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How one NCAA national office employee used an international road trip to spread the word about initial eligibility

The Maribyrnong Sports Academy, a secondary school near Melbourne, Australia, was among the stops made by the NCAA’s Ashley Thornburg during an international Eligibility Center outreach tour. Ashley Thornburg / NCAA

Sometimes you take the show on the road — and overseas.

When it came time for international outreach efforts to help make the process of initial eligibility better understood during the past couple of years, the NCAA Eligibility Center sent Associate Director Ashley Thornburg on a journey to make personal presentations in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Canada.

Ashley Thornburg

The outreach was done in collaboration with EducationUSA, a U.S. Department of State network of more than 425 international student advising centers in more than 175 countries. A grant through the State Department made the journeys possible, helping Thornburg inform groups in foreign countries about what needs to be accomplished in the classroom by their students who hope to play college sports in the United States.

“EducationUSA acts as advisors to any international students who want to come to America to study,” Thornburg says. “The U.S. Embassies in New Zealand and Australia wanted someone from the NCAA to come there.”

A lot of explaining sometimes needs to occur to make an international student-athlete’s dream of attending college in the U.S. possible because the tie between college athletics and academics in the United States is unique. So Thornburg traveled to Australia and New Zealand in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2018, where she spent two weeks in each country and met with national governing bodies for specific sports and with representatives from different educational systems in those countries.

Each country can present challenges. Schools can run on schedules much different from those in the U.S. The length of primary school education can vary from nation to nation. Even defining courses can be a barrier: Part of Thornburg’s job was to help everyone understand that, no matter the system, core courses in English, math, science and social science must be met for initial eligibility. That point can become lost in translation, even in lands where English is the primary language.

“In Australia, their physical education and health courses are extremely rigorous,” Thornburg says. “They consider them to be a science course. It is more like a lab. We get that the level is high because some of the kids in the course may want to be a physical therapist one day. Explaining what is considered a core course by the NCAA can be difficult at times.”

Those differences in educational systems have been compiled through the years by the Eligibility Center staff. The formats for secondary schools in 173 nations are listed in the NCAA Guide to International Academic Standards for Athletics Eligibility. The more than 400-page publication was last updated in July.

But in addition to that guide, the Eligibility Center has tentatively planned more in-person presentations in the United Kingdom this fall, and trips to the African continent also are being eyed for future outreach.

Because, sometimes, helping international students realize their athletics dreams requires a personal touch.

About Champion

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.