By Garrett Haydon
In August of 2015, just days before freshmen students arrived at Springfield College to begin their college journey, Huaizhi Wang was already in the middle of a journey of his own. The graduate student from Harbin, China was in an unfamiliar place and just had a single mattress to sleep on. His first night in Springfield was spent in a dorm room with nothing on the walls and furniture that hadn’t been touched in months. He knew that he was on his own but he also knew he needed to make connections to make himself comfortable
Flash forward to March of 2017. Huaizhi is thriving at Springfield thanks to the warm embrace of the community and he feels right at home. “The people here are very friendly and want to help you as much as they can,” he says. It’s just another stop on his journey and he couldn’t be happier.
Meeting him at first, I was taken aback at how tall he was but he seemed comfortable with me the second I spoke to him. International Center Director Deborah Alm agreed when she recalled her first interaction with him at the International Student Organization welcome social, “Almost immediately, I recognized how open and friendly he was.”
Harbin is located in Northeast China about two hours south of Russia. It is the eighth-most populous city in the country and is often called “The Ice City” due to its harsh winters and an ice sculpture festival that takes place in January and February around the city. The city even bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Huaizhi came to Springfield College in that sweltering August and enrolled in the Sports Management major. “I had always been interested in the business of sport and how teams make money,” he said. “It just seemed like a perfect fit for me at the birthplace of basketball of all places.” Getting used to being in another country was tough initially for him. “There was no connection here at first,” he said. “You have to find your own way, to find connections and friends.” Alm said however, that this was easier for Huaizhi because he is naturally at ease around people. One of those first connections was a local bus driver he talked to his second day at Springfield. “Because I didn’t know the area very well I asked him where I could go to pick some basic essentials,” he said. He was directed to a Walmart where he was able to buy pillows and sheets to go along with his mattress. This however didn’t solve everything.
“I had a difficult time keeping up with assignments initially.” Huaizhi said. Alm said that could have been attributed to the continual assessments used in the U.S. meaning that students get tested along the way instead of tested at the end which is the case with most other countries. “Huaizhi’s English was quite good when he arrived, but sitting in a class and listening to discussions in a contemporary language spoken quickly was tiring and frustrating.”
Huaizhi obviously had a hard time adjusting to a new country but he says it wasn’t very difficult leaving family, which is the case with most international athletes, according to Alm because most of them have been on their own since middle school. “I had traveled a lot while I played basketball in China and I was used to it.” Huaizhi said. He had played professional basketball in the Chinese National Basketball League at age 17 for Heilongjiang Zhaozhou Fengshen. Being on his own was something he was used to do. This interest in basketball went back to his childhood as both of his parents played professionally. But initially his interest wasn’t in basketball. “Growing up I painted in watercolor in middle school and I really enjoyed it,” he said. However, this career plan changed when he had a conversation with a coach who convinced his parents to let him try basketball. “He said there weren’t any painters there were 6’10 in the entire country and that I would be more comfortable playing basketball.” Huaizhi signed a contract when he was 17 and joined the NBL.
“It was very difficult playing with adults at such a young age. Our oldest player was 37 and the average age was like 26 or 27 years old.” It was intimidating at first he said, “but once I adapted to playing with older players, I got used to it.” He was by far the youngest on the team and was the skinniest, he exclaimed with a chuckle. Due to this, Huaizhi got injured often and had back issues the whole season. He unfortunately had to retire the following season due to the injuries but he enjoyed the experience. “It was tough to stop playing but I knew I needed to find something to do instead.” He realized learning English would be the next best thing for him. “I felt it would be easy for me as I had learned some from my American teammates.” This was when he realized he would need to journey to the land of opportunity.
After retiring, Huaizhi was still interested in sports and found the Sports Management program at Springfield College. Springfield College historically has very strong international ties, especially in China and according to Sports Management professor Bob Accorsi it’s considered prestigious to come to Springfield as the college brand is well-known in China. Huaizhi has learned a lot from how to attract investors to an event, how to plan games and events and has even helped out with the Hoophall Classic this past January and the Massachusetts State High School Basketball Championships this past March. “It was very cool to see the comparison between playing and organizing,” he said. He wants to eventually find a job in marketing with a professional team.
Accorsi said that this is what most students want to do when entering the program. “I want students to get trained to be the business behind sports,” he remarked. “I want them to be able to brand an event and appeal to investors.” And perhaps most importantly he wants his students to practice the humanics philosophy and give back to the community. Huaizhi has been a willing volunteer in cultural activities at local schools around the Springfield area, Humanics in Action Day and events within the Sports Management major.
Accorsi speaks very highly of Huaizhi, and when I asked what his strengths were as a student, he said, “Oh geez where do I start?” On the top of his list was his drive. “He has this intrinsic motivation to constantly get better every day.” He also said Huaizhi is a very organized person and is able to balance a lot. And under the umbrella of it all, Accorsi says he’s very professional and he hopes his American students can emulate that.
Huaizhi is very personable and extremely friendly. He has certainly come a long way from sleeping on that mattress in an empty room. When talking to him, he chuckled from time to time indicating his great sense of humor that Accorsi can attest to. “He’s a very genuine person and relates surprisingly well to everyone he meets.” He has had Huaizhi over for Thanksgiving dinner and said he related very well to his daughters who are both in their twenties.
Alm shared a couple of stories about Huaizhi that help paint that picture of his personality. She has a picture in her office of Huaizhi acting as a human selfie stick, taking a picture with a group of people at that first social. She also shared that he has been a guest in her home making traditional Chinese barbecue and participating in other ISO events including ice skating, which Alm says he is quite proficient at.
Accorsi described Huaizhi as a “serving leader [who] takes great responsibility in his group work and wants to make sure everyone gets involved. He doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself and I hope many of our American students can become like him.”
When looking back in his journey, Huaizhi says he is very happy to have found this great community in Springfield and he hopes it will help him reach new heights in the next few years. This may not be his final destination in his long journey, but he certainly has found a second home here.