For Maria Bulanova, it was a matter of surprise — that she could be recruited to the bowling team at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, “all the way from Russia.”
Like other international athletes playing college sports in the US, including Taiwan’s Heather Lin, Bulanova had little sense of Title IX when she was younger, but the US law has opened the door for thousands of female athletes from abroad to get an education in the US and possibly a shot at a life and career there.
“People were surprised that Vanderbilt was able to recruit me all the way from Russia,” Bulanova said. “They were like: ‘Oh, wow. Their recruiting is really diverse.’ Like: ‘Wow. They saw you all the way from there.’”
Bulanova was looking to bowl in Europe after finishing her last year of school in Russia. In November 2015, she represented Russia in the World Cup in Las Vegas and bowled well enough that several US colleges wanted her to visit. She visited five colleges in one week in February 2016 before choosing Vanderbilt.
“What really made them stand out is obviously the education — and I was also looking for a good bowling program where I know that we’re going to win something, we’re going to be in competition for the national championship. So Vanderbilt had both, and that was perfect,” said Bulanova, who graduated in 2020 and is in her second year competing on tour with the Professional Women’s Bowling Association.
She is also working on a master’s degree at St Francis College in New York, where she is an assistant coach.
Similarly, Hsinchu’s Lin left her homeland to play college golf in the US, an opportunity made possible, in large part, by Title IX, which was signed into law 50 years ago this month to ensure equity between men and women in education, including in athletics.
Lin was a top junior player in Taiwan when she was recruited by then first-year University of Oregon coach Derek Radley. She ended up being the cornerstone of a team that would add two more Taiwanese players — Hsinchu’s Chen Ching-tzu and Taipei’s Cynthia Lu — and finish second at this year’s national championships.
“The NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association], having the same number of scholarships for men and women for sure allowed me to play golf and get the full scholarship,” said Lin, who finished fifth in the NCAA individual championships. “I don’t think I would have gotten that anywhere else in the world.”
Several agencies exist to help foreign athletes by putting them in contact with coaches and universities, as well as assisting them through the bureaucratic process once they get accepted.
Deljan Bregasi founded one such agency. Originally from Albania, Bregasi grew up in Italy before moving to study in Miami and then New York on soccer scholarships.
Bregasi set up USA College Sport in 2015 in Boston, and said he has helped obtain scholarships for about 300 athletes, charging US$3,200 for the agency’s services.
The agency originally focused on helping boys in Italy and Albania get soccer scholarships in the US before expanding to other sports and female athletes in 2018.
“The girls are those who can have much more opportunity in a certain sense because there is Title IX that, fortunately I’ll add, allows them to practice sport with a scholarship, and it’s an experience that a girl who plays sport in Italy sadly doesn’t have,” Bregasi said.
Serena Frolli, a 17-year-old middle distance runner from Genoa, Italy, used her time during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown to research colleges herself and to speak to coaches before eventually deciding to use the services of a US agency.
“I have to say that it was quite expensive, but then looking at the scholarship that I got, you can say that it repays the initial costs,” Frolli said. “But then they also help you throughout your time at university, so I liked that, too.”
Frolli is heading to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in August to study mechanical engineering on a track scholarship, which she said would give her more opportunities than if she had remained in Italy.
She has long dreamed of being an astronaut and a medal-winning athlete. The benefits of Title IX allow her to pursue her double aspirations.
“Why should I choose?” Frolli said. “That’s why I’m going to the United States.”
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