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COVID-19 and Its Impact on International Student Athletes

The month of March was an unforeseeable time in the United States, as most schools and businesses were forced to shut down due to the growing threat of COVID-19. While school closures presented issues for all students, it was particularly troubling for international students.

UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman made a statement on March 10 advising students to return home if possible and noted that spring quarter 2020 would be held remotely. This notice led to a gradual campus evacuation during week 10 and into finals week of winter quarter 2020. However, not all students were quick to leave in light of the current situation.

UCI Men’s Soccer redshirt sophomore forward/midfield Kelvin Neumetzler, who is a native of Aachen, Germany, had to take time to assess the situation before returning to his home country.

“When everything started to shut down in the U.S. — or at least at UCI — I thought we were steps ahead … but obviously it eventually became very serious,” Neumetzler said. “I remember back home I heard from my parents and my friends that it was really, really bad in Germany. There was really no point at the time for me to go back home since where I was at the time in Irvine was better and safer.” 

The threat level was not the only thing Neumetzler had to consider before deciding to return home. On March 11, President Donald Trump made a proclamation on suspension of entry for immigrants looking to return to the United States. This travel ban would impact any potential return to the U.S. for Neumetzler and fellow international students. 

Photo provided by Kelvin Nuemetzler

Luckily for UCI Men’s Soccer redshirt junior midfielder Axel Adler, who was born in London, England and raised in Hong Kong, China, the travel ban did not interfere with his plans.

“Having changed my flight to a week earlier, I was only in Irvine for a couple of days,” Adler said. “My flight out of Los Angeles International Airport was scheduled on the 16th of March. I landed in Hong Kong a couple of days before the Hong Kong government implemented its new, more severe restrictions on the virus … To ensure that traveling individuals obeyed the quarantine, tracking bracelets were used to monitor the situation.”

At the time, this was the only COVID-19 related travel ban that would affect immigrants. For a homebound Adler, going back to Hong Kong was something he could look forward to doing.

“Living across the planet with no family in proximity, it is always a blessing when I can come home and enjoy the benefits of living at home again,” Adler said. “Nothing beats coming back to home cooked meals, sharing it with my family, going out to eat at local restaurants and spending time with my friends.” 

Photo provided by Axel Adler

Eventually, future restrictions arose that would present another hindrance for Adler and Neumetzler. A set of visa restrictions were announced by the Trump administration in late June that would require international students to have an in-person class to maintain their visa. A worried Neumetzler had this at the forefront of his mind for several weeks.

“There was this whole dilemma with [President Donald] Trump banning travel[ing] back, not granting new visas, so on and so forth,” Neumetzler said. “That was pretty stressful … our targeted date to come back for preseason for soccer was in July, and obviously I was preparing to come back in July, but then there was this travel ban. I couldn’t legally go back to the United States without having an [in-person] class. Luckily, that new law was trashed a week or two after, with so many people being hurt by it.”

While every international student had to consider a variety of factors that affected their livelihood and academic plans during the height of the pandemic, international student-athletes realized they had another problem: the inability to safely play team sports.

This fact was something that lingered for some time, globally. For college athletes, this was pertinent. 

Collegiate sports are what allow many student-athletes to receive a higher education with the financial assistance of a scholarship and serve as a platform for them to exhibit their skills to professional league recruiters. It is also what provides them a sense of community and comradery. For international student-athletes, the sense of community is more than just a team — it is a family.

“As cliché as it sounds, I consider UCI Men’s Soccer to be my second family,” Adler said. “The amount of time you spend with the guys day in and day out create[s] very strong friendships. I am lucky to say that the hardest thing I had to deal with during this pandemic was not practicing with my teammates and not being part of competition with them. I tried my best to stay in contact with my teammates and would call with my coach every week to talk.”

Photo provided by UCI Athletics

While the U.S. continued to see growth in the rate of positive cases and deaths during the summer, Germany began relaxing their limitations on activities for their citizens. This meant that Neumetzler could once again train for soccer.

“I obviously joined my own club; it’s a semi-professional soccer club and it was good to be back there,” Neumetzler said. “I practiced three times a week, having one or two games a week as well … it was actually a very fortunate thing that my teammates in California did not have the luxury of having … that’s also a reason why my coach and I agreed and decided that it would be better for me to stay in Germany.”

Photo provided by Kelvin Neumetzler

Whether alone or with those in their households, millions of people were forced into isolation due to the pandemic. These living conditions can be stressful and anxiety provoking. Such emotions have resulted in many people self-reflecting over the past few months. 

For Neumetzler and Adler, this self-reflection involved remembering what they have learned from sports and employing it in their daily lives.

“One thing sports have really taught me is to go through the ups and downs, not only athletic-wise, but as a human,” Neumetzler said. “We could easily think of this pandemic and crisis to be something negative. However, how I approached it is to see it as an opportunity … I really used this time to develop myself physically … I’ve been working really hard knowing that one day this will be over.”

Adler shared a similar sentiment, focusing on the resiliency he feels is necessary to overcome life’s obstacles.

“The best lesson sports have given me during this pandemic would be to be resilient. My mentality going into this phase of my life was to be thankful, careful and to be resilient in doing what I love,” Adler said.

Photo provided by Axel Adler

They are both maintaining their optimistic mentalities as they continue to train abroad, awaiting their return to UCI.

Despite California’s regional stay-at-home orders being back in effect, there has been a gradual resurgence of normalcy since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. In the case of UCI Athletics, this normalcy presents itself in the form of sports being back on campus, with UCI Men’s and Women’s Basketball being the first to return.

Neumetzler and Adler are hopeful to reunite and share this sense of revived normalcy when they step foot on the pitch again for their projected season start in February. 

“I do believe that we have a special group of individuals at the UCI Men’s Soccer program, and I know that we will get through this pandemic together and will come out stronger,” Adler said.

Stefan C. Jones is a Staff Writer. He can be reached at stefancj@uci.edu.