New attention on college athletes from abroad

New rules allowing compensation for college-student athletes have thrust international students into the spotlight — that’s because, unlike their teammates, they may not be able to take advantage of the potential “name, image, likeness” windfall because of visa regulations.

Yet the confusion surrounding the so-called NIL changes is just one of several issues that set apart international students who are athletes from other athletes and from other foreign students.

College athletes from abroad may have a rocky transition to college life and struggle to balance schoolwork and sports, all while adjusting to a new culture. International athletes were more likely to transfer in their first year — a quarter did so, compared with just 14 percent of domestic college athletes — and less likely to feel a sense of belonging on campus than did their American teammates, according to NCAA surveys.

These pressures can be easy to overlook, experts said. An international athlete may just be one member of a team, and athletes’ share of the overall international-student population is small, only about 2 percent of the nearly 1 million overseas students on American campuses.

Still, their numbers are growing. More than 21,000 international athletes compete on American college teams, according to the NCAA. They’re especially prominent in certain sports, like ice hockey and soccer. In tennis, 60 percent of Division I players are from other countries.

The NCAA has taken note. It held its first international college athlete “inclusion think tank” in late 2021, bringing together students, coaches, administrators, and faculty members to discuss the particular challenges for athletes from abroad. The organization is expected to release new resources offering guidance to colleges this summer.

“We talk about female student-athletes and minority student-athletes, but we talk very little about international student-athletes,” said David Kuhlmeier, a faculty athletics representative at Valdosta State University, in Georgia, and a participant in the think tank. “Please tell me this is just the beginning.”

I spoke with Kuhlmeier and others about the issues for international college athletes. Here’s some of what they told me.

Athletes first. International students second. Emma Swift, associate director of international education at the University of Vermont, recalls that during student orientation, international athletes would often introduce themselves by the sport they played. “That is their identity, as an athlete,” she said.

Timothy Bryson, who serves as an adviser to World Wide Terps, an organization of international athletes at the University of Maryland at College Park, notes that athletes often have a different path to college. For most international students, studying in America “was an experience they sought out themselves,” he said. “But international athletes are here because they were recruited.”

Being part of a team can help smooth the transition to college and a new country by giving international college athletes a built-in support network. But between classes and practices, they may also have little time to form other connections, and their teammates may not fully understand the hurdles of acclimating to a different culture.

One athlete, a soccer player from Spain, said she felt isolated when she was injured and couldn’t compete. “I realized I didn’t know anyone else, outside of the team,” said the student, who asked not to be identified when discussing mental-health struggles. “I felt really alone.”

Hurdle or help. Because sports plays such a prominent role, international college athletes may be more likely to turn to their teammates or coaches for advice than to the international student-services office. That may not be appropriate when dealing with complex issues, like visa status.

At Vermont, a staff member in the international office serves as a liaison to the athletics department. The goal isn’t to turn coaches and athletic directors into immigration advisers but rather to make them aware of the issues. They can be an extra set of hands to make sure students stay in compliance. If an international athlete doesn’t complete a visa check-in, Swift said she knows she can contact the coach and the student will check in, immediately.

Culture can also complicate the player-coach relationship, said Kuhlmeier, who has conducted case studies of international college athletes. Some could feel pressure to play when injured.

Visa rules + NCAA rules = lots of rules. The relaxation of visa regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic gave foreign athletes greater flexibility — some even returned to their home countries to train for the Olympics while taking classes remotely. But with the return of in-person learning, international students again face strict limits on online courses and must study full time to maintain their visa status. Additional NCAA rules govern their academic eligibility.

There’s a learning curve for international students — and for the international offices and athletics departments that advise them. Athletes on full scholarship, for example, must file with the IRS. The new NIL rules have added new complexity because they may run afoul of a prohibition on off-campus work for international students. (I wrote more about NIL here.)

But student athletes from overseas already had to deal with a different set of rules than their teammates. While many athletes coach during the summer, such work is off limits to international students unless it is related to their major. “It can feel unfair,” Swift said, “when their teammates can have certain opportunities because they have a U.S. passport.”

Bryson, who works as program director for student-athlete career development at Maryland, said colleges can do more to support international athletes. “They can be great ambassadors,” he said, “or they can fall through the cracks.”

Report calls for better analysis of foreign threats to colleges

Federal agencies responsible for safeguarding American technology should develop more sophisticated ways of assessing universities’ vulnerability to foreign governments that want to access sensitive information, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

There has been growing concern that countries like China are seeking to poach sensitive research and are focusing on college campuses because of their relative openness. The GAO report, which was requested by several members of Congress, examines three agencies — the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — that oversee the export of such technology. It found that the agencies do not have processes for thoroughly assessing universities’ risk and for targeting outreach and education to those institutions that are most vulnerable.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have risk assessments that rely on a single risk factor for prioritizing institutions for outreach, with the latter developing a list of 150 universities. (The GAO did not name the factor, saying the information was sensitive.)

The Commerce Department does not have official guidelines that direct its work with universities, the GAO found.

The GAO recommended that the agencies develop more-complex risk assessments that take into account multiple factors, such as a university’s research activity in sensitive areas, the government grants it receives, and whether it enrolls large numbers of graduate students from countries of concern, especially those that receive scholarships or research funding from foreign governments.

The agencies said they agreed with the GAO’s findings.

New data on student-visa overstays

Fewer than 2 percent of international students overstayed their visas in 2020, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security.

The in-country overstay rate for student-visa holders, 1.55 percent, is slightly higher than the rate for all visitors, of 1.27 percent. The total overstay rate for international students — a figure that includes those who left the United States after their authorized period of admission expired but who are no longer in the country — was 2.71 percent.

But as a Center for Immigration Studies analysis points out, student-visa overstay rates fell by 50 percent between the 2016 and 2020 fiscal years. (The backgrounder by the group, which favors lower immigration, tipped me off to the Homeland Security report, which was not originally released publicly.)

Those statistics are nearly two years old — the federal fiscal year ends in September — but they’re interesting to revisit. That same year the Trump administration proposed a significant change to international-student policy, introducing a draft rule that would have imposed fixed time limits on student visas, a change that would have forced many students to reapply for visas in the middle of their studies. (Under the existing system, students can typically stay until they finish their academic program.)

Officials said the move was needed to “ensure the integrity” of the student-visa system, citing high overstay rates. The Trump administration ran out of time to enact the regulatory change, and the rule was later withdrawn under President Biden.

Around the globe

The editor of The Lancet said the prestigious medical journal will not accept papers with data from Africa that do not credit African collaborators.

A former University of Arkansas professor has been sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to a single count of lying to the government about Chinese patents he had filed.

New York University trustees have approved the termination of a tenured faculty member for failing to disclose he acted as a principal investigator for research done by a Chinese university, Retraction Watch reports.

A Chinese graduate student said he was attacked by a group of men near the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and police are investigating it as part of a string of assaults.

A former administrator alleges in a lawsuit that she was fired by Columbia University after she refused to process international-student-visa paperwork without proper documentation.

More than 150 U.S. college presidents have signed a letter in support of refugee students.

The University of the People has pledged to enroll 25,000 refugees by 2030 in its online programs.

Afghan alumni of the Chevening scholarship, the British equivalent of the Fulbright exchange program, may be eligible for resettlement in the UK.

British universities may be overreliant on international students, putting them at financial risk, a parliamentary report warns.

A measure being considered by Britain’s Parliament would allow the education minister to review and potentially block Confucius Institutes or other foreign-funded language and cultural programs at universities there.

Lawmakers in Nigeria have rejected an effort to give the country’s education secretary sweeping powers over public universities there, including the appointment of campus leaders.

The University of Virginia has returned several Indigenous artifacts considered sacred to Australian aboriginal groups.

And finally …

A third of college employers report feeling “always” or “very often” burned out at work, a rate second only to those in elementary and secondary education, according to a recent Gallup poll. Education tops all other industry sectors for work-related stress, the study found.

International educators have been grappling with pandemic-related stress, too. One told me about being stunned when campus mental-health counselors used the word “trauma” to characterize what she and her colleagues had been going through. “They said, ‘This sounds like a trauma response. The team is suffering,’” she recalled. “When they called it that — I’d only associated trauma with car accidents or that kind of awful event.”

Read more in my piece “The Administrators Who Feel Erased by Covid.”

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at karin.fischer@chronicle.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.