With athletes hailing from every continent except Antarctica, and as far as 9,000 miles away, the Georgia State University Department of Athletics has embraced diversity much like the university community itself and the multicultural city it calls home.
GSU’s international student-athlete population numbers 37 this year with students come from 23 countries among the six continents. Seven of those countries are more than 6,000 miles from Atlanta.
As these international students adjust to life at GSU, new challenges, opportunities and experiences present themselves every day.
Communication is Key
One of the obvious challenges upon moving to a new country is adjusting to a new culture and in many cases a new language.
Despite learning English as a child, Masa Grgan, a junior tennis player from Maribor, Slovenia, found that there were still some communication challenges upon her initial arrival.
“We listen to American music and watch American movies, and we start taking English in elementary school, so we all learn English. But it is much harder once you get to America,” Grgan said. “Oh, my gosh. Learning to take notes in classes at such a fast pace and understanding professors was a challenge. And there are so many slang phrases that Americans use that I do not know what people mean sometimes.”
Sophomore sand volleyball player Sara Olivova, a native of the Czech Republic who moved to Franklin, Mich., for high school, didn’t have the same English background as Grgan and learned by being thrown right into the fire.
“I didn’t speak English at all for the first year. I’m pretty sure I said like two words so people though I was super quiet. Just hearing people talk and just listening in class and to volleyball people as they talked, I just picked up on it,” Olivova said.
Atlanta Offers Something New to Many
Besides learning a new language, the city of Atlanta itself has offered its own unique challenges for international athletes to adapt to, although in some cases it provides some familiarity.
For Olivova, the style of the city, as well as the weather, stood out to her the most upon arrival.
“Where I lived, it was historical [and old], and here there’s all these tall buildings,” Olivova said of the differences. “The weather too. It’s very humid here and super hot, and there’s no humidity in the Czech Republic. It’s a little hard to condition in that.”
While Abigail Tere-Apisah has noticed some differences when it comes to family life, the weather reminds her of her home over 8,500 miles away, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
“Sometimes the Atlanta heat and humidity can get like Papau New Guinea’s, but ours is still hotter,” Tere-Apisah said. “The least similar thing is how fast-paced everything is in Atlanta. Everyone goes at their own pace back home. We are very family-oriented for generations back home, where families here tend to scatter out.”
Golfer Joo eun Bae, a freshman from Seoul, South Korea, isn’t crazy about the lack of beaches in Atlanta, but loves the idea of being on a college campus in a city full of skyscrapers.
|COUNTRIES REPRESENTED (23)
|Czech Republic||Papua New Guinea|
While Senior basketball player Denny Burguillos, from Valencia, Venezuela, is used to a big-city feel, he too finds it weird to live in such a landlocked city.
Damon Stephenson, who traveled more than 9,000 miles to GSU from Gold Coast, Australia, sees a lot in common with his home.
“My home and Atlanta are both big and beautiful cities with traffic,” Stephenson said. “Being a golfer, both cities have lots of courses and lots of choices. But, the golf courses here are tougher.”
Almost all the female student-athletes interviewed mentioned the awesome shopping opportunities in Atlanta that they didn’t have as much of back home.
Differences in Competition
Outside of the language and cultural differences, the competition on the playing field can also take some getting used to, whether because of the structure or because of rule differences.
While the overall rules of volleyball are the same in the Czech Republic, the way the sport is organized differs significantly. Olivova said there are no high school or college sports. If you want to play you have to go out of your way to find a club to join.
Stephenson also found the structure and organization of his sport to be dramatically different from home.
“The ‘team’ part of golf was new to me as it is mainly individual in my country. I actually played rugby and cricket, so golf was more of a fun hobby,” Stephenson said. “Being on a golf team, you learn to accept responsibility to your teammates and accept accountability for all of us together.”
Senior tennis player Abigail Tere-Apisah has noticed a significant difference in the way sports are played in the United States compared with her hometown.
“Our mindset in the islands is not very competitive. We are not sports-oriented at all. Most play sports simply for fun,” said Tere-Apisah.
Denny Burguillos agreed.
“The United States is a competitive country, in sports and in business.” Burguillos said. “It is hard, but it inspires me to do better and to compete harder. There are not nearly as many athletes in Venezuela competing. The American way is to compete for the money and lifestyle you want to live, and you can do what you want to if you work hard enough.”
|FARTHEST FROM GSU
|Papua New Guinea||8,785 miles|
|Czech Republic||7,780 miles|
|South Korea||7,236 miles|
Bae finds that athletic competition in a university environment allows for a more well-rounded lifestyle when compared to home.
“In South Korea, golf there seems to be a 24/7 kind of thing and you play golf all day long. Here in the United States, it is balanced and we play golf and take time for the classes and the studying.”
For junior basketball player Maryam Dogo, from Kaduna, Nigeria, the biggest adjustments came in the style of play and conditioning, as well as some of the rules.
“The rules are different because we follow the FIBA rules,” Dogo said. “In terms of weight lifting, and all that stuff, we don’t lift weights back home. Only the guys do, and they do it because they want to. It’s not built into the program. At home we rely mostly on fast breaks. Here skills and strength, those matter a lot.”
Easing the Transition
For many of the international athletes, being a part of a sport has been a great way to make great friends who have helped them ease into a new life in a new place and made them feel welcome.
“The first time I came I didn’t know my way around, and my teammates were very much willing to take me around and show me where my classes were,” Dogo said. “The coaches too. Coach Jonathon Barbaree, he was very helpful too. He went out of his way to show me around and where I had to be. That helped me out a lot. And now I can show anybody around.”
“Since it costs about $3,000 for me to fly home and back, it was two years between my trips home, so I rely on my teammates and friends,” Tere-Apisah said. “Since we have so many international players on the tennis team, they nurtured me and encouraged me when I first got here. They explained what to expect and have really been there for me.”
“When we first came here my teammates were really nice. They were helping us at everything,” said sophomore tennis player Chinmay Handa, who hails from Delhi, India. “Like we didn’t even know the whole campus, but they were showing us around and introducing us to other athletes so that was a pretty nice thing. And now if we need anything, teammates are always ready to help.”
Teaching Others About Their Culture
The learning goes both ways. Many international athletes are always willing to teach their teammates about their home, whether to clear up misconceptions, share a delicious native dish or give a travel tip.
|FROM LARGEST COUNTRY
|FROM SMALLEST COUNTRY|
“A lot of people see the commercials and movies and think we all live in the outback and desert. but most of us live in large, beautiful and modern cities,” Stephenson said. “My home probably would be a lot like Miami and South Beach because we are on the coast. With the warm climate, there are golf courses everywhere.”
Burguillos feels that many people don’t know the basics when it comes to his home country.
“Very few seem to know where Venezuela is or what language we speak,” Burguillos said.
"Venezuela is on the northern end of South America up by the Caribbean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean above Brazil and Colombia. We speak Spanish. Venezuela has a 1,700-mile coast and lots of mountains as well. It is a very diverse country, like the United States.”
Tere-Apisah enjoys talking about the diversity of her native island, where they speak over 800 languages, with English, Pidgin and Motu being the most popular.
Dogo likes to tell people about the real Nigeria, versus the one the American media often portray.
“My hometown is not all about what you see on TV. You know, poverty, dilapidated buildings and dirt. like poor sanitation and all that stuff you see. And you see wild animals running, chasing after them. It’s not like that,” Dogo said. “It’s actually a lot like Atlanta. You also have the countryside and then, you know, the metropolitan areas, cities and stuff like that.”
Food Bridges All
Dogo also loves to share with friends and teammates some of her favorite foods from home, such as pounded yam and egusi soup. Although not completely authentic, she says there are great places in Atlanta to try Nigerian food.
Bae is used to tell her friends curious about Korean cuisine to try bibimbap, a spicy rice and vegetable dish.
One of the things Handa misses most about India is the spiciness of the food and often suggests his country’s cuisine as a good intro to his culture.
Burguillos also misses home cooking, such as arepas, which is flatbread corn dough with different stuffings, and pabellons, which is rice and beans with beef.
Stephenson swears the Australian version of fish and chips is the best in the world.
|AN HONORED GROUP
|Freshman All-American||Jonathan Grey|
|NCAA Championship Bid||Tere-Apisah/Masa Grgan|
|All-Sun Belt||Six student-athletes|
Grgan knows Americans would love the mashed potatoes and cufti (meatballs, but bigger and better) that is her favorite dish. But, then American cheesecake has won her over.
Tere-Apisah really misses the root, ground-grown vegetables of Papua New Guinea, like the tara, plantains (cooked bananas) and yams. And, cooking with coconut milk adds a unique flavor she grew up loving.
Enjoy the Culture Abroad
While some GSU athletes might not get the chance to visit the hometowns of their international teammates, their travel suggestions lend a unique insight into these far away places.
Tere-Apisah suggests visiting Papua New Guinea during September to witness the Goroko Show, a three-day festival in with bands, singing and costumes from every area of the island.
Joo eun Bae thinks anyone who visits Busan will enjoy the Buddhist temples as well as the largest beach in South Korea.
Burguillos marvels at the history and beauty of Caracas, and Olivova has a similar take on Prague.
Grgan feels that any skiing enthusiast will have a great time in Maribor, which is located in the Pohorje Mountains and is host to the Alpine Skiing World Cup.
Stephenson also offers tips for the thrill seeker. He feels that any visit to Australia is incomplete without cage diving with the great white sharks and catching a few waves on a surfboard.
Diversity of the GSU Family
Whether competing in their respective sports, walking around campus or learning in the classroom, these athletes bring unique views, knowledge and experiences from across the globe to the GSU family. This is what makes the university distinctive in athletics and academics, as well as the friendships that are made in the process.
“There’s a connection here that’s more like a family atmosphere, and there’s just people here who care and who want to help you as much as they can,” Dogo said.