International athletes embrace opportunity

UNCA Men’s Soccer Player Conor Behan celebrates a goal.

Photo courtesy of UNCA Athletics

UNCA Men’s Soccer Player Conor Behan celebrates a goal.

Israel Garcia-Perez, [email protected], Sports Writer

For several UNC Asheville international students, playing competitive sports in the United States is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Their home countries might not have the same opportunities as playing college sports in the U.S. 

I wanted to continue my tennis career in the U.S. Most people stop playing after high school if they decide not to play professionally in South Africa. Another reason was for more opportunities since South Africa is geographically isolated from the rest of the world,” said Lize Morkel, senior on the women’s tennis team. 

Several international student-athletes said they do not receive much information on the next steps ahead of them when joining a university. 

“I didn’t know that much about college soccer before deciding to take those steps. I had friends who attended other universities, so they informed me somewhat. I believe it is a great opportunity to pursue a good education while playing the sport you love. In Germany it is either school or sports,” said Sean McGinty, senior on the men’s soccer team.

For some international student-athletes, moving to a country and attending a university can actually be the easy part, as adapting to the culture is what some said they find most difficult. 

“The most difficult part has probably been how quickly the games come at you in season and all the traveling that comes with it. On top of that, you have homework and school, which doesn’t make it easier. The style of play in college soccer, style of pretty much full intensity for the full 90 minutes, is something not as common at home,” said Conor Behan, a sophomore on the men’s soccer team from Ireland. 

For some student-athletes, prior to joining collegiate teams, they said they hear much about the countless opportunities playing in college could provide them. 

“I’ve wanted to play in college ever since I heard other people playing in the U.S. My dad, who used to play tennis, and my brother came to the U.S. a year before me, which really helped me make the decision. In South Africa, most of the tennis players know each other from tournaments, and that’s where I heard from my tennis friends that came to the U.S. before me,” Morkel said.

Having friends who take that step to play at the college level has helped younger players make the decision to play in college. 

“I’ve always been a very outgoing person who has wanted to live in new places and have different experiences, so when I started noticing one or two other players from Ireland make the trip from Ireland to the U.S., I started looking into if it would be possible for me to follow in their footsteps, and that’s how I’ve found myself where I am now,” Behan said. 

Deciding to play in the U.S. means not just entering a new world, but leaving the one more accustomed to, along with family and friends back home. 

“It was definitely a big decision for me, but in general I was just very excited. I knew I was coming into an environment with great people who would always help me, so having that made it all a bit easier. Of course I knew I’d miss home and all that comes with it, but adapting to the new lifestyle quickly helps,” Behan said. 

According to international student-athletes, the opportunity to not just experience a new culture, but to also play sports and get an education trumped the nervousness of leaving their home countries. 

“Being able to get an education and play tennis at the same time is something we don’t have back at home. That’s why I believe it’s a special opportunity that we shouldn’t take for granted,” Morkel said. 

With the experience these student-athletes have, they can inform players from back home who have the same desire of wanting to play college sports. 

“I would tell players back home to make sure your grades are the best they can be because it will open a lot more opportunities for yourself. I would also tell them to keep an open mind and make the most of it. It will be a bit of a culture shock, but as long as you take everything with a pinch of salt, whether that is on or off the field, you should be just fine,” Behan said. 

According to Morkel, remembering to enjoy practice, work hard and try being a better player than before is what makes the difference for her and why she still loves playing her sport. 

I would tell them that it is a beautiful opportunity, not only to continue with sport, but to learn a new culture and make new connections with people,” McGinty said. 

Following graduation, Morkel plans to attend graduate school to do a masters program in business analytics. McGinty plans to pursue his dream of playing professional soccer, either still here or back home in Germany. Behan said that decision will come with time, and he just wants to live in the moment.