There’s no denying Penn’s place as a global leader in being, well, global. Stroll down Locust Walk at high noon and you’ll see just about every culture represented. This is what makes Penn such an amazing place — it brings people together from all different regions of the world.
What many people do not realize, however, is how global Penn’s student-athletes are.
There are 35 international student-athletes at Penn representing 19 different countries, ranging from Hong Kong to Egypt to French Guiana.
The DP wanted to highlight some of the athletes that best exemplify the character international students provide to the university. Here are just a few of their stories:
Zsombor Garzo — Men’s fencing
Zsombor Garzo was always going to play sports, it was just a matter of which one he’d pick.
He was born in Budapest, Hungary, where his mother played professional basketball and was a member of the Hungarian National Basketball Team. It was evident from the start that sports were in Zsombor’s blood.
He was not always a fencer, however.
He first followed in his mother’s footsteps playing basketball in the small town where his mother’s pro team was located.
When he was 11, Garzo moved back to Budapest after his mom’s basketball career was over. With his mother working a nine-to-five job, Zsombor learned to be self-reliant at a young age — and it wasn’t always easy.
“I had to get myself to school on my own, had to get to basketball practice on my own, in the middle of the city,” he explained. “So I was taking trams [to get around]. It was very overwhelming.”
Following two separate accidents in which he broke his arm and was hit by a car crossing a street in Budapest, his mother urged him to change sports.
“She told me, ‘you’re going to play water polo instead,'” he laughed.
Water polo is a very big deal in Hungary — but it just wasn’t for Zsombor. “I didn’t like it much at all. I wasn’t a very good swimmer,” he quipped.
Trying to find another sport, he stumbled upon fencing.
“At the beginning, I did it as a hobby. You know, sports are good for you,” he noted. “But then, well, if I spent time and money on it already, I might as well do better, do more. And I did.”
He went on to attend high school at one of the best public schools in all of Hungary — a school he considers himself very lucky to have attended.
“I got really lucky because I got a very good English teacher at the school, so I picked a lot up there,” he explained, “I always wanted to come to the states for college. I would do English work for two to three hours a day. I got decent, but not good enough to get into a really good school [in the US].”
Since his English skills still needed to improve, he decided to take a gap year once he graduated high school. Around that time, he learned about the possibility of fencing in the Ivy League.
“When I found out you can come to the Ivy League and can get financial aid, and you can afford to go to a really good school, I started preparing for the SAT, ACT,” he said. “Since that year was not too useful, I decided to take another gap year (on top of the first) and then got accepted to Penn.”
Choosing to fence at Penn proved to be a wise decision. As a captain, Garzo has anchored the Red and Blue to two straight Ivy League Championships, two third-team All-American recognitions, and a second and first team All-Ivy selection.
While pursuing Olympic dreams has crossed his mind, Zsombor wants to focus on a career in environmental policy after college.
“It [the environment] is very important and interesting to me,” he said. “I’d like to work with companies to make them greener. Then as time flies by, work in environmental policy at an international level with the UN.”
Isabella Rahm — Women’s golf
Isabella Rahm speaks four languages — five, if you count the Italian she is learning on the side.
A senior captain on the women’s golf team, Isabella — or as her friends call her, “Isa” — has lived all over the world. She was born in Sweden to Swedish parents, lived in São Paolo, Brazil for three years, grew to 15 in Madrid, Spain, finished high school in New Delhi, India, and most recently has spent time in Dubai, where her parents currently live.
Living in so many places makes it difficult for her to claim a single “home.”
“I’ve never felt like I’ve identified with one culture,” she remarked. “You’re a product of all the experiences you’ve been through, and I don’t feel like I identify with any particular one.”
Like many other international students at Penn, Isa attended American international schools in both Madrid and New Delhi. With those experiences, she knew that she wanted to come to the US for college.
“It was always there,” she said. “I always wanted to attend an American school. Going back to Sweden was never an option. It felt too much like vacation with all of my family being there.”
Although her sights had been set on the US for quite some time, golf came about a little differently.
Rahm was first introduced to golf by her father while still living in Madrid. A golf fanatic himself, he tried, unsuccessfully, to get her into the game.
“When I started, I didn’t like it at all,” she laughed.
But once the family joined a country club, providing Isa the opportunity to compete in tournaments for the club’s team, golf grew on her immensely. She described the golf atmosphere in Spain as being “extremely fun to play in.”
When the family moved to India, however, golf became much more difficult. Fewer courses and less competition hurt Isa’s ability to improve her game. But it didn’t stop her desire.
“The whole idea of going to college and getting a golf scholarship was incentivizing,” she said.
Once she got to Penn, she made her mark. Over her career, she has amassed eight top-10’s to go with a victory at the 2014 Navy Invitational, where she shot 75-71-73. She was also named a Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) All-American Scholar for the 2015-2016 academic year.
While her career in golf is coming to a close, she’ll be home no matter where in the world she finds herself after college.
“Home isn’t a destination,” she said. “It’s the feeling you get in a place.”
Lina Qostal — Women’s tennis
Lina Qostal is a thinker.
A Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE) major, she put a lot of thought into her post-high school plans. Should she play tennis? Or should she go to school?
Her philosophical solution: Why not both?
A standout tennis player from Morocco, Lina represented the Moroccan national team from all ages, 12-18. Her highlights included a third-place finish at the African Junior Championship on 2013 and an appearance in the Junior World Cup in 2011.
With her early success, she eyed going pro. At that point, with a mother in academia and a father who was a sports coach, Lina’s days consisted of a similar routine.
“My typical day would be wake up, go to school, play tennis, eat, do my homework and go to sleep,” she explained.
Seeking a professional career with her daily routine, Lina was locked in. However, as she grew up, cultural pressures became more evident.
“We have a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on school and academics,” she said. “Kids can handle the school work and training for their sport up to a certain point. But then there is cultural pressure to focus on academics, because it is the ‘safe bet’ and they start putting in less time with their sport.”
Enter the United States. The US is one of the few countries around the world where you can play a sport for a school and study there at the same time.
As Qostal admitted, she didn’t know much about the US before coming to Penn.
“The first time I came to Penn was the first time I stepped foot in the US,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect — what I expected was what I saw in the movies.”
For Lina, Penn was a perfect fit, given her love and passion for tennis as well as her desire to attend a school that would challenge her academically.
“What is so great about the US compared to everywhere else is it allows you to do both at a relatively high level.”
The Moroccan international still wants to play professional tennis after college, and she believes she can succeed. If it doesn’t work out, she wants to go into the entertainment industry, although she isn't certain about what role she'd take.
However, one thing is certain: she’ll think of a solution.
Kuba Mijakowski — Men’s basketball
Jakub “Kuba” Mijakowski was born in Warsaw, Poland.
Like Zsombor Garzo, he comes from a family of athletes — both of his parents played professional basketball in Poland. Having his parents play basketball was not the driving force in him playing the game, but their influence was a factor.
“I didn’t necessarily play because they did, I played more because they showed it to me,” he said.
When Kuba was a sophomore in high school, he left Poland to attend high school in the US at the Mountain Mission School in Virginia, where his father’s old Polish basketball coach was coaching.
Yet coming to the US for college — let alone high school — was not something he thought he’d ever do.
“It never crossed mind to come to states for college,” he explained. “But after coming to states, it was my goal.”
Those early years did not come without their share of difficulty. Kuba missed his family, and found it difficult to speak English at first.
“Language was hard,” he stated. “I knew English, but it wasn’t something I did every day. I needed time to unlock what I knew.”
Whatever he faced, he knew it was worth it. He shared similar sentiments to those of Lina Qostal regarding his education.
“In Poland, I would have had to choose [between basketball and school],” he said. “It is hard to do both.”
Compared to Poland, what Kuba has found in the US is a culture that embraces the sport he loves.
“More people here are interested in sports,” he said. “It’s great to be somewhere where people are genuinely interested in what you’re doing. It makes me like basketball much more.”
With his reinvigorated love for the game, he hopes to step into a contributing role on a team whose goal remains the same:
“My goal, and the goal of all of my teammates, is to get to March Madness and win the Ivy League tournament.”
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None of these two stories are the same, and the same goes for the global mosaic that is Penn Athletics. Stories like these and many more are what give Penn Athletics its identity — and thankfully it’s not changing anytime soon.