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Saturday, December 03, 2022
The independent student publication of The Unversity at Buffalo, since 1950

The secret battles of student-athletes

As an international student-athlete, I break stereotypes on a daily basis

“She’s privileged and intimidating.”

“Does she even study?”

“Athletes are so overrated.”

These are some of the phrases my fellow student-athletes and I overhear about ourselves on campus. 

Most students are asleep at 5:45 a.m. on a casual Tuesday. Not me. 

My five separate morning alarms awake me from my slumber as I’m immediately met with 300 thoughts a second. I quickly prepare myself for the day by putting together a to-do list and grabbing a coffee — it’s time for another day in my chaotic, yet exciting life. 

Athletes are often surrounded by many stereotypes — some think we’re privileged and don’t deserve the recognition and material benefits we get (merchandise, gear, etc.) Others are convinced that athletic life is easy since we get to do what we love and have fun in the process. 

While I’ve always considered my athletic occupation a true blessing, there are millions of situations left behind the scenes that the general public will never see, feel or understand. 

I have played tennis my whole life. I cannot recall a time when a yellow fuzzy ball and a colorful tennis racket were not on my mind for 16 hours of the day. The same can be said for my eight teammates. 

When we chose to come to study in the U.S., all of us realized a lot of things were going to change. What none of us could imagine is that we would eventually end up learning how to multitask three things at the same time in an attempt to maximize every second of our chaotic lives. 

On top of that, none of us could have imagined the amount of criticism we would hear behind our backs. 

By noon, I’ve managed to finish practice, lift and rehab. While walking to class I try to use a couple of free minutes to call my parents. The time difference is another obstacle for all international students. When we get done with classes our loved ones back at home are already asleep. It’s extremely hard to find time to talk to them during the day. 

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Being a foreigner also means you need to overcome the language barrier and hear the question “Where does your accent come from?” every time you meet a new person. 

From dusk until dawn, we are consumed by stereotypes. 

I am proud to have both Armenian and Russian backgrounds. But with that comes stereotypes such as the frequent assumption that I’m used to bears walking on the streets, or being asked, “Hey, where is Armenia, is it in Eastern Europe, too?” (Disclaimer: bears do not live in Russian cities and Armenia is located in the Caucasus region in Western Asia.)

By 8 p.m., my day is not even close to being over. Two assignments are due tonight and I have another presentation tomorrow. 

A stereotype my team shatters with excellence: athletes do not study as hard as non-athlete students. Last spring my team set a record cumulative team GPA of 3.937. That means that almost all nine members achieved a GPA of 4.0 in a variety of majors such as business administration, biomedical and industrial engineering and psychology. While we receive excused absences due to traveling for competition, we are not allowed to miss classes for practices, despite what many think. We can’t miss assignments and we do not get extended deadlines. All of us study as hard as we can and perform in that dimension to the best of our abilities. 

All athletes practice, study and essentially work every day.

International student-athletes must try to overcome homesickness and a language barrier on top of the typical daily problems of a college student.

Why would someone even want to do that to themselves? 

It’s easy.

We do this because we all are fighters.

All athletes have learned how to overcome difficulties with grace from a young age. Nothing can compare to that sweet feeling when you raise your hands in triumph after a win. That feeling is what makes us wake up before sunrise and run through pain. Sometimes everything seems pointless and pressure makes it hard to breathe. 

Billie Jean King once said “pressure is a privilege,” and that is so true. I would not trade all the pleasures of this world for what I am doing today. 

My life is challenging, disciplined, painful at times and requires a lot of “mental stamina.” I don’t know what awaits me in the future after I complete my collegiate tennis career. But there is one thing I know for sure: the role of student-athlete owns my whole heart. 

As P!nk sings, “It must be true love.”

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