Attending college in a foreign country can be a tough transition. On top of adjusting to the culture and language of a new country, student-athletes have to balance an intense academic and athletic schedule. This is just a part of everyday life for 13 members of Penn men’s heavyweight and lightweight rowing.
Of the heavyweight and lightweight rowing squad, 15% of them are international. This figure is higher than the overall percentage of international undergraduate students at Penn. These rowers hail from Australia, Croatia, England, Slovenia, Ontario, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Serbia.
Heavyweight sophomore Matija Turcic had no problem making the athletic transition to Penn. He has been rowing since 2011 and went to the World Championships with the Croatian National Team in high school. However, the shift from his home in Zagreb, Croatia to Philly was a large one. Disembarking his plane as a Penn freshman was not only Turcic’s first time in America, but also the first time he had ever been to another continent.
“When I was a little kid, it was kind of a dream to go to the US for college,” Turcic said. “You see it in movies, and you see it in shows and other media. Boarding the plane at home in Zagreb, I kind of expected credits to roll.”
However, when he arrived at Penn, the shock of being in a completely new environment set in.
“I had a friend pick me up, so I wasn't completely alone,” Turcic said. “But once he left, I was just like, okay, I am alone now, and I don't know anyone here. The biggest adjustment coming onto Penn's campus was being away from home and from the family.”
Lightweight junior Jorke Kooijenga has been rowing since he was 11 years old and rowed for the Dutch Junior National Team. He felt that an American college education was a better fit for him than the Netherlands' more restrictive curriculum. He travelled across the Atlantic for his official recruitment visit and immediately decided that Penn was the place for him.
“It just felt like home straightaway,” Kooijenga said. “This was the place I belonged, so I immediately settled on Penn because the team made me really feel welcome. It really felt like this team has something to offer and that it was going on the right track to become better.”
While Kooijenga said that he never experienced a huge culture shock, constantly having to speak a non-native language was very tiring. He also noticed differences in Penn’s athletic environment from his team's back home.
“I was used to a very personalized way of coaching and smaller teams,” Kooijenga said. “It all works a bit differently. So it's great to come over here and be in a squad of almost 40 guys and develop in that way.”
Lightweight senior Thomas Hogeboom, also hailing from the Netherlands, echoes the sentiment that coming to Penn was an athletic shift. However, he felt that it made him physically stronger.
“In the Netherlands, all we do is lower intensity,” Hogeboom said. “Just an insane number of hours and miles. Whereas in the US, it's a lot higher intensity. So, it's quite hard. A lot shorter, but at the same time, the intensity is a lot higher, which makes it more challenging.”
Hogeboom said that adjusting to subtle cultural elements of American life also took some time.
“The way people interact with each other is very different,” Hogeboom said. “In the Netherlands, a lot of people are not extremely outgoing. There’s this saying, normal is good enough. Here it's very different. People are very outgoing, always. And they want to be different, and they want to make that known.”
For Kooijenga, meeting other people from his home country both on and off the rowing team helped ease his transition. He and Hogeboom have been rowing together since childhood.
“My second rowing practice ever in my life was with him,” Kooijenga said. “So it's been a great journey. Thomas has been a great guide in showing me, especially my freshman year, what to do and what not to do. There are a lot of other Dutch people that I've met over here as well.”
Even though Turcic didn’t personally know anybody on Penn’s campus, having a community of people on the rowing team who he could rely on from day one was helpful.
“The camaraderie on the team is something I don't think you get elsewhere,” Turcic said. “My favorite part of being on the rowing team is just getting out there every day and sending it with the boys. You wake up at 6 a.m. and then you show up to the boathouse, put that boat in the water, look at the beautiful Philly skyline, and you're just in the zone.”
All three athletes said that the difficulty of rowing, from the tough practices to the early mornings and cold weather, brings the whole team together.
“Rowing is not a pretty sport because it hurts to get better,” Hogeboom said. “You have to go through painful stimuli to improve your fitness or strength. That creates a lot of gas [lactic acid] in your body. So, you're doing this together with all those guys. One goal for one moment that you can race. That creates a very long lasting, different kind of bond.”
While it has been a tumultuous year for all student-athletes, the struggles that international students experienced are unique. In addition to losing their sports seasons, they faced the uncertainty that comes with being thousands of miles away from home during a pandemic.
Kooijenga vividly remembers the day that Penn decided to close campus due to Covid. His day started with a difficult workout and that energy shifted in a completely different direction once he received the announcement that Penn would be fully remote.
“At that point it all got into a survival instinct,” Kooijenga said. “Do your work, pack up over here, book a ticket to the Netherlands, and then fly home. And that was it. I never really thought about it for a second. There was never really a moment where I could stand still and be like, what does this actually mean?”
Amid the shock of being abruptly sent home, Turcic also experienced the additional struggle of not being able to find a plane ticket. He was on hold for over two hours before he was able to book one home.
However, despite being on different continents, the rowers made an effort to stay connected as a team, whether that be living with teammates in Philly or working out together as a squad on zoom. Turcic even traveled to Paris with another member of the rowing team.
However, Kooijenga said that the dynamic has livened since the team has had the opportunity to all be together again. He said that he is inspired by the work ethic and talent of his fellow international student-athletes.
“Now we're finally back together as a squad,” Kooijenga said. “We do have a very strong team. We've become much more disciplined as well. We're just getting better and better.”
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