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Expert advice to help international student-athletes feel right at home

Want to ensure a smooth transition to the U.S. for the more than 17,000 international student-athletes who play NCAA college sports? At the 2018 NCAA Inclusion Forum, Kristi Mejias, assistant director of student-athlete engagement at Texas A&M, offered tips for navigating the process. From following federal rules to offering a welcoming environment, their advice should help international student-athletes transition to their new campus home:

DON’T RUN AFOUL OF THE F-1: an F-1 visa is issued to international students attending a u.s. college or university. Ensure the student has checked in with the campus international office and provided an updated visa, passport, Form I-20 (certificate of eligibility for nonimmigrant student status), address and permanent home address. Among other rules, travel signatures are required each year or anytime the student enters the united states. See studyinthestates.dhs.gov/maintaining-status for more info.

BUILD THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIPS ON CAMPUS: have questions? Seek answers. The consequences of mishandling an incoming international student-athlete are high, and no one wants to jeopardize a student’s immigration status. Get to know your campus international office. Any college or university certified as a student and exchange visitor program school has a designated school official who can help you help the student-athlete. Consider designating an athletics department liaison who can facilitate clear communication among athletics, admissions and the international student office.

HELP THE STUDENT TRAVEL SMART: encourage the student to allow two or three hours to make any connecting flight after arriving in the united states. Passing through immigration and customs inspections takes time — and also requires all immigration documents, such as a passport, F-1 visa and Form I-20. Student-athletes should keep those forms with them, not in their checked luggage.

VERIFY FULL-TIME ENROLLMENT: among the requirements of an F-1 visa is that the student must maintain full-time student status. Most of those hours must be accrued through traditional, on-campus classes, though in rare circumstances, distance education or a reduced course load can be an option. Work with the campus international office or designated school official to make sure you understand these regulations.

UNDERSTAND THE STUDENT’S JOB SITUATION: while a part-time job on campus can help the student-athlete earn money and be part of the college community, some restrictions apply. As for off-campus employment, it is permitted in some cases, for instance, if approved and required for the degree the student-athlete is pursuing. Work with your designated school official — the ideal contact for ensuring international student-athletes are following protocols. Even athletics departments that commonly help pair college athletes with internships need to check with the campus international office to make sure an opportunity does not jeopardize an international student-athlete’s immigration status.

SET THEM UP FOR SUCCESS: even the most academically well-prepared international student-athlete can struggle to adapt to American computer operating systems and software. Participating in a class discussion and writing in English also can be challenging for non-native speakers. Make sure international student-athletes know where to turn for help before they need it.

SMOOTH THE TRANSITION: show around an international student-athlete or arrange for someone who can. Your campus and the surrounding community, even U.S. culture itself, are new to this individual. Help with finding a grocery store near home and consider going along on a first trip. If your campus offers an orientation for international student-athletes, encourage the student to attend.

FOLLOW UP: like other students, international student-athletes can struggle with homesickness and mental health issues as they adjust to life on campus. Check with the international student office to see if programming is available during academic breaks and holidays. If your alumni community includes other former international student-athletes living in the U.S., consider creating a network to which your current international student-athletes can look for advice and camaraderie.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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