Alvaro Arce.jpg

Alvaro Arce is JMU men's tennis' No. 1 or No. 2 singles player. 

Every year, thousands of students begin a new chapter of their lives at JMU, with some traveling hundreds or thousands of miles. The chance to represent the Dukes on a field or court is a main reason that students come from all over the world to JMU.

The decision to come to the U.S. for college can vary for every student; however, a common theme is the opportunity to focus on academics and sports simultaneously. Alvaro Arce, a redshirt junior on the tennis team, left Spain because he didn’t want to give up his education or his tennis career for the other.

“In Spain and Europe, it is really difficult to play at a high level and study at the same time,” Arce said. “So you either have to decide to stop playing and go for your career or stop studying and try to get professional.”

The desire to pursue sports and academics is a reason many players come to the U.S. for college. Iris Rabot, a junior on the women’s soccer team, came to the U.S. from France so she could juggle both. She played one season at the University of Northwestern Ohio before transferring to JMU.

“When we finish high school we can’t play soccer and study, so I wanted to keep studying in case something happened with soccer,” Rabot said. “So I chose to come here because I can study and play.”

Culture shock can be a harsh adjustment, especially when one has to manage school and sports at the same time.

Women’s tennis head coach Shelley Jaudon said the first few weeks after arriving in Harrisonburg is probably the hardest time for international athletes because they have to adjust to an entirely different culture while starting classes and team activities.

“Everything’s new,” Jaudon said. “As a freshman, everything’s new in general, so then add on the language difference, the culture difference, being in another country so far from home, that first semester and first year is the biggest transition.”

Arce said his hometown is similar to Harrisonburg, which made him feel more comfortable and made his transition a little easier. Arce said understanding the culture was a more difficult adjustment. 

“The culture is completely different. In my hometown we have dinner around 10 p.m., and here, when I was with the FROGs at my orientation they would go to have dinner at 5 [p.m.],” Arce said. “So that was really strange for me.”

Going to college in a country that speaks a different language can be a difficult adjustment. Steve Secord, head coach of the men’s tennis team, said that a language barrier can make it hard for international athletes to communicate with teammates and coaches and complete homework in a timely manner.

“It’s not easy if English isn’t your first language,” Secord said. “Alvaro works very hard on his studies. You really have to work hard, especially in the business school. Where an American kid might spend three hours a day outside of class reading and studying, Al’s spending five hours.”

International athletes rely on many things to help them adjust to living in a new country. Teammates and coaches provide emotional support, but getting to play the sport they love is especially helpful during the transition.

“Soccer helped me to not be [homesick] because I was focused on playing games and training,” Rabot said. “But in the spring when we don’t have as much soccer, it’s harder.”

The university’s announcement in March to cancel the remainder of spring sports and temporarily move classes online left international athletes confused about what to do. Jaudon said that all of her international athletes were able to stay thanks to domestic teammates sharing their homes, but Arce went back to Spain almost immediately despite not knowing how the rest of the semester would play out.

“When our season got canceled, Spain’s situation was way worse than the U.S., so I had trouble going back home because there were no flights,” Arce said. “I finally found a way to go back home and I stayed there for five months. We had to be on actual lockdown, we couldn’t leave our house for anything so I was in my house for three months. I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t do anything.”

When athletes returned home, communication was more difficult. Secord said one of the toughest things was trying to find a time that everyone could get on Zoom together because of all the different time zones. Another obstacle some athletes faced was traveling back to Harrisonburg for the fall semester because of some borders being closed and a lack of flights.

“There was definitely a period of time through July and August where it was like, ‘How are we gonna get these girls back here?’” Jaudon said. “Things were changing day to day.”

JMU has become a second home for international athletes. They worked hard and overcame many obstacles to get here. The pandemic is simply another obstacle they conquered to achieve their goals.

“It’s very frustrating,” Rabot said. “It’s hard being far from your family and not being able to play.”

Contact Courtney Ryder at ryderce@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.