Yale’s classrooms and dining halls showcase the University’s international diversity, but the sports fields and courts tell a different story.
According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, international students make up 9 percent of the undergraduates enrolled at Yale and come from 70 different countries outside the United States. But diversity is not as prevalent on Yale’s athletic teams, where international student-athletes comprise just over 6 percent of rosters and come from only 18 different countries. Of the 65 or so total athletes from abroad, nearly 60 percent are from Canada, almost all of whom are on the crew, squash or hockey teams.
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Though not all sports are as popular around the world as they are here in the United States — it is not surprising that Yale’s 117-man football team has no international representation, for instance — some sports are equally popular in other countries, if not more so. Soccer, for instance, is a sport with global popularity, yet the men’s varsity soccer team boasts only one international player on its 26-man roster.
So why isn’t Yale bringing in more athletes from abroad? And why is there so little diversity among those international athletes who are here? No single answer exists to these questions, but the combination of tough academic standards, NCAA regulations and a lack of access to information seems to keep the number of international student-athletes low.
Yale’s academic standards
Yale’s high academic standards, even more imposing for students coming from abroad, may be a good place to start in discerning why many University teams are all but barren of global representation.
Canadian Melissa Colborne ’10 and South African Aaron Fuchs ’10 — both of whom recently went through the recruiting process — believe Yale academic regulations affect the number of foreign players who become Bulldogs.
“Most of my friends in Canada don’t take the SAT or ACT,” said Colborne, a forward on the women’s basketball team. “There’s no point in taking them unless you want to go to school in the States.”
In Canada, students are at least cognizant of this testing. In more distant countries like South Africa, SAT and ACT are not part of the vocabulary.
“They told me I had to take the SAT as part of my application,” said Fuchs, a member of the men’s squash team. “But I really didn’t know anything about it.”
Of course, getting into Yale is about more than simply taking the standardized tests. One must also do well. And the tests can be especially difficult when English is not the primary language for prospective student-athletes.
Moshe Sarfaty ’08, Fuchs’ teammate and a native Israeli, said he had spoken Hebrew his whole life and knew very little English before he decided to apply to an Ivy League college.
“I spent about a year learning English and preparing for the SATs,” Sarfaty said. “It’s the only way I could get into Yale.”
Sarfaty’s experience is similar to that of many other international applicants. But some prospective applicants do not have the means or time to learn proficient English or the access to advice on completing the extensive Yale application. Yale’s priorities as an academic institution — arguably one of the best in the world — may keep out foreign players who are intelligent but do not have the academic records the school demands.
Chris Gobrecht, head coach of the women’s basketball team, said there is a contrast between the global and the American mindsets regarding talented athletes.
“America is unique because of the combination of athletics and academics,” Gobrecht said. “In many countries, if an athlete shows promise, especially in a high-profile sport like basketball, they are sent off to sports academies. They don’t get the same academic background as high school athletes get here.”
Stringent NCAA regulations
The NCAA puts out an annual “Guide to International Academic Standards for Athletic Eligibility” to help student-athletes make the transition to the American system of education. But the book’s cumbersome 248 pages read more like a long-winded instruction manual than a useful guide.
Fulfilling NCAA academic rules are only part of the application process for international athletes. They must also file plenty of forms and student visa information with the NCAA clearinghouse in order to earn eligibility. The forms, some of which do require fees, can also be a financial burden.
Additionally, NCAA bylaws have strong wording about athletes who may have played professionally or received money for winning a competition. While many U.S. athletes are aware of these rules and know how to maintain their amateur status, such restrictions often do not exist abroad and international students may not understand the NCAA rules.
“All and all, it’s not that the process is hard,” Fuchs said. “It’s just that there is a lot of paperwork and that can be difficult to keep track of. You have to be aware of things.”
Although NCAA regulations can make things difficult for international athletes and may inadvertently weed out those who do not have proper guidance, some international student-athletes do receive help and direction during the transition process.
Owen Pighin coaches the Pacific Steelers, an elite Canadian female ice hockey program that has produced several Yalies, including current forward Jenna Spring ’07. Pighin said he makes it a point to help his players in preparing to migrate to the States.
“Some girls know what they’re looking for [in a university],” Pighin said. “We’ll go and say, this is what you have to do. We have our own SAT and ACT practice sessions and tests. We know what they have to do, what they have to study.”
Yale also helps in the process. Both Colborne and Fuchs said they were happy with the help they got from the University, citing assistance from school officials and coaches. The two athletes said they were constantly receiving e-mails reminding them of things that needed to be sent in by certain deadlines.
Few international recruiting trips
Cory Russell, the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Springbank Community High School in Alberta, Canada, coached Colborne all four years of her high school career. Russell said he is not sure Melissa would have ever ended up at Yale had she not been spotted by Gobrecht at a tournament in Oregon where Colborne was playing for one of Canada’s elite club teams.
“Unless Canadian kids play in a U.S. summer tournament it is extremely hard for Canadian kids,” Russell said. “U.S. schools could see a Canadian prospect at a summer tournament or hear about a good player through the coaching grapevine and then arrange to see him or her or maybe follow up when the player sends a highlight tape.”
Exposure to college coaches is necessary for an athlete to be recruited, and that exposure is something that athletes already in the United States may take for granted.
Gobrecht said she makes hardly any international recruiting trips because there is enough talent in the United States to fill her roster, but other Yale sports programs do recruit globally.
For Yale ice hockey, recruiting in Canada and overseas is very important in maintaining the quality of the program; nearly one-third of both the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams are Canadian. Coaches communicate extensively with Canadian club teams, and a symbiotic relationship often forms between college and high school coaches. Canadian clubs like to send their players to compete at the best U.S. universities, and U.S. schools receive scouting reports and other information about the players from their clubs before even going to see them.
“Our players receive a tremendous amount of exposure to collegiate coaches, as the Steelers program has been recognized by U.S. college coaches as one of the top teams in Western Canada,” Pighin said. “We have developed close relationships with the majority of U.S. college coaches and have been intimately involved in the recruiting process with our past players, developing expertise in the recruiting process.”
Pighin said he can assess his players and tell colleges whether a girl is a potential Division I prospect or a Division III prospect. He said he and his coaching staff know what the schools are looking for in any given year and have excellent contacts at the universities.
Few other sports have a similarly close relationship between college and high school coaches. The athletes that do get considered represent the best of the best in their country, and many very talented athletes are passed over without a fleeting glance.
In many cases, international athletes must make the initial contact with Yale coaches, since few of the coaches recruit actively outside the U.S.
“One day I decided to get on the Internet and I came across the Yale Web site,” Fuchs said. “I had never really thought about playing squash in the U.S. but I decided to e-mail coach [Dave Talbott] and see what happens.”
Little knowledge of the United States
Both Colborne and Fuchs agreed that many international athletes have little understanding of the American system of education and the American athletics scene.
“In South Africa, no one really knows about American colleges,” Fuchs said. “Coaches don’t really recruit there and no one really understands how big the college sports scene is in America.”
Colborne said she thinks a majority of Canadians do not see the need to come to the States. Instead, most athletes stay to play for schools in Canada.
Because international athletes do not grow up with the U.S. system, they may not fully comprehend its structure. These athletes may fear they will be overwhelmed by the drastic changes caused by the move, a sentiment that may deter some athletes from ever making it to the States.
“We have a girl at Princeton who was the captain [of the Steelers] two years ago,” Pighin said. “She came back this winter break and told the girls they must make sure they know what’s going on in the U.S. She said you have to live, breathe and become. It pays off in the long run.”
Athletes from abroad not only have to deal with a new culture and new surroundings, but they also have to concern themselves with how their sport is played in the United States. The rules may be the same, but the level and physicality may be very different.
“Some kids just aren’t prepared for the intensity of the game, the size and speed of the players, and the amount of time required,” Russell said. “Because of those obstacles, very few Calgarians go on to play ball in the States.”
Fuchs said Yale does a great job of welcoming international students, athletes or non-athletes, and believes the assistance helps to ease any initial anxiety. He said Yale sends out necessary information to incoming students well in advance of students’ arrival on campus.
“The biggest obstacle is being far away from home and not knowing what to expect,” Fuchs said. “Athlete or not, that can be really tough.”