South African Nicola Shiels ’07 and New Zealander Catherine McLeod ’07 live 7,592 miles apart, but at Yale they spend every afternoon less than 20 feet apart practicing on a squash court in Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
Many people know that Yale promotes the creation of a global environment through programs like the Center for International and Area Studies and the Center for the Study of Globalization. But Yale’s international character also extends to Eli sports with athletes like Shiels and McLeod. At Yale, 20 teams have at least one member whose hometown is outside the United States. Although Canadians on teams like crew and hockey make up the majority of international athletes, there are Bulldog athletes from countries ranging from Ireland to Sri Lanka.
Shiels and McLeod both said international athletes enrich the Yale community.
“It adds to the diversity that is already here,” McLeod said, sitting with Shiels in her Swing Space common room Wednesday afternoon.
“You don’t want a stereotypical university where everyone is the same,” Shiels added. “You want everyone to be different and add something. It’s a huge learning experience.”
While many coaches at Yale are familiar with different regions in the United States that they should scout for talented athletes — the football team draws many of its recruits from Texas, for example — it can be challenging to identify good student-athletes when a coach broadens his or her scope to the entire world. In sports that are played globally, like tennis and golf, coaches are challenged by a lack of contacts who can help them identify and judge prospective Bulldogs, as well as by the financial constraints of trying to woo athletes who live hundreds of miles away from New Haven.
Athletic Director Tom Beckett said there are many difficulties associated with international recruitment, but it is nevertheless encouraged by the Athletics Department.
“The challenges are many,” Beckett said. “The first is distance issues. [Coaches] work hard to gather information, connect with students and talk to people that know where the talent pockets are, like alumni and professors. Yale is a global institution in terms of the reach of the institution, with alumni all over.”
And the coaches and administrators are not the only ones who struggle with the challenges of global recruiting. The athletes themselves have to deal with adjusting to the American university system, including applications, as well as fulfilling requirements like taking the SAT. Shiels said she did not know about the SAT until she had to take it when applying to Yale.
“I initially thought they were an aptitude test that measured your intelligence basically the same whether you studied or not,” Shiels said. “I had no idea the time and effort people put into it.”
Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw said international athletes will not be accepted unless they can be successful in the classroom.
“Our expectations for international candidates are the same as they are for domestic candidates,” Shaw said. “We have high, high expectations of kids at Yale, and athletics is one factor we look at.”
Jane Moore ’06, a rower from Tasmania, Austrailia, who stroked the first varsity boat for the women’s crew team in the fall, said there was a German recruit who did not score high enough on the TOEFL standardized test to be accepted at Yale. Moshe Sarfaty ’08, the three-seed Israeli on the men’s squash team, said he was familiar with Yale’s academic standards before applying, but it still took him time to take the SAT and complete the requirements.
Despite the difficulties, many coaches at Yale manage to make the international recruitment process work for both the programs and the athletes themselves.
McLeod grew up playing squash in Auckland, New Zealand. Since few New Zealanders come to the United States to attend college, she said she had not thought about applying to a school like Yale until she happened to play in a tournament with a member of the Eli men’s squash team. At the competition, the Yale player told McLeod about his university and also told former squash head coach Mark Talbott about her. After talking to Talbott, McLeod was flown to Yale for an official recruiting visit, on which she said she thought she would fit in well with the laid-back approach of Talbott.
After she was accepted, McLeod said she was not afraid of attending Yale because she had no idea what to expect. But once she got here, she said it was harder adjusting than she had thought it would be. She added that Talbott was very supportive during this time.
“I would chat with him, and he would ask how everything was going,” McLeod said. “It felt so comfortable.”
Although McLeod said she has adapted to life as an Eli, she said there was one aspect that she was still getting used to, namely, the way American athletes mentally prepare for important competitions.
“Americans like to talk it up, and we [New Zealanders] never talk like that,” she said. “I get quiet and focus on what I am doing. The big psyching-up freaks me out.”
Despite this difference, McLeod said one of the great things about having international athletes brought together at Yale is learning from each other.
“Everyone has different ways of training at home,” she said. “Everyone is brought up with squash differently, so you learn a lot.”
Sarfaty, the Israeli Junior National Champion, also said his transition was difficult, especially because he entered Yale as a 23-year-old freshman after finishing his obligatory military service at home.
“It was kind of weird for me in the beginning,” Sarfaty said. “It was the first time I was in the U.S. alone as an adult.”
Like McLeod, Sarfaty found that the sport he practiced for three hours a day helped him feel at home enough that he could figure out how he wanted to live life as a Bulldog.
“The team and the athletic department all really know their job, and they are experienced with recruiting,” Sarfaty said. “I talked to Coach [Dave Talbott] a lot the first two weeks. I feel I have a special relationship with him, and Dave is the reason I am at Yale.”
Sarfaty also said he was awed by the facilities here, which he said are “the best in the world” even though he has played on courts throughout Europe and Israel.
“I felt like I was in a dream,” he said. “It was exactly how you see it in the movies. Everything was so perfect.”
Of course, the nice facilities come with a price tag. Other international students worry less about cultural adjustment and more about paying for an Ivy League education.
Moore, the self-decribed “token Aussie” on the women’s crew team, said she investigated American universities on her own because she wanted to continue rowing, and Australia does not have the funding for college rowing that the United States does. Eventually, she narrowed her choice down to the University of California and Yale.
She said Yale was the only Ivy League school that pursued her seriously, flying her out, as they did McLeod, on an official visit. Moore said the visit was what convinced her to choose life as Bulldog in the end.
“It totally blew me away,” she said. “I really liked the people I met and the team. They were friendly and welcoming. It was visually amazing, and I was sucked in.”
Although she was first interested in receiving full financial support for rowing at college, the benefits of attending Yale outweighed the lack of scholarships. Moore said she applied for financial aid, and it worked out for her, allowing her to come to Yale. But even though financial aid effectively covered her expenses, Moore said she thought more international student-athletes would apply to Yale if scholarships were offered.
And though Yale cannot entice international athletes with scholarship offers according to Ivy League regulations, the reputation, people and facilities of Yale succeed in drawing enough international students to Yale to create a diverse community. Shaw said these international athletes bring varied perspectives to classes, as well.
“They bring so much,” Shaw said. “We celebrate the experience that international students have and the perspectives they bring.”
The classroom is not the only place that the international athletes contribute. Yale’s level of play is enhanced on the field, on the court, on the track, on the pitch and in the pool because of the diverse minds coming together, Moore said.
“I think it is an advantage to have different perspectives on a team,” Moore said. “The more diverse a team is, the stronger it is. You meet kinds of people that you have never encountered, and different cultural viewpoints are great. I think we should have more international athletes.”