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Big Red Worldwide

Samuel Paquette 

Image: Darl Zehr, Cornell Athletics

According to Cornell’s Office of Global Learning, almost a quarter of our student body hails from a country other than the United States. Big Red athletic rosters present no exception, featuring student-athletes from all corners of the world, including every continent except Antarctica. Every athlete’s journey to Ithaca has been unique, and it just so happens that international athletes have embarked on some of the most diverse pathways to reaching campus. 

Many athletes are attracted to Cornell in particular due to its unique blend of academic and athletic rigor, a quality that extends the university’s appeal far outside of the U.S. and encourages student-athletes worldwide to bring their talents to Ithaca. Cornell’s student-athletes are challenged to perform at the highest level in their respective competitions against high-caliber opponents while balancing exceptional academic rigor in the classroom. One doesn’t need to be sacrificed for the other.

“I came to Cornell because of sports and academics,” said Men’s Swim member Pietro Ubertalli ‘26, who hails from Milan, Italy. “[Universities in] the U.S. are pretty big for their sports, and compared to Europe it’s a very different world, which I wanted to try out.”

The opportunity to both compete and pursue a degree in the U.S. is a key attraction for athletes from abroad, who look equally to engage with the academic, athletic, and social culture.  Some lived in the country for a brief time as children, while others were exposed to American culture and athletics through digital media outlets.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I always heard my dad talking about all the schools he played against, and Cornell always caught my mind,” explained Ecuadorian polo player Benito Jaramillo Samper ‘26. Jaramillo’s father played polo for Texas A&M University when he was in college and frequently competed against the Big Red. The strength of Cornell’s polo program described by his father, combined with Samper’s interest in studying agricultural sciences, cemented his decision to attend Cornell.

Others cite the unique team atmosphere that college sports teams are known for in the U.S. as a crucial factor in encouraging them to attend an American university. Abroad, particularly in individual sports, the team atmosphere at the elite youth level was primarily focused on individual successes. However, U.S. collegiate competitions place significant emphasis on the team’s result over an individual’s performance or accolades, making it just as important for athletes to support their teammates as it is to pursue their own triumphs.

“If you lose, it’s not like you walk away and you’re not fencing again,” Nawal O’Neil ‘27, a member of the women’s fencing team from Sydney, Australia, explained. “You have to come back, because you have the whole team relying on you. In international competitions, the only person you really let down is yourself.” 

Ubertalli echoed a similar sentiment: “[At Cornell], there’s always going to be someone supporting you while you race. In Europe, you don’t really get that—everyone’s more focused on their event.” 

Pietro Ubertalli 

Image: Amanda Burkart, Big Red Sports Network

The companionship afforded by athletics helps with the adjustment period frequently experienced by international athletes, many of whom may be living in the United States for the first time in their lives.

“Coming from a different culture, another country, it’s always hard to adjust,” Jaramillo reflected. “There’s a lot of barriers that you need to overcome.” 

Learning a new language, finding time to keep in touch with friends and family, and balancing the rigorous student-athlete schedule are all unique challenges that augment the pressure of adjusting to the college environment for the first time. This adjustment period, however, isn’t even the hardest part of the journey to becoming a Big Red athlete.

International athletes are forced to take a different path through the recruitment process compared to that of domestic student-athletes. Typically, international student-athletes don’t have the connections that those who grew up in the U.S. do, making it more difficult to secure a position on many American universities’ rosters. 

“You never really hear that much about college sports when you’re in Canada, especially when [you’re] young,” Men’s Tennis player Samuel Paquette ‘24 said. Paquette explained that it wasn’t until he began training in the United States that the opportunity to play in college became apparent. Only then did he begin the recruiting process.

International athletes are almost exclusively required to reach out to coaches and network themselves, whereas American athletes can take advantage of connections harbored through high school coaches, club-level coaches, or even recruitment visits and open camps. For athletes who live in other parts of the world, far from the school they wish to attend, in-person networking is rarely feasible.

“There’s such a strong pool of [athletes] in America already, so it’s very easy to recruit people from the ‘States,” said O’Neil. “In Australia, [for instance], it’s hard to compare results and all that.” O’Neil began the recruitment process later than most athletes, and only happened to fortuitously meet Cornell’s coach while participating in a championship event in Charlotte, North Carolina. Had she not qualified for that event, she likely wouldn’t have had the ability to meet face-to-face with representatives from Cornell.

While online recruiting platforms such as Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) have streamlined the process, allowing athletes across the world to upload film and connect digitally with coaches, the deck still remains stacked against international athletes. Occasionally, however, unique connections with coaches provide avenues for international athletes to attend institutions in the U.S.

Radu Papoe 

Image: Ben Blakely, Cornell Athletics

Men’s Tennis player Radu Papoe ‘25, who hails from Târgoviște, Romania, was attracted to Cornell in part thanks to head coach Silviu Tanasoiu, who is also a native of Romania. Tanasoiu has historically recruited a number of international athletes to his rosters, both at Cornell and during his years at the University of Oklahoma. Papoe himself is one of two Romanian players on the team roster, alongside Eric Verdes ‘27. 

“Silviu contacted me, and I got to know more about him and about [Cornell],” Papoe said. “[It was] really worth it to come here, as I’ve had the opportunity to grow as an athlete and as a person – all the parts in my life that I wanted to [improve].”

Tanasoiu’s impact on the men’s tennis program has attracted a unique blend of talent to the roster, one in which over a third of the registered athletes hail from outside of the United States. Both Paquette and Papoe complimented the warm, collaborative atmospheres that their team created, a space of support for athletes, coaches, and training staff on and off the court. Tanasoiu himself was an international student-athlete at the University of Oklahoma, and thus carries that perspective as he builds his roster and guides the team. In this manner, coaches who possess international experience can present pathways for talented student-athletes to hone their craft in the U.S.

Ultimately, Cornell offers an alluring destination for many student-athletes looking to take their academic and athletic careers to the next level. Its appeal extends worldwide, and brings together a unique blend of perspectives and ideas to Cornell’s fields, courts, pools, and classrooms.

“This has probably been one of the best times of my life,” Jaramillo exclaimed. “The adventure of getting to know a new country and living in a different place is [challenging but cherishing]. Being able to play and the group of people that I’ve met playing the sport… I feel that’s been a really big impact on my life.”

At Cornell and across the nation, enrollment trends have grown steadily in favor of international students. From just 3,000 international enrollees at the turn of the century to over 5,000 today according to the Office of Global Learning, diverse perspectives provided by international students continue to enrich the academic and athletic experience at Cornell – and those advancements don’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.


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