In pursuit of both academic and athletic excellence, most student athletes find themselves away from home, but some find themselves crossing international borders.
For the international student athletes who call Lehigh home, the cultural transition they grapple with includes differences in both everyday life and their respective sports.
Take Sam Bencheghib for example. Before his life at Lehigh, Bencheghib, a France native and sophomore on the men’s tennis team, lived in two other countries in addition to France: Indonesia and Spain.
Bencheghib began playing tennis in Bali when he was twelve and three years later decided to pursue a life on the tennis court. Realizing that tennis opportunities in Bali weren’t plentiful, Bencheghib spoke with his parents and proposed continuing his education at Sanchez-Casal Academy, a tennis academy in Barcelona, Spain.
“As soon as I moved to Spain I knew I really wanted to play tennis,” Bencheghib said.
Bencheghib credits his exposure at the academy with introducing the idea of playing tennis at a collegiate level in America. With guidance from the academy’s directors, Bencheghib found Lehigh a fitting place, even if it meant leaving behind the Mediterranean climate.
Once in America, the concept of team marked a significant transition for Bencheghib.
“College tennis is all about team,” Bencheghib said. “And every match counts.”
Having played only singles prior to coming to Lehigh, Bencheghib quickly realized playing as a team entailed more than just cooperation.
The silence and formality of singles matches Bencheghib was used to playing his whole life quickly transformed into every serve being supported by teammates.
While opposing shouts certainly affected his play in the infancy of his collegiate career, Bencheghib says he’s benefited more from being cheered on by people other than his parents.
Similarly, Victor Yegon, a freshman on the cross country and track and field teams from Bomet, Kenya, noted the drastic differences between running in Kenya and running in the United States.
In Kenya, Yegon said, a time to run is set — they’ll run for a certain time and then stop. In the U.S., runners focus on running a certain distance in the shortest amount of time possible.
Yegon also said the program is meant for the athlete in Kenya, but in the U.S., there is more of the question of whether the athlete is meant for the program.
Yegon came to the states through KenSAP, a scholar athlete project in Kenya that specializes in bridging the dreams of gifted Kenyan high school graduates with a reality in either the U.S. or Canada.
About two years ago, with no prior running experience, Yegon tried out for the program and demonstrated his abilities and academic records were worthy of the programs support. Yegon then took it upon himself to contact coaches. When it came to telling coaches about his running experience, Yegon said he just had to show people he was interested.
Among the cultural differences he’s come across, Yegon said his humor is often lost in translation.
“At times I think I’m kind of funny,” Yegon said. “(But) you find yourself laughing at our own jokes.”
While both Bencheghib and Yegon come from different continents, there are other international student athletes who make their way from within North America.
Nolan Apers, a junior on the men’s lacrosse team, is from Oakville, Ontario, and although he is closer to home than other international student athletes, he still had to find his place in the United States.
Apers said prior to living in America, the unknown circumstances of the future kept him on edge, despite being comforted by the portrayal of American life on TV.
With two seasons under his belt and one currently underway, Apers recommends the international student athlete experience to anyone considering it.
“The positives I’ve gained here far outweigh the negatives,” Apers said. “Being able to pluck yourself out of your own little bubble and put yourself in some foreign place is such an amazing learning experience… It forces you to grow up quickly.”
Apers’ advice to younger international student athletes, and really anyone undergoing transition is simply, “embrace the suck,” he said.
“Whatever adversity (comes at you), take it and just run with it,” Apers said. “It gets easier.”