Among the masses of people streaming into Florida these days, there’s a special group that is coming here more and more—and their goal is getting a higher education, while playing the sports in which they excel.
Foreign college athletes know the United States has a reputation for high tuition rates—especially when compared to the price of attending university in Europe. This leaves some people wondering why so many international athletes flock to the sunshine state to pursue higher education.
For Swedish soccer player Emma Lysell, who attends college at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens (STU), it’s the fact that she can be a jock while simultaneously pursuing a degree in business. “What I love most about the USA is the possibilities this country gave me,” Lysell says. “I am able to play and study at the same time. I met my lovely boyfriend here, and I am very thankful for him and our family.”
Another factor is that in Europe, collegiate athletic programs are almost completely nonexistent. There are few athletic scholarships, and the universities’ reputations are based purely on academic standing, not athletic programs. Many ball players come to the country to get the best of both worlds. When asked why she chose STU specifically, Lysell replied, “I choose to play for STU because of the women’s soccer team. They have a great team, with very talented girls.”
STU Croatian swimmer Marta Lekovic also loves that she can play her sport and pursue higher education at the same time. She spent two years at a college in Albany, but says she made the change “because of the mentality. I feel like people are more positive down in Florida.” And for Lekovic, it is not just about college life. “I would definitely like to experience ‘real life’ in the U.S.,” she said upon being asked how she feels about staying in this country after she graduates.
Lekovic’s captain, Caesar Asadi, speaks highly of all his international players. “Swimming is one of several sports that can be found all over the globe,” he shared. “One of the things that I love about being a collegiate swim coach is having the opportunity to recruit international students to St. Thomas University.”
He also lamented the more difficult aspects of some international players’ journeys. “Internationals also have a rather difficult process of being eligible to come off to the U.S.,” Asadi said. “From the documentation to the embassy interview and visa process, it can easily become overwhelming.” But most don’t seem to be discouraged by that struggle. Asadi describes the international admissions counselors as “phenomenal” and explained that next year’s swim team will showcase an international roster, including players from Spain, France, South Africa, Italy, Kazakhstan, and beyond.
The foreign student-athlete phenomenon extends beyond STU to many other colleges, including Boca’s own Florida Atlantic University.
“The internationals think FAU is a great spot because they get to combine their soccer careers with their academic careers,” says FAU Men’s soccer coach Joey Worthen. “Many have the goal of getting professional contracts after they graduate. They are a little older, more mature—which helps.” Coach Worten says that many of the athletes on the team were a part of elite sports groups in their respective countries before entering college. “South Florida is a melting pot anyways, so it fits our team to have a variety of cultures. They all get along. We speak a variety of languages here on our team.”
It seems that international athletes who come to South Florida may be afforded more opportunities than in their homelands, and according to testimony from some of the area’s foremost collegiate coaches—and student-athletes—there’s plenty of good fortune waiting for them when they arrive.