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Growing number of international students playing tennis for Blugolds

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: This year, three members of UW-Eau Claire’s tennis team are international students, coming to the university from three different countries. Victor Simoes (left) is from Brazil, Jose Felipe Trejo (middle) is from Mexico, and Otto Schluter (right) is from England. All three say UW-Eau Claire’s reputation for quality athletics and its legacy tennis program brought them to campus. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

With its reputation for quality academics and a tennis team with a history of success, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has long attracted many top tennis players from the Midwest.

Now UW-Eau Claire’s tennis program also is attracting a growing number of international students. This year, three international students — all from different countries — are playing tennis for the Blugolds.

Otto Schluter is a freshman from England who is a business finance major and a Spanish liberal arts minor; Victor Simoes is a junior from Brazil who is an information systems major; and Jose Felipe Trejo is a sophomore from Mexico who is a business administration major and a psychology liberal arts minor.

Attracting athletes from around the world who are passionate about both tennis and their classes is a trend head coach Brian Biernat hopes continues at UW-Eau Claire.

“The international players are really excited to be part of the team and we’re excited to have them here,” Biernat says. “They are excited to be with the other players as they learn about our culture and share their cultures. It’s just really cool to have them here. They bring different ideas and experiences than the local players, which is good for everyone on the team.”

A path to UW-Eau Claire

Felipe Trejo and Simoes already were enrolled at UW-Eau Claire when Biernat was hired as the tennis team’s head coach. It was Biernat who convinced Schluter that UW-Eau Claire was the right place for him.

Schluter learned about UW-Eau Claire from an agent who connects students in England with U.S. colleges. She told him that UW-Eau Claire was a “great college” and would be a good fit for him, so he set up a call with the coach, he says.

“The tennis was the primary focus for me but also the business program, which I heard was great here,” says Schluter, who wants to someday work for an investment firm, and eventually, manage his own fund. “I also knew that I wanted to take Spanish as a minor because I really like the way it sounds and think it would be a great way to have a foot in the working world.”

His call with the coach assured him that UW-Eau Claire had the academic programs he was looking for, as well as a competitive tennis program. Biernat has a business background, which he says helped him quickly connect with Schluter.

Biernat says Schluter and his parents also appreciated his philosophy that as a coach his job is to help his players excel on the court but to also help them prepare for life after tennis. So, he talks to them about resumes, interviewing and other matters that are important to their future success.

“Otto never came to campus; he just decided to come after we talked,” Biernat says. “He liked what he heard. He told me that his parents want him to get a good business education, but they also want him to do something besides just study all the time. For him, that’s tennis. So, our business program and the tennis team fit what they were looking for really well.”

Felipe Trejo and Simoes met when both were attending a tennis academy in California. After Simoes graduated, he enrolled at UW-Eau Claire. He soon reached out to Felipe Trejo, encouraging him to consider joining him in Wisconsin.

“The first time I heard about Eau Claire was because of Victor,” Felipe Trejo says. “We both texted, and he ended up convincing me to come visit. UWEC felt right, both the place and the tennis team.”

As he was getting to know his team, Biernat says he talked with the international players about what inspired them to come to UW-Eau Claire from other parts of the world. They all told him the university’s legacy tennis program was important, but it was the quality of the academic programs and the size and feel of the campus and community that convinced them this was the right college for them.

“The way they made their decisions was interesting,” Biernat says. “Some of it was chance; they looked at the website and liked what they saw. A lot of it was based on how it felt and looked to them.”

A strong bond

Now a sophomore, Felipe Trejo says the campus and tennis team still feel like the right fit.

“My experience with the tennis team has been great; it’s like a family,” Felipe Trejo says. “These people are my brothers, and it feels amazing hanging out with them both off and on the court. The coaching staff is amazing. I’m learning a lot from them.”

Being part of a team that includes Americans, but also other international students, is making the experience even better because it adds more diversity to the team, Felipe Trejo says.

“It’s nice how some words from my language are adopted by my teammates,” Felipe Trejo says. “It feels good to have diversity on the team. It’s so cool.”

Schluter agrees, saying the Blugold tennis team is all he’d hoped it would be and more.

“I’ve loved every moment of it, from takeaways on journeys to and from matches to going unbeaten in Florida over spring break,” Schluter says. “All the boys on the team are great and the coaches are very motivated. I’m looking forward to the next four years.”

Biernat says he enjoys seeing the players learn from each other as they share experiences on and off the court. He hears them talking about everything from tennis to food to their cultural traditions.

“The team has a fun time with it all,” Biernat says. “I hear a lot of ‘you have to see this or experience that.’ It’s really cool to see how excited they are to show or to explain things to each other.”

A welcoming campus, community

People across campus — faculty, staff and fellow students — also are friendly and welcoming, making it a little easier to be away from their families and communities, the student-athletes say.

“I’ve been surprised with how welcoming everyone has been, in particular the tennis team, but also those that I talk with in class,” Schluter says.

The best thing about UW-Eau Claire is the opportunity to meet so many new people, Felipe Trejo says.

“They are interested in my culture and how I experience something different from the usual,” Felipe Trejo says. “It’s been a great experience. It feels like there’s something new every day, so I just get to enjoy my time here.”