Athletes from abroad: what brings them here?

By Jack Kagan

The first time Ruhi Kamdar ’22 came to Middlebury, Vermont was for her first-year orientation. A tennis player from Singapore, she had never seen her new home before. But equipped with her rackets, she knew it would all work out eventually. 

Kamdar is one of a small group of international students who are also varsity athletes, all coming to Middlebury from a diverse array of athletic and academic cultures, often quite different to that of Middlebury. For many, the trip to the U.S. has been well worth taking.

Middlebury welcomes around 250 international students each year, roughly 11% of the entire student body. The Middlebury Athletic Communications Department states that only 20 of its varsity athletes hail from countries outside the U.S. 

Middlebury attracts students from around the globe for its academic reputation, but athletics can also present a unique marketing opportunity for the school. Two Canadian hockey players, Shayla Coates ’21 and Adam Wisco ’22, from the women’s and men’s teams respectively, said coaches reaching out to them was a major factor in their consideration to cross the border into Vermont. 

“Middlebury didn’t come up until my gap year where I played junior hockey [when] Coach Sinclar spoke with me after my league’s showcase. I was speaking with a few other teams at the time, but once I visited Middlebury I knew I wanted to go here,” Wisco said. 

Other athletes, who did not have the luxury of meeting Middlebury representatives in person, took their college research into their own hands. “We sat at home trawling through the Fiske Guide to Colleges. I put out a tennis recruiting profile via email to a lot of schools and I just looked at schools that had emailed me back. I emailed the coach, but he had already filled all of his recruiting spots. He basically told me if I got into Middlebury, then I would be on his team,” said Catherine Blazye ’20, a women’s tennis player from London, England. 

While many international athletes looking at colleges want a school where they can play their sport, many American colleges — and Middlebury specifically — have an edge due to academic prowess. For this reason, Middlebury often interests athletes even if they could potentially to play at a higher athletic level, such as at an NCAA Division I school (NCAA DI), where athletic departments can offer scholarships, more advanced facilities and more rigorous competition. International applicants to schools such as Middlebury are willing to forgo this opportunity in exchange for the rewards of a top tier education — all while competing in their sport on a smaller scale. 

“The most important aspect of my [college] decision was finding a strong academic school that also fit who I am, and Middlebury was perfect for that. My original goal was to play DI, but I wouldn’t have compromised my education just to play DI,” Wisco said. 

Blazye shared similar views, noting her original goal of DI recruitment was ultimately trumped by her passion for academics that has since flourished at Middlebury, as the NCAA DIII model allows for a sports schedule that does not prevent academic engagement. 

In addition to the educational value of top U.S. colleges, some international athletes appreciate the opportunity to gain a peer support system through sports as they travel so far from home. 

Kamdar walked onto the Middlebury women’s tennis team after a junior career with the Singaporean national team. Her journey to Middlebury, however, did not come without complication. 

The academic calendar at Kamdar’s school in Singapore, which runs from January to December, resulted in Kamdar not having her test results in time to send to coaches for the early summer and fall recruiting process. Despite this challenge in her recruitment, Kamdar said she is happy she tried out for the team upon arrival to campus. 

“I think being on a team and being a part of something very quickly makes you feel at home. When I made the team it was nice to immediately have a group of 12 girls that you could ask for help. I would say it definitely did help the transition,” Kamdar said. 

While she knew she wanted to go abroad for college, Kamdar was prepared for the differences that come with such a decision. As she was looking at schools in both the United Kingdom and the U.S., she noticed the prevalence of college tennis that existed in America but not the U.K. The ability to compete again as she faced a new chapter of her life in a new place was appealing. 

“No matter where I go in the world, the tennis court is like a home base, you know? Wherever I go, I have my racquets, I find [my] people.” 

Other draws to coming to study in the U.S. are the resources available and the emphasis placed on sports of all levels as high school athletes look to continue their athletic careers. College athletic infrastructures like that of America’s are rare at colleges in other parts of the world. This difference can be a large distinguishing factor in the college process. Wisco, Blazye and Lucas Donavan-Lafuente ’23 also cited a comparatively lower interest in high school and college sports in their home countries. 

“I’d say the biggest culture shock that I experienced when it came to sports at Middlebury was that people actually cared about how the college teams did. Back home, we would have the usual five parents who always showed up and the occasional friend but that was about it. Here, people who I haven’t even met before come to watch and support and it gives me a team pride I have never felt before,” said Donavan-Lafuente, a member of the men’s rugby and track and field teams who is from London. 

In the eyes of some, the disparity extends not only to fan support but also the school’s financial commitment to teams. This feature that many schools like Middlebury have can be attractive to international athletes as athletic gear, meal stipends, and funding for training trips arise.

“The biggest shock was when I joined a varsity team. The insane amount of resources we have at hand [here at Middlebury] blew my mind. Something simple like a locker got me very excited as I’d only seen it in the movies,” Donavan-Lafuente said. 

An athlete’s pursuit of studying and competing in America can easily translate to a longer term residence as well. Many athletes say they want to stay in the U.S. after graduation. “I have built so many relationships in the US that I really want to continue. I want another adventure. Maybe I will go back at some point, but for now I’m really excited for my next chapter in a new city,” Blazye said.