Within a specific sport, it’s crucial for a team to be harmonious in order to succeed. Sometimes, team-building includes bringing together athletes from all over the world.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln track and field team, for example, includes 21 international athletes from 14 different countries. The team’s coaches, athletes and other resources play vital roles in bringing individuals from all over the globe together and making Nebraska feel like home for each one of them.
Each athlete has a different story regarding how they ended up choosing Nebraska. After freshman sprinter/hurdler Winsome Harris was offered a scholarship, she traveled from Jamaica to visit UNL. Harris was sold on the nice facilities, friendly people and the Lincoln atmosphere.
“It’s not a loud place,” Harris said. “It’s not too quiet, which is just like the right amount of fun. That’s the kind of person I am, so that really attracted me.”
A fellow sprinter from Jamaica, sophomore Jordane Jackson always knew he wanted to come to the United States for college because he said once he graduated, there would be more opportunities to get a job in the U.S. than in Jamaica.
Assistant coach Matt Martin recruited Jackson and continued to give him information about the “city, school, advanced technology within the school and the major support that Nebraska has for [its] athletic teams.”
Moving to a new country and starting over in a new place may be daunting to some people. However, when the date of moving to Nebraska drew closer, Harris and Jackson said they were nothing but eager for new experiences in the U.S.
“I knew what my goals were. I did not want to be stuck in the same place, which is Jamaica, with less opportunities,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t really a nerve-wracking thing for me. I just saw it as a new beginning and a new opportunity.”
Harris said she was also ready for a change of scenery and was excited to move in and get acclimated to her new life in Lincoln.
“It still didn’t feel real when I first got here. For the first month or so, I felt like I was on vacation,” she said.
To help the transition to a new country, there are a variety of resources available for international students on campus. DaWon Baker, the diversity and inclusion director for Nebraska Athletics, is one person dedicated to helping athletes understand each other and their different backgrounds.
“You have students who are coming from across the globe and [you] have some that are coming from Western Nebraska, so there's a very unique experience that everybody has a chance to interact with,” Baker said.
A large part of Baker’s job involves putting on events and programs to showcase the different aspects of diversity present at Nebraska. He also educates people by holding staff and team trainings. Baker’s ultimate mission is to make sure diversity and inclusion within athletics is a conversation brought to the table.
One of the events Baker recently helped put on was the fifth annual Summit for Diversity and Inclusion. The first summit meeting was created by Baker’s predecessor, Lawrence Chatters.
“[Nebraska] wanted to show a greater commitment [to diversity] and show that this is going to be a consistent conversation that we have on an annual basis, but eventually evolved to almost an everyday basis,” Baker said.
Through the five years of the summit, more programming and opportunities for the staff have been introduced. Coaches and student athletes get the opportunity to talk about, celebrate and learn about diversity and inclusion.
Jackson saw the summit as a chance to not only gain a better understanding of himself, but of others as well. His biggest takeaway was that in terms of appreciating others’ differences, if someone’s happy, it’s important to just appreciate that they are happy and move on.
Another important part of Baker’s job is building connections with the athletes. He said he tries to interact with all athletes, but especially with international athletes.
“Some student athletes coming from different backgrounds just need additional resources. I’m one of those additional resources that they can tap into to make sure they have the best experience,” he said.
The coaches have one of the most important roles when it comes to welcoming international athletes. When an international athlete comes to Nebraska, a coach has been in contact with them for a while so it’s the coach’s job to make sure the athlete knows what to expect and is prepared, according to Baker.
Jackson and Harris both spoke about how their coach invited them over for dinner during their visits and that personal touch is part of the reason they felt welcomed at Nebraska.
There are many transitions Baker helps athletes through, but one of the biggest is how Midwesterners interact with each other.
“We hear this term, ‘Nebraska Nice,’ or how friendly people are here when they talk to you,” Baker said. “Those little nuances that people don't talk about is probably the hardest transition because our international student athletes either don't see it at home, or they don't know how to navigate that when they get here.”
Another change Baker noticed is that the U.S. has a very heightened awareness of race and not every country is like that. He said in some countries, race isn’t the biggest division; sometimes it’s class, gender or religion.
“Coming here and seeing the different dynamics of how race comes into play, sometimes it’s very different from where they come from and causes a lot of questioning about why this is the way it is,” Baker said.
Adjusting to the level of competition in the U.S. can also be a big adjustment for athletes. According to sophomore sprinter Matthew Brown, who is also from Jamaica, he has to compete more often here than he did there, which he said can be exhausting.
But despite the change in competition, Harris said the coaches don’t have any biases or favoritism, and she appreciates the equal treatment.
According to Jackson, their teammates generally react with curiosity and kindness when learning about the international student athletes.
“I feel like they are extremely welcoming to everybody because, on the track team, there’s people from all over,” Jackson said. “They do their part in ensuring that everybody is okay.”
This article is part of a series on diversity. For the complete list, read the introduction.