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Home away from home: North Texas tennis team adjusting to life in Denton

Home away from home: North Texas tennis team adjusting to life in Denton

Sophomore Maria Kononova serves the ball during a tennis match against Washington State. Mean Green fell to Washington State 4-3. Sara Carpenter

Home away from home: North Texas tennis team adjusting to life in Denton
March 02
13:33 2017

A collection of people from different cultures and backgrounds fill the courts at the Waranch Tennis Complex. Of the eight players on the roster, only one is from the United States.

Some of them arrived from countries thousands of miles away, where the name Denton holds no significance and the images of American lifestyle are vastly over-exaggerated.

It’s not an uncommon sight throughout the collegiate ranks. Last season, the NCAA had over 3,000 foreign-born student-athletes playing tennis, almost 20 percent of total tennis players. That percentage grows substantially larger when observing Division I schools.

For many on the North Texas tennis team, moving upwards of 8,000 miles away from the place they once called home was a monumental struggle.

“At the beginning it was really difficult,” Colombian native and sophomore Laura Arciniegas said. “I came with my parents, so the first week I was a little bit comfortable. When they left to Colombia, I was crying. It was difficult.”

Lack of family was one of the biggest obstacles many members of the Mean Green had to overcome in their first few days in Denton. When combined with some players’ minimal understanding of English, the task of adjusting to life across the globe became that much harder.

“I think the key component is the emotional aspect of not being around family,” head coach Sujay Lama said. “The cultural change — everything is so different. There’s a shock.”

That was the same feeling that Japanese freshman Haruka Sasaki experienced when she first arrived at North Texas.

“[My] first semester I was [struggling] because everything was new and then I don’t have family here and I didn’t have [a lot] of friends here,” Sasaki said. “Now I have my team, coach, friends, and I’m doing well [academically].”

Fortunately for North Texas, they are armed with a head coach who has, in many ways, become a father figure for the team. When any of his players need advice, guidance or just someone to talk to, Lama is there.

This is especially reassuring for worried parents who have apprehensions about their child going to school in a foreign country.

“I [have] two children,” Lama said. “I can relate to their feelings about their own children. Their angst, their fears, their hopes, their inspirations. I’m able to understand them and I’m able to provide [their parents] those answers for them.”

Although their environment altered drastically, from the buildings around them to the people they met, those weren’t the biggest changes many players came across.

In fact, one of the more critical challenges for the international players to overcome was the food put on their plates.

“The food is totally different,” Croatian freshman Ivana Babic said. “I think it’s unhealthy. Even if I try to eat healthy, I still feel like I’m eating unhealthy compared to Croatia. I have a feeling that everything is so fake.”

Despite some players yearning for a taste of home, not everybody on the team has the same desire to go back.

When offered the opportunity to join the Mean Green, sophomore Minying Liang did not think twice. Liang wanted a chance to expand her horizons.

She even said she fits in with American culture better than Chinese culture.

“When I was in China the thing I wanted to do most was go to another country,” Liang said. “[It didn’t] matter where, just [that I left] China.”

For Liang, the United States represented a fresh start.

After the age of 12, Liang was forced to learn how to handle some things on her own, which pushed her ahead of the curve in terms of being independent. Before she was even in high school, Liang was booking flights, hotels and even cooking for herself.

“My parents weren’t always around,” Liang said. “They were busy with work and my school [wasn’t] in the same city, so I [didn’t] see them very often.”

But for those who had trouble adjusting to life in Denton, they have found an oasis on the court — the single continuity they had throughout their transition.

Regardless of how they feel about their home countries, the players understand the opportunity afforded to them cannot be replicated anywhere else.

“[In Croatia] if you want to play tennis, there’s no way that you can study and play tennis at the same time,” Babic said. “This is the best chance I had.”

Featured Image: Sophomore Maria Kononova serves the ball during a tennis match against Washington State. Mean Green fell to Washington State 4-3. Sara Carpenter

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Cesar Valdes

Cesar Valdes

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