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Springfield College International Center continues to open doors

Greg Allen
News & Features Editor

deb alm
Photo courtesy of Sam Leventhal.

On Dec. 21, 1891 a young man nailed two peach baskets to a balcony ten feet off the ground. After writing a list of 13 rules, a soccer ball was tossed up, and the first ever game of basketball was underway.

Nearly everyone related to Springfield College knows that it is “The Birthplace of Basketball.” It’s ingrained in our history, part of the college’s tradition. What many tend to overlook, is that James Naismith, the creator of the game that is now played in 170 countries, was an international student from Ontario, Canada.

Since the institution opened in 1885, international students have had a strong presence in the storied history of Springfield College. Today, that legacy continues. According to International Center Director Deb Alm and the International Center, there are currently 124 international students from 21 different countries at Springfield College—each one bringing a different background, a different story, a different culture.

“International students certainly bring new perspectives to the classroom, and I think their interactions with students and faculty bring a different way of thinking about the majors,” said Alm.

However, adjusting to American culture is not always seamless. The food, language and style of living are often dramatically different. Everything is different, and that can create struggles for these brave students.

“Some international students struggle to catch on to commonly used American analogies,” Alm said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of Saudi students don’t know a whole lot about baseball, but how many times do we use expressions like ‘three strikes, you’re out’ or ‘you’re in a pickle’ or ‘he’s out in left field’? Those kind of expressions have no context, so it benefits us all if we think about how we express ourselves.”

Despite the anticipated adversity of adapting to a new culture, students continually accept the challenge and make the journey to Springfield College, and it has been that way forever.

Paving the Way

On Feb. 12, 1918, a young man from China by the name of John Ma wrote a letter to the International YMCA College, or as we know it today, Springfield College. Typed in purple ink, the letter explained how Ma wanted to enroll in the college’s physical education program. He expressed his knowledge and participation in athletics and his desire to learn more about sport.

A year and four months later, Ma filled out his application to be enrolled at the college. On what is now coffee-stain colored paper, Ma reported his information in elegant cursive handwriting.

Height? 5 foot, 4 inches. Weight? 140 pounds. Married? Yes. Children? Two. Do you use tobacco? No. The next section asked Ma to write a check next to any of the following sports with which he was familiar. Of the 26 listed sports, Ma checked off 16 and even added discus to the list.

Ma was accepted by the college and arrived in the fall of 1919. He earned an A in physiology in the fall, winter and spring of his first year along with a B+ in physiology of exercise. After receiving his physical education degree one year later, Ma returned to China where he served as Tsing Hua College’s director of physical education for nine years.

In 1926, Ma came back to Alden Street for his Master’s degree. After receiving the degree, he again returned to China. He eventually would become president of Tsinghua University. Ma taught physical education there for 52 years and once led the soccer team to a North China Championship. He is now known as the father of physical education in China.

In a two-page document titled My Father and I, Ma’s son Carl wrote about his father. One paragraph was devoted to Springfield College. It read, “My father was also a graduate of Springfield College in Massachusetts back in the 1920s. He loved the school and usually returned to visit each every three to four years. Springfield became such a familiar name to everyone in the Ma family that we all get used to it. My brother, Chi-wei, and my brother-in-law, Zuo Yaun, were both graduates of the school. Dad must have sent tens of students under his scholarship to Springfield and so to fortify a new ground for physical education in China. Certainly with the Springfield spirit.”

Ma was one of many influential international students who studied physical education at Springfield College. Others like Dr. Frank Fu, Dr. Attallah Alexander “Ted” Kidess and Tasuke Yuasa, who introduced gymnastics to Japan, all paved the way for future international students at Springfield College.

Creating Cultural Connections

Having international students on campus is not the only international interaction that Springfield takes part in. Having relationships with international institutions is a huge part of Springfield’s culture. Springfield College has a number of signed agreements with institutions across the world and uses the relationships to enhance cultural awareness for students, coaches, faculty and staff.

“International relationships are important towards internationalizing our campus,” Alm said. “They help us interact in real ways with people from other cultures. These relationships really benefit all of us.”

One of the stronger relationships Springfield has is with Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangdong, China. Springfield and SYSU have both sent students, coaches and faculty to the partner institution to enhance skills in various fields.

“Some relationships are more active than others,” Alm said. “Some of that is due to financial reasons. Our SYSU relationship is pretty active because there was a generous donor who established a fund which we can draw from.”

That donor was a man named Henry Fok. Fok, from China, was encouraged to visit Springfield College in 1994 by friends with whom he attended school. On that visit, he gave the college a financial gift to help develop and support exchange programs between Springfield College and SYSU.

“The goal was and is to enhance sport and physical education at both universities,” said Charles Redmond, the man who ultimately wrote the initial agreement between the schools in 1996. “It also provides opportunities for cross-cultural experiences for students, faculty and student athletes.”

A year after Fok’s gift, Redmond, who at the time was Springfield’s Chair of the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies, and Charles Smith, who was instrumental in strengthening international relationships between Springfield and countries including China, Japan, and Taiwan, were among four men who traveled to Sun Yat-Sen to develop, sign and translate an agreement.

After seven long and tiresome days, the agreement was signed and the relationship was off and running.

Twenty years later, in 2016, was the anniversary celebration. A number of delegations from SYSU enjoyed coffee, cake and other desserts. In the back of the Dodge Room sat a bottle of red wine next to a number of books written in Chinese about physical education and sport.

Redmond, who delivered a presentation on Springfield’s history with SYSU, said, “The world is shrinking. If we’re going to solve a lot of the world’s problems—whether they’re economic or social—you really need to know about other cultures. If you can embed yourself by visiting folks from different countries, you learn a bit more and can understand how other people do things. Over time, you begin to appreciate and respect others. With respect and appreciation, there’s typically more acceptance of other people.”

Immediately after an agreement was reached, the relationship began to grow. In June of 1996, Springfield professors traveled to SYSU to conduct workshops in tennis and conditional fitness. In September 1997, a SYSU professor came to Springfield and introduced table tennis as a physical education activity course. In May 2000, the Springfield men’s soccer team went to SYSU for clinics and friendly matches. In May 2004, the SYSU volleyball team traveled to Springfield for skill training, conditioning and cultural activities.

Most recently, Springfield College sent a number of athletic training students to SYSU on an alternative spring break trip to share and experience different techniques.

The Gift of Graciousness

On a particularly warm day in Springfield—March 11, 2015—a group of students took the short drive to Bradley airport. After a 20-minute flight to Newark, N.J., the students endured a 17-hour flight over the North Pole into Hong Kong, China.

“When we first got off, it was very surreal,” senior athletic training student Courtney Greth said. “It was comfortable at first because the airport was pretty Americanized. The only thing different was the way the people looked.”

Then the group headed to mainland China where “it was complete culture shock.” Surrounded by fields with workers who wore traditional Asian conical hats, Greth and her classmates felt far from home.

It was a taste of how some international students at Springfield College may feel—uncomfortable, different, alone. That was until Greth and company met up with students from SYSU.

“The things that we had the awesome opportunity to do (like dragon boat racing) didn’t even compare to the people we got to meet,” Greth said. “The people were so kind and generous. You couldn’t tell someone that you liked their shirt because they would tear it off and give it to you. It was really incredible to see how much they cared for their guests and visitors.”

The graciousness was further experienced by Greth when she expressed her desire for a Chinese lantern. After digging through nearly every shop in sight, Greth thought she was out of luck. Then, a SYSU student volunteer named YC, told Greth that he would get her a lantern, but it may take a few days. On the final day of the trip, YC presented Greth with two red lanterns with yellow tassel. He ordered them online and refused to be reimbursed.

“It was really crazy to see them go out of their way for just one student. It was so special and so incredible,” Greth said with a smile.

The trip changed Greth’s life. She learned a priceless amount of knowledge about Chinese medicine, and she can’t wait to apply that to her athletic training education. More importantly, having experienced what it’s like to be “the other,” she now has a great deal of empathy for international students at Springfield. She loves having conversations with students from China in Cheney Dining Hall, and she wants to make them feel at home.

“I want to make their experience in America that much more special because the people of China wanted to make our trip the best week of our lives, and they certainly did,” Greth said.

The senior hopes to return to China to study Chinese acupuncture, massage and other techniques. She wants to bring back to the States what she learns, just like John Ma brought his physical education knowledge from Springfield back to China nearly 100 years ago.

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