When Ugnius Zilinskas came to Kenyon College in Ohio to play on the basketball team, he was welcomed with open arms.

“They kind of take you as a family member,” said the student from Kedainiai, Lithuania.

Zilinskas, a junior, is one of roughly 27,000 foreign students who play on U.S. college sports teams, out of more than 1 million foreign students who attend school in the U.S. Stars like basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria and soccer player Christine Sinclair of Canada began as international students at American colleges before competing professionally in the United States.

Zilinskas was welcomed by Kenyon College, a Division III National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) school in Gambier, Ohio. He has played basketball since he was a child in his home country and understood the ladder of college sports. But if a student comes to study in the U.S. with no knowledge of college sports, the system can seem complicated.

Here’s a breakdown.

FILE – The NCAA logo is seen at center court in Pittsburgh, Pa., March 18, 2015.

The basics

The NCAA is one of three major associations that govern college and university athletics:

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)
National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA)

These nonprofit organizations determine student eligibility, establish sport guidelines, and oversee competition among schools across North America. For instance, the NCAA issues rules that define a foul in basketball, as well as prohibiting NCAA student athletes from endorsing commercial products.

The NCAA generates billions of dollars through media rights, ticket sales, merchandise and membership fees. The revenue goes to athletic scholarships, NCAA employee salaries, and to run competitions like March Madness, a wildly popular tournament broadcast across the country.

NCAA college athletes are banned from being paid to play while enrolled in schools to ensure amateur competition in college. Critics say the big sports associations use favors, trips, free meals and gear to compensate players in other ways. Not everyone considers these actions amateur, while others say the players deserve to be paid outright for their talent and skills.

Schools are sorted into divisions: Division I schools, such as the University of Virginia and University of Michigan, generally have large student populations and many teams. The University of Virginia, for example, has more than 16,000 undergraduate students. Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, a Division II school, has a little more than 6,000 undergraduate students. Kenyon College, a Division III school, has nearly 2,000 students.

Division I and Division II institutions are highly competitive with robust athletic programs and may have athletic budgets of millions of dollars to pay for athletic scholarships, coaches, sport facilities, athletes’ medical needs and transportation.

Division I provides the largest athletic scholarships. Athletes who receive athletic scholarships in soccer or basketball, for example, may get some or all tuition waved in addition to some room and board. Division III focuses on academics and offers merit scholarships or financial aid, not athletic scholarships.

Zilinskas said a benefit of competing in college sports was playing basketball while fully engaging in his studies.

The National Junior College Administration (NJCAA) operates differently and only at two-year colleges, organizing its member institutions into three divisions. Division I members, such Bismarck State College’s basketball team in North Dakota, offer larger athletic scholarships than Division II. Member institutions decide the division in which it wants to compete.

For similar reasons as the NCAA and NAIA, NJCAA Division III members do not provide athletic scholarships to their students.

Getting ready to compete

How do students get eligibility to play at U.S. schools?

Student athletes register through the NCAA Eligibility Center online. The $150 fee can be waived for students with financial needs. School transcripts, SAT or ACT scores and country-specific documents are required in English and according to the American grading system. (The NCAA offers country-specific information on its website.)

Students must also prove their amateur status.

Once eligibility is established and a U.S. college or university offers a student athlete a scholarship, they sign a National Letter of Intent to attend and compete for one academic year.

The application process to an NCAA Division III institution is less formal. A student does not need to register officially through the NCAA. Instead, grade and credit regulations are set by each school. Students should contact the team’s coach for school-specific requirements. Again, NCAA III does not offer student sports scholarships.

The process for international student athletes interested in competing on an NAIA or NJCAA Division I or Division II are similar.

While Zilinskas had hoped to play basketball at a Division I school, that dream seemed impossible after he suffered an injury.

“No one takes a player that cannot run and sits on the bench the whole year,” Zilinskas said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m packing my stuff, I’m going home.’ But then Kenyon gave me good financial aid. And I’m still here.”

“I would say that international students, if they’re really into athletics or doing some sports they should definitely try to do something with sports. … School is not everything, so there is a lot of different paths to go,” he said. “You can find a lot of different groups of people and academic sides and sports sides, music whatever. Meeting new people — that’s really big.”

More information about competing through the NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA can be found on the associations’ websites.

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