By: Karuga Koinange, Editor-in-Chief
Illustration by Victoria Nicholson/ The Towerlight
Jocelyn Kuilan adjusted to her new high school after bouncing between schools three times. But Kuilan was about to change schools one more time.
She finally settled down at the Bayamon Military Academy, close to her hometown of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Kuilan was committed to pursuing a collegiate volleyball career outside of Puerto Rico since she was 15 years old, but her constant shuffling of schools put a strain on her ambitions.
“I did like it because you meet new people and play with new people, but I didn’t like it at the same time because I was lost,” Kuilan said.
Now, the senior right side hitter has found a home away from home at Towson University.
Kuilan’s love for her sport started at an early age, much like many of Towson’s student athletes. Her father, José, was a high school volleyball coach and pushed her on to the sport at just six years old.
She was given the option between pursuing ballet or volleyball, and her competitive nature helped her reach a decision.
“In ballet, you just dance for fun, but in volleyball you compete to get your position,” Kuilan said.
Growing up, she was friends with former Tigers Julymar Otero and Carola Biver, who graduated in 2018 and 2017 respectively. Kuilan and Otero were neighbors in Toa Baja and competed in volleyball matches throughout school many times.
In Kuilan’s junior year of high school, coaches from Towson noticed her at the annual Jeep Volleyball Championship tournament in Puerto Rico. Kuilan said they liked her power, so they gave Kuilan their contact information and set up a visit to Towson in her senior year.
Kuilan said she fell in love with SECU Arena during her visit and was excited to join the same team as Otero and Biver.
“Coming here and knowing that they’re both here, it makes me more comfortable to come because my language wasn’t the best thing in the whole world,” Kuilan said.
Despite the aid of her friends, Kuilan struggled with one of the most common issues that some international athletes face – learning English.
Kuilan said that her first semester at Towson was the “worst in the entire world.” She said she struggled in her English courses and had to record most of her classes because she couldn’t keep up with the pace of the language.
She switched her major from speech-language pathology to foreign languages the following semester in order to learn more about her native tongue.
Kuilan said she wants to be a translator or a teacher after her volleyball career ends, so that she can educate others and prevent them from enduring the same problems she faced as a foreigner.
She said Towson’s international athletes provide a unique perspective to Americans and to each other.
“You can learn different cultures and different people,” Kuilan said. “You learn more things and more people that are struggling through the same things that you are.”
Kuilan’s journey from a young, ethnic child who loved a sport to excelling in that sport is a commonality shared among many of Towson’s international athletes.
Yevgeniya Shusterman grew up playing tennis with her family in Simferopol, Ukraine. Towson’s coaches reached out to her in her senior year of high school, and she joined Towson’s tennis squad in spring of 2015.
Head Coach Jamie Peterson took the helm in fall of 2017. He said he strived to make sure the roster remains half American and half international since joining Towson.
Each year, he contacts prospective international athletes through email and Skype. He requests game tape for him to evaluate and coordinates visits for them, so they can familiarize themselves with Towson.
Now, the team has five international athletes all from different countries: Ukraine, South Africa, Cyprus, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
“I don’t limit myself to a specific place,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of good players outside of the United States. It brings a different flavor to the team and brings diversity. It’s a really good dynamic.”
Shusterman said having other international athletes on the team helped her connect with her teammates.
“We were going through the same experiences, and we were able to connect on the same levels at some point,” she said. “Sometimes, if you didn’t know something, we would be arguing between the Europeans and then ask Americans. Things such as taxes, driving tests, the ways Americans do school, you learned it from your roommates, your teammates. It’s nice not being the only one not knowing anything.”
Not all of Towson’s international athletes share that path from playing a sport basically since birth to being recruited to TU.
Kobdech Rodrat just wanted to stay in his home in Bangkok, Thailand and play League of Legends or Dota 2 in his down time, but his father, Supdech, had different plans.
Rodrat said his father thought he was gaming too much, so at nine years old he swapped his gaming controller for a golf club. But he did not like the change of pace from gaming to golf one bit.
Rodrat said golf was initially boring and he struggled to learn how to properly play, but his viewpoint shifted once he began competing in tournaments. His first trophy ever was from a first place finish at just 11 years old.
“I just like that feeling of winning so much that I just loved competing in golf,” Rodrat said. “I felt really accomplished and thought I could do well playing golf.”
At just 15 years old, Rodrat moved to Florida to attend the IMG Academy Golf Club. He said the shift from living in Bangkok with his family to staying in America alone was rattling.
“It was disastrous,” Rodrat said. “Me being alone and not with my parents, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t able to help myself. Even small stuff like doing laundry, I was learning so much from not having my parents around me.”
One of Rodrat’s coaches at the academy knew Brian Yaniger, Towson’s former head golf coach of 20 years. This led to Rodrat visiting Towson and joining the team in 2017.
He said it was difficult adjusting to a class schedule and living in a dorm, but his trust in his coaches helped him persevere.
“You gotta grind,” Rodrat said. “You gotta keep being persistent and do what coach says and think that it will help you improve. Just the belief of improving in the future just helps me drive through all the stuff I do.”
Rodrat’s unfamiliar path from gamer to golfer is a testament to the varying journeys of international athletes at Towson.
“If we can bring in somebody from another culture that gives us a different perspective and educational opportunity, we think that’s great, particularly if they can help us win some ball games,” said Athletic Director Tim Leonard.