A Tale of Two Athletes

August 2016. Robin Afamefuna steps onto the grounds of the University of Virginia for the first time; it was his first time in the state of Virginia, his first time visiting an American university. One year earlier, he was playing club soccer he was in the talent factory for Borussia Monchengladbach, one of the most successful clubs in Germany’s highest league, the Bundesliga. For Robin and other soccer players rising through the ranks of European super-clubs, his logical next step was not necessarily a move to the United States. But after a turn of events, and two years later, Robin is the captain of the University of Virginia’s top-ten ranked soccer team.

August 2016. Anzel Viljoen enters the University of Virginia as a first year, her first time stepping onto the grounds of the university. A little under a year earlier in November 2015, she graduated high school in New Zealand. Her path to the next level of athletics could have gone two different ways, but she chose the one less travelled in moving to the United States. After navigating the recruiting process on her own, Anzel landed a spot on a nationally ranked American field hockey team. Two years later, Anzel is a regular on the field hockey team, even landing a spot on the 2017 All-ACC Academic Team.

The two athletes are now thriving as students and as athletes at the University of Virginia, but how did they end up in the small town of Charlottesville, VA after growing up on opposite sides of the world?

Robin Afamefuna, 2018. Photo: UVA Media Relations

Robin Afamefuna graduated high school in 2015, with plans of pursuing a professional soccer career. Growing up in the youth clubs of Germany’s Bundesliga, his future looked bright. His plan changed after tearing his meniscus, forced to sit out for the next six months. “[Robin] was starting to think of different options” when a recruiting agency, Monaco Sportstipendium, sparked his interest in American universities. This was a new, exciting opportunity, and Robin decided to pursue a collegiate soccer career, training under coaches in the United States. Through this presentation, his path to the United States became clear: complete a few placement tests, send out a highlight tape, and wait for the offers. Robin’s talent caught the eye of many schools, and quickly received attention. Overwhelmed with choices, Robin “received about 28 offers from different colleges. I had all those names in front of me and no idea which colleges were the best ones, so I had to do all the research.” While the agency spread the word about his talent, Robin was on his own when it came down to his decision. “After the coaching staff reached out to me, I finally made my decision to come to UVa. Because the whole program, academics and athletics, was just so good.” Robin made a difficult decision in leaving Germany, but he felt that it was the best opportunity for him to create his own path in soccer.

Anzel Viljoen, 2018. Photo: UVA Media Relations

Anzel Viljoen had some friends attending American universities, but didn’t know much about the schools or even the different field hockey programs. It was a tough decision between going to a completely new country or staying in New Zealand for school, and it was definitely not the most common, as most of Anzel’s childhood friends did not move for school. The opportunity to pursue both academics and athletics was one she had to take, as it would help her reach her athletic and career goals for the future. Once deciding she wanted to play field hockey for a university, Anzel got straight to work. While most players used the agency system to assist in their recruiting process, she “decided really late that I wanted to come to the US, so I just took all the film that I had of playing in New Zealand and made a recruiting video and then just looked up the top ten schools in America for field hockey and sent out an email to all of their coaches.” Seems simple, but her path to UVa consisted of endless paperwork, eligibility checks, and communication with coaches. Anzel felt she was one of the only players to not use an agency. After a few Skype calls with the head coaches, discussing her place on the team, her decision was made clear. Her meticulous research on each team that showed interest proved that UVa’s program was the best option for Anzel; academically and athletically.

Men’s soccer, with 12.1%, and women’s field hockey, with 10.2%, are two sports with the highest percentages of international student athletes on their team in Division I athletics. Regardless of the sport, it is apparent that the number of internationals on these college teams is increasing. Talented athletes around the world have a decision to make in high school: to pursue their sport at the next level, or to pursue academics. For American students, the college athletics system has made it possible for the youth to pursue both. This is something that most take for granted, but it is not an option in most other countries. Robin shared his thoughts on the matter.

In Germany, we only have the chance to focus on one, academics and athletics are completely separated from each other. I feel like more and more people are trying to take advantage of that.

Robin Afamefuna

Academics and athletics are unrelated in most other countries, so most athletes choose to focus on their sport full time. It is typical for athletes to disregard university as an option, as they are trying to make teams and stay fit. Therefore, in Robin’s eyes, “it’s pretty dangerous to be honest, let’s say you fail, don’t get that trial or tryout, usually you’re just like there and don’t have anything.” One of Robin’s deciding factors was the two-in-one aspect of American universities; he could train under award-winning coaches while receiving a world-class education.

Gaining a degree while playing a sport gives international athletes something to fall back on, which is very enticing. For sports where it is difficult to create a professional career, such as field hockey, there are different incentives. Athletic scholarships do not exist in international universities, Anzel shares that “You can go to university and play your sport, it’s just you don’t get scholarships for it at all because it’s a separate thing, you won’t be playing for your university.” While sports such as field hockey do still have regional and national club teams, there are fewer incentives to maintain both, and most likely only the serious will continue to play.

Playing sports in college is a normal path for high school athletes in America, but internationally, not as much. It has become more popular for internationals to come to America because they are serious about both athletics and academics, and there are now more opportunities to pursue both through the NCAA program. With the growth of technology like Skype, YouTube, and social media, there are fewer barriers between countries when it comes to athletes and coaches. The college coaches have access to a broader range of talent, and are willing to give scholarship spots to internationals, since they have proven their dedication to their sport. In fact, the NCAA publishes that there are 17,000 international student athletes from across the world active in college athletics today.

As the pool of international talent grows, so has the industry of college recruiting. So-called “college recruiting agencies” have emerged to serve as a liaison between the international athlete and American universities. These are present in almost every country, and promise exposure to American universities in exchange for a fee, and it isn’t necessarily a small one. These agencies tour around to clubs for every sport, selling their ‘product’ of a potential scholarship to prominent colleges in the United States.

A typical recruiting website

The process seems simple: “you pay [the agency], and they take care of everything for you. They reach out to all the schools, and do all the communication for you. So really you don’t have to do anything apart from be good at your sport.” Anzel explained her view on the agency process, a route that she chose not to take by dealing with the process herself. “I preferred [doing it on my own]. But if you’re not the type of person who likes to just get things done on your own, it is helpful to have someone else. Because it is a lot of paperwork, and they can really help you settle into coming.” Shown on the right, agencies such as Monaco Sportstipendium show American universities in the best light, comparing it to college movies and showing packed stadiums at powerhouses such as Ohio State and Alabama.

Robin and Anzel came from completely different parts of the world, growing up with different plans for their futures, and different ways they believed they would get there. Both were very dedicated to their sport while also dedicated to gaining a higher education. Though the two athletes came from opposite sides of the world, they are both successful today at the University of Virginia, and believe that their paths will be followed in the future. As the barriers to entry for international student athletes are lowered, college athletics will continue to match the levels of diversity that are seen on in the wider campus body.

References

Jara, Evelyn S. “U.S. Collegiate Athletics: International Student Athletes Recruiting Process.” University of South Carolina, 2015.

“MONACO SPORTStipendium | Persönliche Betreuung Aus München.” MONACO SPORTStipendium – Robin Afamefuna Über Sein Fußball Stipendium in Amerika Mit Monaco Sportstipendium, www.monaco-sportstipendium.de/.

Powell, R. “International Student-Athletes.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA, 18 May 2018, www.ncaa.org/student-athletes/future/international-student-athletes.


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