This year, there are eight student-athletes from seven countries playing for UNC Asheville. To learn more about their experience, we checked in with two students.
The routine is tough enough for your average student-athlete, who has to juggle the rigors of training and playing with academic work. And for UNC Asheville’s foreign athletes, it’s a whole different ball game: Not only do they have to tackle the usual challenges, they have to do it in a new county.
Big shoes to fill: Giacomo Zilli
When Giacomo Zilli was growing up in Italy, soccer was all the rage among most of his friends. But the sophomore, who today stands 6'9" tall and wears size-15 shoes, had trouble getting into the game, in part because it was hard to find cleats to fit his feet. Instead, he turned his interest and abilities to basketball, a decision that ultimately brought him to play center and power forward for the Bulldogs.
Zilli left Italy and came to Durham for his senior year in high school, with the hopes of getting into a college basketball program in the United States. “The style of play here is more athletic, more competitive,” he says. Former Bulldogs Assistant Coach Kevin Easley saw Zilli play in a tournament and recruited the Italian to play and study here.
Since Zilli had already learned English before coming to Asheville, the biggest challenge he’s faced, he says, is time management. But a regimented schedule comes naturally to athletes. “You don’t waste time—that’s the good part about it,” Zilli says. At present, he plans to pursue a double major in economics and management.
UNC Asheville fits Zilli like a size-15 pair of high-tops. “I like the fact that it’s a relatively small community, so you get to know a lot of people,” he says. “And it has something of a family environment, especially with the team. The team is really close, and the coaches too—they really get you involved, and you get the sense that you belong.”
Beating the heat: Ericka Rivero
Sophomore Ericka Rivero, a budding tennis champ from Bolivia, knew she wanted to study in the United States, and that she needed some climatic relief. “It’s really hot where I come from, like a tropical rainforest,” she says. “We basically don’t have a winter or fall—it’s either hot or really, really hot.”
Searching on the Internet, she was happy to find that there was a university in the North Carolina mountains that enjoyed some cool climes and boasted a top-notch tennis program. What she found when she got here only increased her contentment. “I love Asheville; the mountains and the city are really pretty,” she says, adding that she’d grown up assuming all American cities are as big and chaotic as New York, Houston and Miami, and that she digs Asheville’s small-town vibe.
The university also has helped Rivero get back to her roots, academically. Growing up, she’d studied and enjoyed piano, but she dropped that when she got serious about tennis. She came to UNC Asheville with the idea of studying biochemistry. “Once I got here, I realized the music program was really good,” she says, and she’s now majoring in music technology.
“I feel like I wouldn’t have figured that out and switched to music if I was in another place,” she says.
Meanwhile, Rivero’s experience here has maintained her enthusiasm for tennis. “I love my team especially,” she says. “Since the first day, we were really close. There are just eight of us, so you get to know everyone really well.”
A world class alum: Zoe’ Hamel
Zoe’ Hamel, a class of 2014 graduate who completed a double major in math and economics, proved that foreign students can excel in both sports and scholarship. A native of France, she led the women’s tennis team to some major victories and was a two-time recipient of the Economics Department’s Outstanding Student Award. She also earned the Manly E. Wright Award, UNC Asheville’s recognition of the student first in scholarship. Hamel’s record garnered her a fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she’s presently pursuing a master’s degree in pure math.
Being accomplished at both tennis and academics — while learning English, to boot — came with some trade-offs. “You need to be organized and sacrifice lots of your social life,” she says. “At the same time, for me, going to practice was my social life, and I have no regrets about that.”
Coaching international style: Lise Gregory
Lise Gregory, coach of the women’s tennis program, has a personal appreciation for the unique situation of international athletes.
“I’m from South Africa, and I’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, coming over and adjusting to life in college athletics over here,” she says. “I’ve had a fair number of foreign student athletes play for me over the years, and I think one of the things that is helpful is knowing what they’re going through, being so far from home.”
Foreign students bring a lot to the game, Gregory has found. “A lot of times they have a little different style of play, whether it’s Ericka, who grew up on clay courts, or Zoe’, who grew up in France, where they tend to be extremely creative in the way they teach tennis,” she says.
“It means you can see different styles and meet people from different cultures and different ways of thinking. It’s a great learning experience for everybody, for both the American students and the foreign students.”