Wayne State women's rugby ruck
Wayne State women's rugby team during the 2019 National Championship game against Endicott College. Courtesy of Lexi Villagran

Over 20,000 International student-athletes compete in sports in the U.S., according to the NCAA. For many of them, these past few months have been terribly frustrating.

While Americans are focused on whether or not their favorite sports will be played this fall, international student-athletes are dealing with the safety of returning to the U.S. This could be because the borders in their countries are closed, the U.S. borders are closed or coming to a country that is still battling COVID-19. 

When universities across the U.S. decided to move classes to remote learning due to COVID-19, many international students were left scrambling to get home.

Wayne State College Junior Isabelle Robinson, who is from Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, was one of those students.

Robinson, the forward captain for the Wayne State women’s rugby team, was at her family friend’s house in Omaha, Neb. on March 19 when her mother called her in the middle of the night. 

“The Australian borders were closing on the 21st of March. And I was meant to fly out of America on the 23rd,” she said. “My mom called me on the 19th in the middle of the night and said, ‘You need to get on a plane today’.”

Unfortunately, most of Robinson’s things were still in Wayne, Neb. along with her passport. She drove to Wayne at 4 a.m., packed up as much of her dorm room as possible and was on a flight out of Omaha at 1 p.m.

“It was a very stressful 24 hours,” she said.

Sophie Pascoe is a sophomore Wayne State rugby player and native of New Zealand. She had a similar experience.

Pascoe also found out from her mother on March 19 that the New Zealand borders would be closing on March 23. She flew out of the country and arrived home in New Zealand the day before everything shut down.

Now, Pascoe and Robinson are both filing for an exemption to leave their countries to return to school and hopefully resume their rugby careers at WSC.

The Wayne State Women’s Rugby team has won 11 national championships since Darrin Barner founded the club in 2002 and became its head coach. 

“It’s really strange for a school our size to have that success and also have the inexperience we have when they [the players] come in as freshmen,” Barner said.

The lack of high school rugby in Nebraska and the U.S. is challenging.

“Our freshman class is pretty much 99% completely inexperienced to the game,” Barner said. “We have to fall back on our returning players to teach and coach those new freshmen.” 

Both Robinson and Pascoe, two of the three international student-athletes on the rugby team, had experience playing rugby before enrolling at WSC. Robinson has been playing for five years and Pascoe has 10 years of experience. 

In the 2019 15s National championship tournament, Wayne State beat an undefeated Minnesota State Moorhead 57-14 and Endicott College 90-12 to win that 11th national title.

Izzy 300x200 - Wayne State Women's Rugby's international student-athletes are crucial to program
Isabelle Robinson (middle) during the 2019 Elite 8 game against St. Scholastic. Courtesy of Lexi Villagran

In what Barner considers their most competitive game of the season, Wayne State beat Canada’s Brandon University 54-5.

“It was the best game all year for us without a doubt,” he said.

Unfortunately, the border between the U.S. and Canada is closed due to COVID-19 so Wayne State won’t be able to travel to Canada for a rematch this upcoming season.

Each country handled the COVID-19 pandemic differently.

Citizens in both Australia and New Zealand are required by law to quarantine, five weeks in New Zealand and six in Australia.

Australia has 10,810 total cases and 113 deaths according to the Australian Government Department of Health. New Zealand declared it was COVID-19 free on June 8 with a total of 1,154 confirmed cases and 22 deaths. Neither country asked its citizens to wear masks.

In the U.S., Florida has had 77,400 cases just in the last seven days. 

International students everywhere are faced with the difficult decision of whether to return to the U.S. for school.

“It’s kind of scary the fact that it [COVID-19] doesn’t seem like it’s controlled over there with you guys,” Robinson said.

Wayne has had multiple incoming international student-athletes defer a year because of the pandemic. Barner says it’s because of their financial ability, not because of number of cases in the U.S.

“When the virus broke out pretty big in April and May over in Europe, a lot of those kids lost their summertime jobs, their parents were laid off,” he said.

Wayne County has 34 confirmed cases, therefore Barner doesn’t think the virus is deterring international students from coming to Wayne. 

“There’s some big-time perks of where they’d be going to school; East Coast, West Coast the South. But Wayne seems pretty calm,” he said.

As for playing rugby this fall, Barner thinks the best option is to push their 15s season back a few weeks.

Robinson would prefer for the 15s season to be moved to spring 2021.

“I’d be fine not playing rugby [this fall] because I really don’t want to risk getting it because it’s a lot harder for me because I’m not a citizen,” she said. “Whereas if it did go forward, I’d participate but it’d be like looking over my shoulder every five minutes just worrying.” 

Pascoe would also prefer to play rugby when it is safest.

“If I know that rugby is going to be safe, and I’m not going to catch COVID playing rugby in the fall, then I’d rather play in the fall,” she said. “But if I know that it’s way safer to play in the spring then I’d rather play in the spring.”

WSC president Marysz Rames hosted a Zoom meeting on July 9 with returning international students and assured them that Wayne State values their opinions, their presence and is working hard to make their campus safe for everyone.

“I know this school is doing every single possible scenario of how to keep classes going and also keeping everything safe,” Barner said.

Despite the difficulty of leaving their countries and the risk of COVID-19, Robinson and Pascoe are determined to return to WSC because they have found a home on its campus and on the rugby team.

“You can still have fun and still love the sport, love the game,” Robinson said. “That’s why I picked it [WSC] and it’s probably the best decision ever.”

Abby Barmore is a senior sports media and communications major with minors in business administration and English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is from Lincoln, Nebraska and aims to be a sports journalist.