Belmont All-Access: From anywhere to here

Adriano Balani, of Albania, dribbles the ball against Niagara earlier this season.
Adriano Balani, of Albania, dribbles the ball against Niagara earlier this season.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A university-level courseload can be challenging for even the most studious young minds. Now imagine having to first decode the tasks before tackling them.

Such is life for international students hailing from non-English speaking countries, where even the most mundane duties come with an added air of complexity. Belmont senior tennis player Caio Niel made the realization four years ago while sitting down for his SAT entrance exam, straining to decipher essays and answer timed critical thinking questions in English rather than his native Portuguese.

"It's like an entirely different test you have to take," said Niel, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The trials can be great for international students. For those like Niel who have come to the United States to study and play collegiate sports, the support they've found within Belmont athletics has unlocked the key to overcoming initial adversity. Beyond the preliminary wave of doubt lies an enlightenment through experience for both those new to the Belmont community and its more natural residents.

"It's an educational experience for everyone," began Belmont men's soccer coach Bryan Green. "It's a global society and it exposes our guys to different cultures, different backgrounds and different beliefs."

Niel is one of 15 international student-athletes on campus this fall. They comprise 11 countries of varied backgrounds and languages and all have tred unique paths to Middle Tennessee.

Though they have plenty of similarities as well.

Spikes of anxiety mark the beginning of the process. A young man or woman leaves behind his or her life to travel a vast distance to a relative unknown. Athletics can be a great unifier, a universal language.

"I came not knowing anybody," said senior and Glamorgan, Wales, native Matt Edwards, now in his second and final year on the men's cross country team. "After our first team camp last year, we were all brothers, best mates. It felt like we'd been here for years."

Niel's was a rare case in which he knew his support group before arriving in Nashville. His freshman year, a senior on the team had come from his same Clube Paineiras Do Morumbi in Brazil. After graduating from Belmont a year later, Mauricio Antun transitioned into coaching with the Bruins. In 2016, he ascended to head men's tennis coach.

Antun's presence made for a softer landing than many international student-athletes may get. All of them have come to America looking for the opportunity to challenge themselves though.

Men's soccer senior Adriano Balani, a native of Albania, remembers his first two months here as "a disaster." With the help of his teammates and an adventurous attitude that perhaps outweighed his English aptitude, Balani carved out his niche.

"I got myself together. I decided to become the king of Nashville, because this is a cool city and a great place to live," Balani joked in his quiet Indo-European accent. "You can own it if you want. Just go talk to people."

Technology has greatly expanded the opportunity for international students to come to America. A recruitment process that relied heavily on email when Antun was just a few years ago making his way north from Brazil has been even further simplified. Social media and online recruiting networks make it easier than ever for prospective students to pair up with interested coaches.

"I can not even imagine how we would be recruiting internationally about 10, 15 years ago," laughed Antun. "Right now, you can go on YouTube -- there's their name, their contact information and you can actually see them playing."

Of course college coaches want to win, so sometimes reaching for talent beyond the borders of the U.S. is the best strategic move as well. Sports like tennis and soccer, popular throughout the world, offer a fertile recruiting base. Coach Antun's tennis program currently has four foreign-born players, with another expected to join in the spring, while Coach Green's soccer club has a whopping eight.

Represented in that group of fútbolers are six nations.

"You get to have a guy from Kentucky rooming with a guy from Colombia, and I don't mean Columbia, Tenn.," Green said. "I have to change my vocabulary a little bit at practice. I have to simplify things a little bit so everyone can understand and be on the same page, but soccer is the common language they all share."

In reality the commonalities are far greater. It's just that surface details sometimes get in the way.

They're all Bruins, certainly. Beyond that they're all students striving to better themselves at Belmont and improve their futures in a shared world.

That's what a reflective Niel hopes others will remember.

"Even though you can do so many good things, as an international student you still get the feeling that you need to prove yourself," said Niel, hardly a hint remaining of his once thick accent. "See, I'm capable of doing the same things you are, even though I'm not from here.

"If people would just talk to you first, it would make things easier in understanding the different cultures."