Oct 24, 2018

     Coming to the United States has easily been the best decision of my life. Traveling halfway around the world away from my family and arriving to a whole new culture seemed so daunting at first, but looking back I couldn’t be happier that I plucked up enough courage to do it. Sure, it has its ups and downs, but the friendships, memories, achievements, and experiences of being an international student in America are what I will cherish forever.

     Thinking back to my senior year in high school, I know for a fact I would never have imagined where I would be. Five years later, I graduated from Drake University with a degree in International Relations and a four-year letterwinner in soccer. Coming from Wellington, New Zealand, I never really knew what I wanted to do after high school. I knew that I loved playing soccer, but knew that I couldn’t rely on that for the rest of my life. The American college system became the answer. The ability to not only get a quality undergraduate education, but compete in a professional sports environment was something I couldn’t achieve back home, and so with the help of some of my coaches, I committed to the University of New Mexico in February 2012.

     Ten months later I found myself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, beginning this big new journey. I honestly had no idea what to expect, and in the end, I am glad I didn’t have any expectations. My semester was unlike anything I had experienced before. I was living away from home on the other side of the world, I had all new college classes and a brand new schedule, I was training every day in cold winter conditions, and best of all, I had a whole new level of independence. Looking back, I am glad I didn’t have any expectations. I feel like it helped me to settle and feel more comfortable in my new surroundings. Going into this experience with an open mind really helped me to enjoy the highs: the new people, fun memories, and exciting experiences, but also made sure I didn’t get too low during the lows, which of course came fairly quickly.

     Deciding to transfer was a really tough decision! No one really enjoys leaving a place which feels like home and starting all over again. Along with leaving my friends, I had to go through a complete culture transition. Going from a Southwest public school to a Midwest private school made it all the more challenging. But continuing to have an open mind and being up for new challenges and experiences really did help me find my feet at the new school just as quick as the first. I know not having expectations was a real benefit because I know the reality would have far exceeded and be completely different from any expectations I would have had.

     In terms of the experience, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the highly competitive but extremely rewarding nature of being a student-athlete. The days of early morning lifts, rushing between classes, and late nights on buses from away games means you have to be constantly at your best, always ready for the next thing whether it was a last minute assignment, a coach or academic meeting, a rushed lunch, or late night study after a game, there is very little time for you not to be ready for anything. But that, at the same time, that is the most rewarding thing. You are in control of your own actions, and you have to deal with the consequences and reap the rewards of your own choices. Everything is there for you to succeed - academic advisors, tutors, coaches, and teammates, but it is ultimately up to you to decide your own college fate. Whether you become a four-year letterwinner or graduate with a 4.0 is completely in your hands, and there is no one to blame if you don’t, but there are so many people to thank when you do.

     And so three years after that, walking up to receive my diploma, and looking back at the experiences of the last four years, I couldn’t be happier with the decision I had made! Two schools, seventy-two career games, twenty goals, hundreds of friends, endless memories, and one degree! The experience was well beyond anything I could imagine, but most of all prepared me for life beyond school far more than any other experience back home would have. Enjoying the highs, and pushing through the lows, embracing the challenges, and living in the moment are things I see that defined my college experience. As my coach of four years earlier said before I left for this journey “I hope you make friends that will last a lifetime, and memories that will do the same,” and that statement could honestly not be any closer to the truth.

     As an international student you get to have an experience that no other U.S. student will ever understand. You gain valuable skills by being a student-athlete, and especially from being an international student-athlete. From being thousands of miles away from your family, having to deal with everything life throws at you all by yourself, balancing your own finances, and adjusting to a culture and experience that is so unlike anything you have ever been through can create some of the most memorable moments you will ever have in your life. Your team becomes your family, and together you create memories beyond any friend group you have had. You succeed together and fail together, and every day you get to go out and enjoy the sport that you love that has helped you get to where you are, and you get to enjoy it with people that you call your family. What more could you ever ask for?

     Note from the editor: James Wypych is now a Political Research Associate at Project Vote Smart and Soccer Coach at West Des Moines Soccer Club in Des Moines, Iowa. Congratulations James!