Before the COVID-19 pandemic Kristian Jensen, a senior graduate student on Temple’s Men’s cross country team, went home to Esbjerg, Denmark, every year during Christmas break.
Once maybe twice a year visits home. That’s the life for international student-athletes, who are used to isolation and tunnel vision. They keep themselves busy with training, competition, and athletics to mask the grief of separation from their families.
In 2017 Temple University athletics started TU Well run by Dr. Stephany Coakley and Mental health counselor Edward Darrah and their interns.
“We specialize in providing mental health, wellness, and sport performance services to our student-athlete population, Darrah said.” “I would say about 80 percent of our services are mental health, and then the 10 percent is performance and wellness.”
For Jensen, running provides his mental stability.
“Every morning, we’d go out to Valley Green or Valley Forge and go run,” Jensen said. “We get out of the city and into the forest for physical activity, and I think it is good for your mental health.”
With travel restrictions because of coronavirus and Temple pushing the university schedule back a week to exclude spring break, Jensen admits that even though he is thankful for the ability to call and text his family and friends, that physical presence is missing. It is not the same as sitting down for a nice slice of his mom’s lasagna, her specialty, Jensen said.
“I’m very impressed with how much you can stay in contact, just using social media and phone calls,” Jensen said. “I think it would have been tough 20 years ago, for sure.”
Darrah says that reliance on telecommunications has made it easier for the student-athletes his team works with who often feel alienated.
“I do think, with the adoption of telecommunication, or FaceTime and all that has helped with the kind of adjustments for athletes, to be able to see family, face to face, virtually.”
Jensen is getting a graduate degree this spring.
Although the milestone is a significant accomplishment, he wants no parts of a ceremony if it can’t be an actual commencement exercise with packed capacity crowds and all the pre-pandemic bells and whistles.
“I’m not going to go either,” Jensen said. “I don’t think that seems like any event that should be held now and without guests doesn’t seem appealing.”
Helene Gottlieb is a teammate of Jensen’s on the Women’s cross country team. Also, from Denmark, the two student-athletes have leaned on each other from time to time when they are homesick.
With graduation next week, Gottlieb had plans of her family making it to America for the ceremony, but they can’t travel because of COVID travel bans.
Darrah has spoken to several student-athletes seeking support because of graduation.
“I had a lot of those conversations about frustrations and disappointments with not being able to have that kind of closure,” Darrah said.
Gottlieb said the isolation has been more challenging than she thought because she’s used to just seeing her family for two months in the summer and three weeks in December for the holidays.
“It is not like I have seen my family all the time before COVID, but it’s honestly very hard, Gottlieb said. “To not know what is going and not being able to see them. I want to have a hug from my mom and dad.”
Gottlieb admitted that she is more focused because of the city’s pandemic restrictions. That test she has to study for in the library or that paper she needs to finish gets done quickly because she is not going to a restaurant with her friends the way she would in years past.
She hopes next year is more typical for her. With the extra year of eligibility for all NCAA Division I athletes, she will return to Temple and study as a graduate student while competing in cross country.
Junior field hockey player Nienke Oerlemans is a native of Apeldoorn, Netherlands. Thursday, she and her teammates, including graduate student Veronika Novakova of Prague, Czech Republic, played Connecticut in the Big East tournament.
“My parents have always said once we make it to the Big East tournament, they would fly out and watch,” Oerlemans said.”
COVID-19 had other plans.
Novakova has only played one season at Temple, and the emptiness of celebrating Senior Day on the team’s last home game without any family in attendance was tough. Her family will also miss out on her graduate school graduation ceremony.
“They were supposed to come here to celebrate these big moments in my life,” Novakova said. “I don’t want to say I was crying in the beginning, but I was sad. You want to share these big moments with your family, but I understand the COVID situation in Europe is bad.”
Because Temple’s volleyball, soccer, tennis, cross country, rowing, and field hockey teams boast a significant international presence, athletes like Oerlemans, Novakova, Gottlieb, and Jensen have become friends.
“What helps me is we have a big group of international friends here,” Oerlemans said.
Oerlemans and Novakova both agreed. However, their American teammates are struggling away from their families, so they can’t complain too much.
“Being very cognizant of the cultural challenges or components to that person’s homesickness, as it relates to them being an international student is, I think is paramount,” Darrah said. “With that said, I don’t want to minimize a student-athlete that is from another part of this country is having a hard time because there’s cultural components to that as well.”
Novakova said this season had taught her newfound independence and how to deal with things on her own.