A journey: The story of Boise State international student athletes

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By: Daniel Gardner, Jeff Hokenson and Delaney Brassil 

Boise State in the 2017-2018 academic year has 39 international athletes competing on their teams. These are students who left the countries they were born in to continue their education and sport. While all college students experience many of the same things, international students have unique experiences and stories worth sharing.

The Journey to Boise State

While preparing to graduate from high school in her hometown, Georgia Zacest—Boise State student and redshirt sophomore in backstroke and sprint freestyle for the women’s swimming and diving team—asked herself if she wanted to continue to swim in college, after swimming competitively since she was 13. She decided the United States had the best opportunities to continue swimming while focusing on her education, even though she’d never visited the States before.

“In a span of two weeks I talked to coaches, picked the school, packed my bags and left,” Zacest said.

Zacest is a history and English double major from Auckland, New Zealand.

After making a decision to move to Idaho, Zacest said she had a fairly smooth transition to the Boise lifestyle thanks to her teammates.

“I moved half-way across the world and I don’t know how I would’ve done it without having the team,” Zacest said.

Yusuke Ushikoshi runs in a cross-country meet. Photo courtesy of Boise State.

Yusuke Uchikoshi is a junior communication major from Tokyo, Japan. He’s a member of Boise State’s Track and Cross Country Team. Since he was a teenager, Uchikoshi’s goals were clear: become a professional runner.

“In high school I was lazy and didn’t study. I focused on running, I’ve always enjoyed running,” Uchikoshi said.

In high school, Uchikoshi had the opportunity to run for Japan in the Junior World Championships in Barcelona, Spain. That’s when a recruiter from Oklahoma State talked to him, and Uchikoshi realized coming to America for athletics was an option.

After graduating from high school, Uchikoshi spent three semesters in Japan gathering credits and continuing to improve his English, which is something he didn’t start learning until he was a teenager.

Uchikoshi sent a videotape of some of his runs to a large amount of schools in the United States. After the first round of acceptance offers, he and his family narrowed down the choices and went to visit the remaining schools.

“When meeting with the Boise State coach, it seemed he thought a lot about me as a person, as an athlete and about my future,” Uchikoshi said.

On top of feeling comfortable with the coach, Uchikoshi said he liked the idea of being one of the only students around who could speak Japanese, as this would put him in situations where he was forced to speak English.

Boise State junior Marta Hermida, a basketball player from Madrid, Spain, is another international student athlete. Hermida is majoring in mechanical engineering with a biomedical minor. Hermida said her love of the game began at age ten and has influenced her so much that she can’t imagine her life without it.

Coming to America to play basketball was a huge decision for Hermida to make. Hermida said she turned to her family for support. They urged her to open her mind to the possibilities the States had to offer, and they were endlessly supportive of her decision-making process and the difficult transition.

“I’m pretty close with my family. I need their advice and it’s hard when you are not at home,” Hermida said. “My family always tells me basketball is really good for me, but the best thing for me is my academics.”

As soon as Hermida realized the opportunities she could have in America both athletically and academically, she was determined to work her hardest and attend college overseas. A local scout introduced her and her recruiting video to Boise State’s assistant coach, Cody Butler, who immediately offered her a spot as a guard for the Broncos.

Marta Hermida makes her way to the rim in a women’s basketball game. Photo courtesy of Boise State.

“I committed in a day,” Hermida said. “Saturday I got that message, and by Sunday I was committing with Boise State.”


Junior Jack Heslin, who plays for the Boise State Men’s Tennis team, moved around the world multiple times before ending up in Boise to study business and human relations.

Originating from London, Heslin moved to Auckland, New Zealand, at the age of 12, where he played tennis throughout high school. Heslin’s goal was to play tennis to get into college, and he knew exactly where he wanted to go.

“America is the best place for college tennis,” Heslin said.

Heslin spent his first year studying abroad at the University of Tennessee but transferred to Boise State after a year, due to bad experiences with the tennis coach. Heslin has found success at Boise State and received All-Mountain West honors in doubles last season, with his teammate Kyle Butters.

“In New Zealand, it was difficult to play because you know everyone. I prefer playing in America because every person is different and you don’t know how they play,” Heslin said.

Minntu Hukka is a senior kinesiology major from Kotka, Finland. She’s also a member of Boise State’s Track and Cross Country Team. Hukka has been running since she was nine years old, and while preparing to graduate from high school in Finland, she knew she wanted to come to America to improve her running.

“Finland doesn’t have collegiate sports programs; they have clubs that are not teams,” Hukka said.

After being a competitor for Finland in the World Junior Championships, Hukka wanted to continue to improve in a sport she’s always done. Hukka knew she wanted to be at a college in the U.S.

“In Finland, you run for yourself. Here, you do what’s best for the team,” Hukka said.

Hukka discussed how, although everyone wants team success, the team itself has a little friendly competition. Only about a third of the team’s runners get to travel and compete at the meets, so runners are constantly working to improve and try to gain one of those spots. Hukka believes this makes everyone better.

Culture and Experience

When asked about culture and her accent, Zacest discussed some of her experiences.

“One class, the professor made me read everything the entire semester,” Zacest said. “Some people mock the way I speak, but I could be mocking the way they speak too.”

Zacest felt it was strange she could be treated differently than fellow students because of her accent.

After moving to America, Heslin encountered a similar culture shock to Zacest.

“School is a lot more competitive and students are more serious here,” Heslin said. “New Zealand was a lot more relaxed.”

Heslin refrains from speaking in class in order to avoid bringing attention to his accent. “I don’t talk in class, when I do, someone will turn around because they don’t know where the accent is from,” Heslin said.

Hukka is another international athlete whose first language is not English. When she arrived in Texas her freshman year, she was nervous about her accent and would think a lot before she said anything. Eventually she said she came to understand that a person doesn’t have to be perfect.

“I can laugh at myself sometimes and not care what people think. Also I’m impressed by myself sometimes,” Hukka said.

Hukka thinks people should have more respect for students where English is their second language.

Uchikoshi is well aware that his English isn’t perfect, but all of his teammates say that they see improvement. One of the few times it really affects him is in group projects.

“I try to understand what to do for an assignment in group work, but it’s fast and I can get confused, that can make me feel alone and bad for my other group members,” Uchikoshi said.

“When you come here, you are Boise State and you are a part of the team,” Hermida said. “I learned that the first day of workouts when my teammates were cheering me on when they could have been resting.”


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