There are over 460,000 athletes competing in the NCAA this year, and that group gets more international every year. In 2017-18 there were over 17,000 student-athletes from other countries competing for an American college, with some countries more represented than others.
Despite a population of more than 1.3 billion people, China has only 44 athletes competing in the NCAA this year. One of them is Yizhi Xue, who goes by “Eri” among her teammates and coaches. Xue, a native of Nanjing, China, is a middle blocker for the Long Beach State women’s volleyball team, its first player from China in a decade.
In the last three years Xue has gone from a shy newcomer to a fully integrated part of the Long Beach culture—but the road wasn’t easy.
There’s no easy way to get from China to America as a youth athlete, although there’s plenty of incentive to try. Because there’s no equivalent to the NCAA in China, there’s no combined educational and athletic experience there.
“I wanted to come here because I can study and get an education and play volleyball at the same time,” said Xue. “In China, I can only go to the pro team.”
A pro team right out of preparatory school means seven to eight hours of practice a day in addition to a grueling game schedule. It means total dedication to a sport.
For Xue’s parents, Gang and Yan, that made America an attractive option for their daughter. Because of their positions—her father is the head of the Chinese national beach volleyball program and her mother works in the Chinese government—Xue’s parents had the connections needed to get her to America. But it still wasn’t easy.
Erika Dillard, a former Long Beach State assistant who now coaches at Oregon, ran point on Xue’s recruitment and admission process. She helped former head coach Brian Gimmillaro bring players to Long Beach from all over the world.
“It’s very different recruiting a kid like Eri because in China, the government controls all the social media,” said Dillard. “You can’t Facebook message a kid, they can’t go onto the NCAA website because it’s blocked. That means they can’t fill out their paperwork, and they have to keep changing email addresses because every time someone finds them they get blocked.”
Dillard was printing NCAA eligibility PDFs and mailing them to China to be filled out. The admissions process wasn’t much easier. In China, the equivalent of high school transcripts weren’t maintained digitally, but rather printed in a booklet which included an embossed crest and a wax seal.
“They’re beautiful, and they only make one of them,” said Dillard. “So they mailed it to the NCAA—well, the NCAA shreds everything they get when they’re done with them.”
That means Xue was trying to get into Long Beach State with no formal records of her education. The family had to pay to have another one made and then overnight it to America just in time for Xue to be admitted to the university.
Of course, getting from China to America and being admitted to Long Beach State was one thing. Learning to adapt to a new country and a new culture was a completely different set of problems.
“When I first got here, I was really shy, I was really quiet,” remembers Xue. “People would ask me questions and I don’t know how to answer. Now after two years it’s better and better.”
When the team would eat out, Xue had one order: Chicken. It was the only food she recognized and the only word she was confident in pronouncing in front of her new friends and teammates.
“I was like, ‘Kid, you’re eating a ton of chicken,’” said Dillard. “Pretty soon she was going and crushing In-n-Out, she got there pretty quickly.”
Xue picked up English fast as well. Her experience learning the language in China was entirely from reading and writing, and having teammates around to help her practice speaking accelerated the process.
“I only learned in China from quiz,” said Xue. “The best way to learn is from talking, so my teammates made it easier.”
Soon she was able to share parts of her culture with her new family as well.
“We celebrate Chinese New Year with her,” said Long Beach State head coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer. “It’s nice that she can share her culture with us as we share ours with her.”
Now when you see Xue, she’s not the shy player in the corner at team meetings. She’s the confident student with a hand raised in one of her international business classes, or visiting Disneyland with teammate Hailey Harward.
“We go whenever we get a free day,” says Harward. “We love doing Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s our favorite ride, and we always get ice cream.”
Xue has also adjusted wonderfully to the American style of volleyball, which features a lot more talking on the court and requires her to make certain verbal reads as the middle blocker.
“We’re starting to see what she can do this year,” said McKienzie-Fuerbringer. “She really hit the weight room, she still has a lot of room to grow as she gets stronger.”
Her growth has been obvious as she went from the conference’s All-Freshman team two years ago to All-Big West last season as a sophomore. This season she’s taken a big jump and leads the team in hitting percentage and blocks. She got a glimpse of her future last week when the 49ers hosted a professional team from Shanghai in an exhibition match. The team is not only a professional team but features a pair of Olympians, as well.
“I was really excited to get to see them and talk to them,” said Xue. “They’re very famous in China, everyone knows them there.”
Xue will graduate after next season with her degree in international business, and will have a wide open future in front of her. That could feature splitting time between America and China, it could feature a professional contract in Europe, or returning to her home country to play and train full time as a professional and future Olympian. Right now, she’s happy to be a part of Long Beach’s community as both a student and an athlete.
“That’s why I came here,” she says. “I can have both ways, to go after everything.”
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