last week and he reminded me of that doubt but it was the best choice I could have made."
"I am very glad I came to play soccer in the US," said Yamaguchi. "I have had the opportunity to meet so many people. I have made so many friends. I have seen the country. This would never have happened had I stayed at home. There are so many unexpected opportunities that I would never have imagined happening before I came to play soccer in the USA."
It isn't just a one way street though. The experience of playing with and spending time with these international students has made a huge impression on their American counterparts. There are so many benefits to the US players as well.
"I think the biggest thing is they make you realize how big the world really is," said Swensen. "It is funny who when you get to college you think you are going to be exposed to so much but a lot of times you just end up in your own little bubble. The international girls bring a level of respect and admiration since they have come so far to be here."
"It is a great experience for the American players because we get to learn about the differences in other countries," said Trotter. "Their customs and values are different than ours but we can start to learn and accept them as we get to know each other as people. It is a real learning experience to see what they value and consider important in their lives besides soccer."
That aspect of this international exchange isn't lost of the international players either. They know that they have a chance to expose their teammates to many different perspectives and cultures as well just by playing next to them and spending time together throughout the school year.
"A lot of the American players on our team haven't been outside of the US so having them experience a little bit of the rest of the world by knowing us is a great thing," said Kuralay. "They can experience a little bit of our cultures by just being on the team together. We all have a different outlook on life and we get to all share those outlooks with one another. It brings a different dimension to the team. One that I think is positive. It is an exciting situation."
The US and international players have blended nearly effortlessly on the field. That is evident in Florida State's run to the College Cup in 2005 and the squad's undefeated start and No. 1 ranking this year. What they are discovering is that they have more in common on and off the field then any of them may have thought.
"People give them less credit than they deserve. I think after being with them you realize how much we are all alike," said Swensen. "We go through the same things with boyfriends, school and families. They have troubles just like we do but they adjust so well."
"I think this is a great experience for both international students and Americans," said Schmidt. "For us we get to experience America, the language and customs. It is great for the American players to get to know people from other parts of the world. For all of us as players it is great because we get to experience different styles and thoughts on the game. We all learn from each other and that is a very good thing."
While the American players learn about other cultures from their international teammates, for the players that are thousands of miles away from home it is about learning how to survive while immersed in a completely different culture. Balancing school, soccer and the isolation of being a stranger in a strangle land.
"The hardest thing for me has been being so far away from my family and friends," said Seuren. "The good thing is that we have so much to do between school and soccer that you don't have much time to think about it."
"We try to do the little things to help our international players adjust," said Trotter. "We try to explain American customs and traditions to them. We just try to be available to them for whatever they need to feel more at home. If they need a ride to the store, we want to be there to do that for them."
The biggest lesson FSU's international players are learning is that it just takes time. They are finding the transition on the field is much easier than it is off the pitch. The biggest challenge hasn't even been in the classroom where four of the Seminoles' international players earned academic honors after the 2005-2006 school year. For those players thousands of miles from home it comes down to being open to new experiences and embracing them.
"This is my third year playing in America and it gets easier every year to adjust," said van de Ven who started her college career at Quinnipiac. "The more time I spend here the more I pick up on the culture and the things that are different from home. I really enjoy the experience now. At times it was hard but now I feel like it is a second home."
"It is completely different for me this year as compared to last. I was really new to the culture of the US and the education system. Now I have a much better understanding of how everything works," said Kuralay. "Life in general is just easier this year. Being in a college environment was an adjustment as well. I am trying to help our new international players because I have been through it myself. I try to prepare them for what is coming. It makes more sense for the international players that have been here to help them out since we know what they are going through."
When it comes down to it though, the journey to America is about growing and experiencing new things for the internationals. It is about the opportunity to become better people and to experience life in the United States.
"There have been a lot of surprises for me," said Iturregi. "The USA is so different from Spain. Each day I experience something new, which is different from home but that is why I came to the USA."