Division 1 Draws International Scholar-Athletes to UC San Diego
San Diegans do not have to travel to the Olympics to see athletes from around the world compete in the sport they love. International scholar-athletes in their own backyard are scoring record three-pointers on the court and speeding past competitors on the track. International scholars are drawn to UC San Diego to receive an exceptional education—and now the opportunity to compete in Division 1 athletics, the most prestigious tier of intercollegiate competition.
UC San Diego began its transition to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 on July 1, 2020. The move is an opportunity for international scholar-athletes to play against a new caliber of highly competitive opponents and provides a platform for friends and family in their country of origin to watch their games and cheer them on in real time. Although no fans are allowed to attend games yet due to public health restrictions, numerous cameras spread across RIMAC Arena capture the action and broadcast live on ESPN3’s multi-screen sports network that can be accessed online.
Training across time zones
Nearly one in five UC San Diego students are international, and each bring diverse perspectives, knowledge and experiences that strengthen learning and research. Each of their journeys are unique, but they all share an excitement for the chance to compete at the highest level.
UC San Diego’s men’s basketball team has not one but two international scholar-athletes on the starting roster in their first year as a D1 team. Seniors Hugh Baxter and Gabe Hadley both hail from Australia and, in fact, knew each other from the Australian basketball circuit prior to coming to the United States. Though Baxter and Hadley both played for D1 schools prior to transferring to UC San Diego, competing in the Big West during a global pandemic has been a team-wide adjustment.
“Because of the increased quality of opponent, we have to spend much more time, two or three days in advance before a game, preparing for another team, getting comfortable with who they are, how they want to play, just so that we’re ready for the games,” Baxter explained.
For Hadley, the transition from D2 to D1 was compounded from the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. “Because we had to practice in masks for a certain amount of months and couldn’t really get many practice games [before the season started], it was tough to simulate a D1 level kind of game.” The team is starting to find their stride; though still early in the season, Triton men’s basketball already set a Big West record for the most three-point shots made in a single game.
Some training is happening remotely for international students like Marco Truqui whose sport has not yet begun competition. A long jumper on the Men’s Track and Field team, Truqui is studying remotely from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and training regularly in preparation for the upcoming season against other D1 teams. “I’m very excited about competing at a different level and being challenged more,” he explained. “We’ve competed against D1 schools previously, and now that they see us eye-to-eye it’s an opportunity to prove to ourselves, to the school and to the whole community that we’re actually meant to be there.”
For many international scholar-athletes, it was the chance to compete in D1 that drew them to the U.S. and UC San Diego. Hong Kong-native Sarah Shen, a sophomore in Marshall College and member of the Fencing team, took an interest in the sport when she watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As she advanced in the world of fencing in Hong Kong, she knew that pursuing competition at the collegiate level could be her pathway to pursuing a degree in the U.S.
“UC San Diego was one of the only UCs that has a collegiate fencing team, so I reached out to the coach during the recruitment process and it seemed that UC San Diego has a really nice support system.”
Because fencing is a relatively uncommon sport, particularly on the west coast, Shen predicts there might be some additional travelling during the season to play more competitive schools. Nevertheless, she anticipates that the move to D1 is going to have an overall positive impact on the attention paid to Triton Athletics. “I think it’s definitely going to draw more crowds into watching games live when that resumes, and I think more people are going to be involved in watching and keeping up with games.”
Though these scholar-athletes come from different parts of the world and play different sports, they take pride in representing their home country and region during competition. “I love that feeling of being from somewhere else and wanting to represent people far away,” explained Baxter. “I want to put on a good image for Australia.”
Truqui, too, is proud to represent Mexico because he credits his home country for giving him the many opportunities he currently enjoys. “I always represent UC San Diego, but I feel a part of myself represents Mexico because there’s some experience that made me be able to get into such a competitive team.”
For Shen, her uniform has both the Hong Kong flag and the letters “HKG” underneath her name, so there is no mistaking that she is playing for UC San Diego as well as Hong Kong. “There's a part of me that is also representing Hong Kong, how we fence there and the different styles,” she explained, adding with a laugh that when she competes, she thinks to herself, “Okay, I can't make my hometown look bad!”
Whether in the heat of competition, during practice or just hanging out, Baxter, Hadley, Shen and Truqui all expressed how fundamental the support of their teammates has been for them during their time at UC San Diego. The camaraderie from their teammates has been particularly important for these international scholar-athletes who are so far away from familiar faces, places and spaces. The special connections and friendships made at UC San Diego will last long after the game ends.