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  • Izzie Bird

Taking A Leap... From Across the Pond

Finding UVA

Looking back it seems almost unfathomable that as a seventeen year old girl I didn’t think about going to college. Let alone moving 3,740 miles away from home for four years.

In 2017 my older sister Abbie started looking at US schools and landed at UVA on the rowing team. I followed Abbie into the sport of rowing when I was 12 and it’s all I've ever done since.

For the last 11 years, my life as well as my parents has revolved around rowing. I knew I wanted to carry on rowing after I finished high school, but I also wanted to stay in my comfort zone with being fed, watered and clothed at home in England. However, I was struggling with my school work and relationships, and as my mum likes to put it ‘having a few bumps’ as most hormonal teenagers go through. That year I lost interest in school and dived heavily into rowing.

I had no idea of what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to continue rowing.

As I continued to gain love for rowing, I gained speed, power, fitness and confidence in my own abilities and potential. I began receiving emails, facebook messages and calls from Universities across America. I remember the day my first message popped up on Facebook and I giggled a little to myself. I didn't really understand the recruitment process, so I continued to be oblivious and ignore communicating with potential schools. A part of me was also reluctant to engage with schools and coaches because moving to America still wasn’t in the cards for me. I’ve always been a home-body and loved being physically close to my family and home - a concept which now I reflect upon and give thanks to my parents for raising me in such a loving home environment.

As the weeks continued, I kept receiving emails to set up a time to talk with various Universities. I was extremely hesitant to do so because of the fear that the conversations about moving so far away from home could soon become a reality. But my parents encouragement and Abbie's stories about her time in America convinced me to give it a go. By the end of September 2018, I had three official visits booked and I began to think that moving to America could become a reality. Gradually my fears about moving away started turning into excitement.

My first stop and first ever time to America was to UVA. Little to my sister’s knowledge, my mum and I surprised her during a morning ergo practice. I always insisted that if (and that was a big “if”) I was going to study in America I would not attend the same school as my sister. But... turns out UVA is a hard school to say no to.

After my visits, sitting in airport, my mum looked at me and said “you know which school don’t you?” I smiled and nodded back to her. There was just something magical about UVA. I fell in love with the team and how they resembled a giant family.

What I was most concerned about leaving at home I could find, just in teammates rather than blood relatives.

And although now being a fourth year, I know there are so many other amazing parts of UVA and the Charlottesville community, but my love for the school and team still centers around the foundation of my original tipping point: family.

Arriving at UVA

As I approached my flight date, I started to panic more. Was I really moving to America? Was I really going to leave my family and friends? The reality of it was yes, of course I was. The ticket was booked and this new chapter of life was waiting for me. I just constantly found myself on a roller coaster of emotions about the big move. Everyone was always talking about how exciting and amazing the opportunity was, something that I was fully aware of: I was and always will be grateful for this opportunity of being on the UVA rowing team. However, I was aware of how painful the goodbyes were going to be, something that nothing can really prepare you for other than to keep looking forward. The night before I flew, I sobbed for hours to my mum (which to this day I do everytime I leave home to come back to school). It wasn’t like I could pop home for the weekend if I got homesick or my mum and dad could even drop me off at college, the harsh reality of going to school internationally.

Due to the pandemic, my mum and dad were unable to fly out with me and drop me off so Abbie was in charge, being my ‘mother’ and helping me get sorted upon arrival. The concept of moving across the world by yourself at eighteen is something that the majority of international students face. Unfortunately, this was during COVID and Abbie and I were separated as we had to quarantine individually. This made doing mundane yet adult-things like setting up a bank account and my phone rather challenging.

It was exciting and horrible at the same time. I spent my first week of college by myself in an empty apartment crying on the phone to my mum. This was not the exciting fun filled environment I had signed up for, the curtain of covid doomed over my first week ever living away from home in America. As with any hard situation, when you're in it, it's difficult to look forward. I was lucky enough to get on with my roommate, Lauren, the first day we met. She is everything you’d ever want or need as an international student moving to America for the first time. In addition to her awesome personality, her mum and dad were so welcoming they reminded me of my own parents. After meeting them, I felt like I was going to be looked after just fine.

Living & studying & rowing at UVA

I would be lying if I said I don't miss home and my family, I do all of the time. However with twenty-hour weeks of practice, combined with classes and studying, the days pass fairly quickly and by mid-semester you find yourself in such a routine that the struggles of being an international student athlete fade slightly. I have days when I forget that I’m so far from home, I’m engulfed in American culture and the student athlete life. However, there are equally the same amount of days where I miss everything about being in England.

Everytime I leave for the airport to fly back to Charlottesville, I panic about all of the what-ifs.

What if something terrible happens at home mid semester and I need to get home immediately? Could I afford, both financially and in regards to rowing and my education, to fly home? Thankfully, the answer is always yes. As this worry creeps in each time I go back to school, my mum always says to me at the airport “no matter what, if you're unhappy, you can come home anytime.” As I progress through school, I’m continuing to realize that my mum means what she says, and I always can go home. I know she’s right and I am grateful for this, but there will always be the lingering thought of the financial burden it could have on my family. Yes, money will come back and I’m sure we could afford a flight, but I wouldn’t want to have the added stress of money put onto my family as well as me returning home as an unscheduled arrival.

When I’ve struggled in the past (and I’m sure there will be more struggles ahead), I always phone my mum, as I'm sure a lot of people do. We talk through the route of the anxiety or upset and a solution on how to fix it. Most of the time the issue resolves itself within a few days and I go back to being submerged in the student-athlete life, but when the issue persists I turn to those who caught me when I first arrived here. Most of my teammates are lucky enough to have parents within driving distance from Charlottesville. Laurens family lives a mere two hours away, and I am thankful to my surrogate, American family for letting me turn to them whenever I am in need, which I have done so numerous times.

As one of the larger sports of sixty plus athletes, it can be hard for rowing teams to gel and support one another in different ways. But that is something I love so much about UVA rowing: everyone supports everyone, no matter how different our interests are outside of rowing.

I can guarantee that if I needed help, serious help, I could call anyone on my team and they would be there, no questions asked.

We have used eachother as a resource for mental support and we will continue to use each other as it's such a large part of the sport of rowing. Unlike some sports, you cannot win unless you and every person in that boat are in complete unison, physically and mentally.

Being an international student has so many benefits and opportunities, yet there are aspects that can be so challenging. Some international students struggle with adjusting to the culture or climate, some struggle with the language or work load from school. Many find it hard to juggle the time difference and keeping in contact with friends and family at home.

There will always be struggles for athletes, and not many people see the true commitment and the extra struggles that come with being an international student athlete. One of our coaches has recently reminded me along with other teammates that it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to say “i’m having a bad day or week or month, but that bad time doesn't define who you are as a person or an athlete”. A bad week on the rowing machine or water, or a bad week of feeling low and helpless doesn't undo my last ten years of rowing and the achievements I've made through the sport or growth I’ve made as a person.


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