At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln there are more than 40 athletes who come from foreign countries to compete as a Husker.
One of the few teams that has a majority of its players from foreign countries is the women’s tennis team, which is led by coach Scott Jacobson. He said diversity on a roster means strength.
“I think the one thing I hear, especially from kids from the United States, is that they want to learn about other cultures,” Jacobson said. “It’s interesting to see kids from other perspectives. I think it’s enlightening.”
Six of the nine players on the women’s tennis team are from foreign countries, and this creates frequent barriers for the team to deal with when incoming freshmen start with the program.
For Jacobson, there are many ways to scout prospects for his team. Most of the time, he uses different websites that have individual rankings and goes from there. He also takes into account references from players when selecting prospects.
In the new age of recruiting, Jacobson said it’s easy to reach a prospective player from another country.
“There’s a bunch of different ways to get a hold of people,” Jacobson said. “That’s how it is in our society today. Tennis is pretty much an international sport now, so it’s a lot easier.”
With times changing, the coach has taken different routes in pursuing younger players.
“Sometimes kids just don’t react when they’re a junior in high school,” Jacobson said. “You try to write them or try Facebook. A lot of it’s trying to get that first interaction with them when they’re an international player.”
Senior Maike Zeppernick from Hamburg, Germany, was one of the foreign players pursued early for the Huskers. She was first contacted by Jacobson and then visited by former assistant coach Hayden Perez.
Following the visit from Perez, she committed to the program and made the long flight to Lincoln to play for Jacobson.
“It was kind of hard at the beginning,” Zeppernick said. “I was pretty homesick my first semester. It was just totally new. I’ve never been so far away from home. I was so overwhelmed with the food, with the language, different people, too, because I didn’t know anybody.”
Her separation anxiety wore off, and easing the process were her teammates, who she said is the main reason she’s still competing in the U.S.
“It was definitely my teammates that made it easier,” Zeppernick said. “There was an option for me to be here for only one year. But with the teammates I really found a second family. And it was really the reason why I wanted to stay here.”
In most cases for the tennis team, Jacobson hasn’t seen any sort of major culture shock for the players. He said the support system is strong at Nebraska, making it easy for international players to adjust.
“I think for the kids on the team, it’s an easy transition,” Jacobson said. “Obviously, the first four to six weeks are a bit challenging because they’re in a different country, and they’re trying to check out school, the whole nine yards.
“I think there’s a lot of support here. From the Hewitt Center and the academic area, the other key members that have already been through the system here for a year or two. They’re always supporting the incoming freshmen. It makes things a lot easier.”
Zeppernick didn’t come to Nebraska to just play tennis though; she also came because she craved the balance between sports and academics.
“I wanted the opportunity to combine tennis with studies,” Zeppernick said. “You don’t have that in Germany. The schools offer sports, too, at a high level. But you either have to go pro or go to school. Here in the U.S., you have the option to do both.”
Something that stuck out to Zeppernick when she was getting acclimated to the U.S. was the manners that people had.
“I think, especially in Nebraska, I feel like people are really friendly on the streets,” she said. “I come from a big city in Hamburg, and there’s a big rush. The trains are full, and everyone’s annoyed. And here, people open the door for you and say hello and thank you with a smile. That’s what I like about here. Everybody’s nice to you.”
While there are many players on the team from foreign countries, Jacobson hasn’t witnessed any friction between players from different countries. He makes sure to get players that enjoy helping those in need.
“It has more to do with the person than it does where they’re from,” Jacobson said. “We take great pride in recruiting because we get players that are selfless in nature. They’re glad to reach out to someone who’s experiencing things for the first time.”
Zeppernick is finishing her final season with the team, and once she’s done, she’ll continue playing with a program in the Netherlands, which is about three hours away from Hamburg.
She said the experiences she has with people from other countries help shape her into a well-rounded person. Her teammates are always invited to go anywhere she goes.
“I think it’s exciting for everybody to also get to know someone’s nationality,” Zeppernick said. “You also learn how to get along with people from other countries because there are some differences, and I think later in the workforce it will benefit you.
“Later if I want to travel in the world, I can always say I can visit some friends in America, and my teammates are always welcome to visit me in Germany, which is really cool.”