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Thornton Athletics Student Life Center Partners with ISSS to Advise International Student Athletes

International student-athlete participating in the VOLeaders Academy

by Alexandra DeMarco

Navigating college can be stressful for any new student. For international student athletes, who have to anticipate NCAA rules in addition to immigration paperwork, the experience can be especially complicated.

That’s why Caitlin Ryan, assistant director of Student Athlete Development, and Denise Jilka, assistant director of Academic Services, of the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center have made a commitment to thoroughly advising international student athletes.

Ryan started her University of Tennessee, Knoxville career as a softball player. After finishing her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UT, she worked as an academic counselor for eight years before moving into her current role, where she advises student athletes about the non-academic aspects of college such as life after sports.

Each year, UT welcomes about 50 new international student athletes to campus. When these students began heading to Ryan with questions about some of the more complicated aspects of being an international student, she found herself struggling to find answers.

“They would continually come and ask me questions that I didn’t know the answers to and words that I didn’t understand like I-20 and visa and OPT. … (I) just kind of started to figure out what I could learn, who I could connect with and who on campus could be a great resource for them and how to encourage them to seek out the resources,” Ryan said.

Ryan reached out to International Student and Scholar Services looking for more information and soon began a lasting partnership. Jilka, who has worked at UT for seven years, advises student athletes on the more academic side of college and brings this approach to international athletic advising.

Ryan and Jilka both regularly communicate with international student athletes and have made it a priority to recognize that their needs differ from both non-athlete international students and domestic athletes. When new questions arise, they check in with ISSS staff.

“Now I feel very confident that all of our student athletes are actually keeping up with all of these pieces that they should be doing,” Ryan said.

Keeping up with all these “pieces,” such as maintaining a current visa, is extremely important; international students must consider a host of factors when filling out required immigration paperwork. In the realm of sports, where circumstances often rapidly change, staying on top of this paperwork can be daunting

“Everything is constantly in flux, but as an international student there’s preparation for that,” Jilka said. “There’s deadlines. You can’t stay in the country if you didn’t fill out your paperwork. There’s no exception at the end of the day.”

When COVID-19 lockdowns began in spring 2020 and the future of collegiate athletics was uncertain, international student athletes faced difficult decisions as they navigated the possibility of returning home, while the chance of a return to school to finish out the season complicated every choice.

“There was a lot of that emotional piece of it but also just the logistic side of things — travel shuts down, but we’re now going to say we’re coming back, we’re going to compete in the fall, so what does that look like, how can you get here, what are the restrictions to travel?” Jilka said.

With help from ISSS, Ryan and Jilka crafted plans for every scenario a student could find themselves in.

“When we know people are traveling, we usually come up with three or four different plans of action, and honestly we provide them with a lot of documentation and some of that comes from the CGE just in case they get stopped at a border,” Ryan said.

Almost two years later, COVID-19 travel restrictions still affect international student athletes. Some international students have to fly from their home countries to other countries, wait for two weeks and then fly to the U.S. in order to come back to campus.

The pandemic has also affected an annual trip that international student athletes are always involved with: the VOLeaders International Service Immersion Experience. The VOLeaders Academy, designed to foster student athlete leaders, includes a year-long class on leadership and a ten-day cultural exchange focused on service, among other components. The trip location varies, but choices for this year’s program are limited to specific countries based on their level of COVID-19 infection.

Each year’s cohort always includes several international students.

International student athletes at an event in Fall 2021 (photo by Caitlin Ryan)

“We love having international students within that group because they form a very close bond with their classmates. … Our international student athletes are here because there’s not really a lot of opportunities for them to be a college student and an athlete at home, so they come here and sacrifice a lot to be here, and it’s just a really interesting perspective,” Ryan said.

Ryan and Jilka aim to create more programming opportunities for international students, including the first ever International Student Athlete night held earlier this semester.

“For us, a big piece I think is just helping them build community,” Ryan said.

These efforts to foster community among international student athletes reflect an intentional commitment to students.

“I think for us we’re very proud of the fact that we got all of our international student athletes back from the pandemic when a lot of schools didn’t, and I think it’s because we have formed this amazing partnership with the CGE,” Ryan said.

The Thornton Center’s approach to advising international student athletes is definitely unique in its success and has garnered the attention of other universities hoping to improve their advising tactics.

Ryan suggests that universities looking to bolster their advising focus on a tenant already central to university life: education.

“You just need to have a broad understanding of immigration documents and what are the things that this population specifically needs from a paperwork standpoint,” Ryan said. “Honestly to me that’s where you start, and then you can move into, what do they need as people and how can you support them emotionally and culturally.”

In addition to seeking out education, which Jilka says wouldn’t have been possible without the support and community from ISSS, she learns from her students all the time just by getting to know them.

“With the international piece, we get educated just as much, too,” Jilka said. “We’re learning about their home countries, their experiences, the differences that they’re facing when they come here.”

Jilka and Ryan share a mutual love of travel, often inspired by their students. With a map hanging on her office wall, Ryan’s students point out their home countries to her, sharing the pride that comes with the place you call home.

“As many different perspectives and life experiences and diversity, in a sense, that we can bring into our population, the better, because it helps just everyone learn and grow and just be better people,” Ryan said.

Watching international students foster this kind of community on campus is extremely rewarding, Jilka says.

“I get to witness how they connect, how they relate, how they challenge each other to think about the world through the different lenses. … Watching that all come together, just witnessing the growth is the best part of my day,” Jilka said. “I think it’s what gets us up in the morning.”


Jason Moody (865-974-5752,