Santiago Vescovi noticed the orange everywhere as he neared campus during his official visit to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in November 2019.
“I never saw anything like that in Australia,” Vescovi said. “Even back home in Uruguay, you see people wearing the shirts or colors of their favorite soccer team. But you don’t see everyone wearing the same color, cheering for the same team.”
During high school, Vescovi had moved from Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, to Mexico and then to Canberra, Australia, where he attended an elite basketball training school set up by the NBA.
When he visited campus, UT made an instant impression. By choosing to attend the university, Vescovi knew he’d have a pathway for pursuing his dream of professional basketball while also getting a top college education—something college-age athletes rarely have access to in their countries.
“Even if I play basketball until I’m old,” he said, “once that ends, what else am I going to do with my life?” Vescovi, now a junior, is a business major with an interest in finance.
But the benefits of attending UT don’t end there. What international student–athletes discover once they arrive in Knoxville goes beyond the field and the classroom. It is a feeling of community, a home away from home.
“I just feel like I’m a part of the family,” Vescovi said.
For Australian Jarryd Chapin (’14) that feeling inspired action.
“It’s a two-way street,” said Chaplin, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in supply chain management after competing for the men’s tennis team from 2011 to 2014. He returned as the assistant women’s tennis coach in 2019 after playing professionally overseas.
As a student at UT, Chaplin gained lifelong friendships. He was given the opportunity to pursue his sport while earning his degree and giving back. In 2014, he received the Chancellor’s Extraordinary Achievement and Extraordinary Community Service awards.
His relationship with the university evolved as time passed.
“I ask myself now: What can I continue to give back to the institution that gave me so much?” Chaplin said. “How do I best represent the school?”
Women’s tennis currently has seven international players. As he talks with recruits from around the world, Chaplin thinks about his own experience.
“I’ve lived it already,” Chaplin said. “And I have a very important role in fostering a similar, or better, experience for them.”
Every year, approximately 50 international student–athletes—about 10 percent of the overall student–athlete population—arrive on campus. They are supported by UT’s Center for Global Engagement, which helps with the logistics of meeting academic degree requirements, taxes, and issues relating to their visas.
“We’re here to do what we can for them,” said Scott Cantrell, director of international student and scholar services and the university’s International House. “Athletics has a lot of people who care for these student–athletes. They find their home there, like many international students find their home in the I-House.”
The Thornton Athletics Student Life Center, which provides academic and career development for student–athletes on campus, has two staff members who focus part of their time on supporting and connecting internationals.
“It’s a growing topic of conversation for the NCAA,” said Caitlin Ryan, assistant director for student–athlete development for the center. “The number of international student–athletes nationwide is growing. We get calls all the time. Many schools are looking at what we do here as an example.”
Decathlete Yariel Soto, a sport management major, had already been away from Puerto Rico attending high school in Ohio when he chose UT. He loved the familiar surroundings: mountains, rivers, and greenery. But he was looking for a place that mirrored the environment he had in Hatillo, a small town in the countryside where everyone knows him by name.
“A lot of our culture as Latinos, our upbringing, is centered around family,” Soto said. “It’s not easy to get that sense of family or community, especially when you got to a Division I program where it’s very competitive. For me, that was the big thing about Tennessee.”
On campus, Soto connected with students from Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela. He befriended Jorel Ortega, a Puerto Rican on the baseball team; they shared jokes and banter that made him feel like he was back on the island. He gets together with Vescovi, Lady Vol basketball player Marta Suárez, and others in his apartment, where they cook food from home for each other.
Mona McSharry, who recently became the first Irish swimmer in 25 years to make an Olympics final, wrestled with the difficult decision to leave Ireland and her family. As a younger swimmer, she had declined the opportunity to train at the National Training Center in Dublin because of the distance from her family’s farm in Grange on the island’s western coast.
In 2017, after winning the 100-meter breaststroke at the World Junior Championships in Indianapolis, McSharry drew recruiting interest. At Tennessee, something just felt different.
“I had this gut feeling in my stomach that I knew this was the right place for me,” McSharry said.
On her way to class this past spring, McSharry walked by the Torchbearer statue in Circle Park. The flame, always lit, represents for her the determination to keep fighting. To do whatever she can for Tennessee—even if, as she enters her sophomore year, she feels like she’s still learning the culture.
“I love it when people in Ireland ask questions and I can talk about college,” McSharry said. “I love the story of the Volunteers. That we hold onto that tradition so tightly.”
In Tokyo, McSharry wears an orange-and-white checkerboard wristband. Bumping into other athletes who attended UT in the past, she feels that same bond Chaplin felt when he graduated.
“The fact that you’re a Vol for Life—I love that,” McSharry said. “You’ll meet someone who you didn’t go to college with, who you’ve never spoken to before. But they were a Volunteer. Now you feel like you know them.”
Becoming Leaders Beyond Sports
International student–athletes are regularly among those selected to participate in the VOLeaders Academy, a leadership development program that celebrates its sixth year this fall.
Beyond leading on the field, VOLeaders teaches student–athletes about aspects of service and leadership. Every summer they take an international service–learning trip where they meet with government leaders, connect with local and national sports organizations, and lead sports activities for kids.
Matt Wade, a Spanish diver studying supply chain management, recently returned with Soto from a VOLeaders trip to Belize.
“It was an eye opener for me” Wade said. In February 2021, Wade was named to the SEC’s Community Service Team for his work as a member of the Student–Athlete Advisory Committee and his time volunteering with the Love Kitchen, Knoxville Area Rescue Mission, and local elementary schools.
The color orange, which many of the student–athletes wear when they train back home, often serves as an icebreaker. It’s an uncommon sight in most of the world. Chaplin wore orange everywhere he played during his pro career—Israel, Canada, China, Egypt. Soto wears it when he trains on his local track in Puerto Rico: “I wear it with the most pride I can, just like when I wear the uniform of Puerto Rico.”
“It changed my life. I’m from a small farming town. I’m first generation. People here, they see me. They know I’m an athlete. That I went to Tennessee. But I’m rooted in where I come from. I want to show them they can also do what I did.” Yariel Soto, UT decathlete and member of the 2020–21 VOLeaders cohort.
It’s been almost a year and a half since Vescovi first arrived in Knoxville. In that time, he’s contributed on the basketball court. He recently participated in Olympics qualifying with Uruguay’s national men’s basketball team. He’s made the academic honor roll. And he was selected to participate in the VOLeaders Academy for the upcoming academic year.
When people back home ask him about the time he’s been at Tennessee, he’s straightforward.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” Vescovi said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)
Tom Satkowiak (865-974-7501, firstname.lastname@example.org)