Athletes from Abroad: Alex Larsson and Menno Dijkstra

Below is the debut piece from “Athletes from Abroad”,  the Highlander’s newest sports series which profiles UCR’s international athletes and their respective journeys adjusting to the states and American culture. Enjoy.

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

As the stereotype goes, student athletes have busy lives, juggling schedules packed with classes, practices and the occasional game if it’s during the season. But, what if you are a student athlete, fresh off the plane and a suitcase in hand?

Is your adaptation to a new culture seamless or is your new environment an extra ball you have to handle in your juggling act as a student athlete?

As a regular student who bemoans exercise like death is upon her, I didn’t have the answer. So, I went and interviewed two students from UCR’s own men’s basketball team — Alex Larsson and Menno Dijkstra — to learn about their experiences as student athletes from abroad.    

On the court, Alex and Menno are known for their basketball positions, forward and center respectively. Appearance-wise, they are as tall as you expect basketball players to be — to the point that Menno had to duck his head from hitting the door frame of the room we used for our interview location.

But, off the court, Alex studies sociology (a major he decided upon after several changes) as a second-year, while Menno is finishing his first year as a pre-business major.

Although they arrived at UCR at different times, they both started their first years with their fair share of obstacles, but with help along the way.

Last year, Menno accepted a sports scholarship without a visitation (where a prospective recruit comes to visit a school prior to commitment) after hearing only good things from his friend and fellow Highlander, Robert Boezeman. He left behind his home in the Netherlands, a small farming village called Middelbeers, populated with more cows than humans. “Middelbeers represent!” he said with pride, after writing out the spelling for Middelbeers per my request.  

In contrast, Alex grew up in a populated, multicultural suburb called Sodertalje, which is only a train ride away from Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. His first visit to UCR and America overall occurred when he came over for his 48-hour visitation to look at the campus. Despite arriving at UCR, Alex admitted to having no prior knowledge of his soon-to-be desert surroundings. “At that moment, I didn’t know what the Inland Empire or Riverside really was. They just took me here.”

Even if he didn’t know his exact location at the time, he already noticed that California didn’t look like the California he envisioned. “There is this picture in your head … Beaches everywhere. Everyone’s rich. Kinda jet-set life. Expect everything to look like Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive. That’s what they record and what you see in movies. That’s what you think everything looks like,” Alex said.

As he started his first school year at UCR back in 2014, he came to learn that some of the differences he encountered could be challenging.

There is this picture in your head … Beaches everywhere. Everyone’s rich. Kinda jet-set life. Expect everything to look like Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive. That’s what they record and what you see in movies. That’s what you think everything looks like”

“There’s small cultural differences that you really notice. When people ask me ‘hi, how are you?’ I always stopped to tell them how I was. ‘Nah it’s all good, had an early class this morning.’ People usually just walk straight by me, because they didn’t really care how I was. It was only a phrase,” he said.

“It takes a good amount of time before you really get into the culture, language and everything. You really have no clue what you get yourself into,” Alex continued. “I came from living at home. I was really safe. I had my family around me all the time and all of the sudden I’m shipped out into the dorms on the other side of the world.”

When asked how he dealt with this change in lifestyle he simply said, “You adjust.”

Agreeing with his teammate, Menno shared the same sentiments: “At the beginning I was really shy. Letting everything happen. Just seeing how it goes. Not really knowing what I got myself into. But, it all worked out.” He went on to explain that when he had issues with his visa documentation, the coaching staff, specifically Director of Basketball Operations Terrence “T-Bone” Morales, helped him out every step of the way once he finally arrived at UCR from picking his classes to getting into the dorms.

“They understand that you are not from here and they will do whatever it takes to help you feel comfortable here.” Even getting a simple pillow from Target was different, an act Alex noted in detail, demonstrating even the smallest of things helped his adjustment.

”Now, at two years, feels like I’ve lived here my entire life,” said Alex, leaning back with his arms crossed. “I’m independent now.” Even though he has only been in the country for the last nine months, Menno expressed he felt the same, perhaps a bit exasperated, saying, “Yes, yes, yes, I wanna get out of the dorms asap.”

Along with feeling culturally adjusted, when I asked them how school was going, both showed no sign of worry, as they casually stated, American university was similar to their European high schools. My mind went numb as Alex recounted writing a 20 page paper. Single-spaced.

However, when asked about their first game as Highlanders, Menno flatly stated that it was “terrible.”

According to both players, European basketball is slower and more technical. Menno described that “in Europe, they play more like following a system. Really strict. While here you have more … I want to say more freedom. In Europe, you run the plays. You do what’s drawn on the board exactly.”

The only way to match their American counterparts was to play catch-up, but even then Menno and Alex admit they’re still learning to readjust from the European style they both grew used to for over 10 years.

Despite still needing time to adjust to a new way of playing basketball, Alex and Menno asserted basketball opened doors they never would have considered studying abroad. Pursuing basketball instilled a certain “mindset,” as Alex states, that they have followed for years — to the point that, when asked what would he do if he wasn’t playing, Menno replied with astonishment, saying, “I have no idea. I’ve been thinking. Probably see as much as I can. I honestly have no idea.”

Alex, instead, mentioned while smiling he would get his scuba certification.

As the interview drew to a close, Terrence stopped by to present the two players their Highlander Honor Roll, awards given out for academic achievement in the athletics department. The awards were just one of many accomplishments the two hope to achieve during their UCR careers.

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