For international college student-athletes in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has presented unique challenges — challenges that go deeper than a canceled sports season.
Within a small time frame, a majority of international student-athletes in the country had to make a decision: stay on campus in the U.S., away from family, or risk international travel amid a worldwide health crisis. A minority of international student-athletes are (or were) unable to travel to their home countries at all, leaving them in limbo at their respective schools.
This is happening at universities and colleges around the country, and the Mountain East Conference is not exempt from the dilemma. At the University of Charleston and West Virginia State University, international student-athletes are a staple.
UC Athletic Director Bren Stevens highlighted the significant presence of international student-athletes in her program.
“We have 136 international student-athletes, which makes up about 24 percent of our total number of athletes,” Stevens said. “They’re from Europe, Canada, Mexico, Africa, Australia — all over the place.”
Stevens is one of hundreds of athletic directors in the U.S. faced with the task of safely transporting international student-athletes to their home countries in a short period of time, while also abiding by worldwide travel restrictions.
Stevens said she and her staff worked diligently to get international student-athletes home safely. Out of the 136 international student-athletes at UC, Stevens said only 18 were still on campus “initially” and, as of April 27, she said “right around a handful” have not yet accessed their home countries.
“Our vice president who also serves as our dean of students, Virginia Moore, [and her team] worked with [international student-athletes] to see if they could get a flight and maybe help with the cost of that. There were lots of things that they worked on to make sure we safely get all of our student-athletes home.”
As Stevens said, UC has student-athletes from all over the world. Notably, UC’s rosters include multiple Italians. Italy, being one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus, became nearly impossible to travel to from other countries. Stevens said that created a challenge for UC’s Italian student-athletes.
“We still have some of our Italian students here,” Stevens said. “They were not able to get home, but the majority of our students were able to get flights back home. Italy was one of the countries that closed prior to the U.S., so that was a bit of a challenge.”
Stevens talked about the accommodations the university made for the student-athletes who were unable to make it home. She said living arrangements for those students were in separate, safe places to stay.
“They are in our residence halls,” Stevens said. “They are also given their own space within that residence hall so that they’re not living with someone else. They have their own bathroom, their own bedroom area. They’re basically in an apartment.”
At West Virginia State, where there are 21 international student-athletes, the pandemic led to a slew of challenges for Athletic Director Nate Burton. He talked about the obstacles he and his staff face as it relates to international student-athletes and the coronavirus as a whole.
“One of the biggest challenges for us was that it was tough to be proactive because things were changing hourly,” Burton said. “We had to react to everything as opposed to getting in front of things. One of the hardest days of my career [was] having to tell spring student-athletes that their seasons were canceled.”
Like UC, WVSU has some athletes who stayed in the U.S. Burton said that there are “about 10” international student-athletes who are still in the country, all for various reasons.
Some, he said, stayed for fear of not being able to get back to the states by fall. Others stayed as a precaution because West Virginia had a lower amount of known cases than the athletes’ respective home countries.
Burton talked about the accommodations the university is making for the stranded student-athletes.
“The university’s office of housing and residence life has done a tremendous job of getting our student-athletes taken care of –- making sure they’re fed and making sure their mental health is in a good place,” Burton said.
Another difficult and unprecedented aspect of the pandemic is the NCAA and its regulations. In normal times, the NCAA has elaborate, strict and complicated rules when it comes to what administrators and coaches are allowed to do while managing their student-athletes. It still does, but both Stevens and Burton said that, despite those rules, the NCAA has exhibited flexibility during the pandemic as it relates to international student-athletes stuck in the country.
“Something that I think that has helped us and helped administrators is the flexibility [the NCAA provided] in regard to housing,” Burton said. “They don’t want anybody without a home, they don’t want anybody to go without being fed. They have allowed flexibility in regards to being able to feed them and to house them.”
“One of the things I thought the NCAA did really well was they said ‘Do what you need to do, get your student-athletes home, whatever the need is,’” Stevens said. “I thought they did a great job as it pertains to taking care of our student-athletes.”
Though athletics are a prominent part of student-athletes’ lives, academics are equally important. As a result of the coronavirus, universities had to implement remote academics. For some students and student-athletes (especially international student-athletes) without access to equipment or at-home internet, online classes were initially a challenge. Stevens said UC has taken steps to provide students with equipment for academics. She said the university has mailed laptops overseas to international student-athletes who otherwise didn’t have them.
“If someone needed a laptop, if someone needed a camera, [we did] whatever it was for them to be able to participate in online classes,” she said. “We have mailed some laptops all over the world.”
It goes further than just international student-athletes and student-athletes in general, though. Students from all circles have faced troubles with remote academics. During the first week of online classes, a WVSU basketball player, who lives in the U.S. and didn’t have internet access at his home, had to drive to a local church and sat in the parking lot to get internet access. Burton said the university accommodated the student-athlete. He said similar things are happening all over the country.
“It’s stuff like that,” Burton said. “Students and student-athletes across the country are all having to make certain arrangements in order to continue their education.”
Moving forward, there’s obvious uncertainty. Both Stevens and Burton are eager to get their students and student-athletes back on campus. Stevens, however, said once things open back up and sports restart, there could be hurdles to clear when returning international student-athletes to the U.S.
“I think that the biggest issue we’re going to face is depending on when [international student-athletes’] embassies from their respective countries open,” Stevens said. “That’s going to be the biggest challenge, getting them back at some time.”
For now, both Stevens and Burton are waiting out the stay-at-home orders and waiting for sports to return. Burton said it has been a tough storm to weather, but he took positives away from the pandemic — things he will learn from.
“You always hear when you’re playing in sports ‘You never know when it’s your last game,’” Burton said. “Now you look at it and that’s the truth. My biggest takeaway is how you really miss your time at the baseball games or at softball games. You miss being around the student-athletes because that’s what truly makes your job worthwhile.”