ALI Serves International Student Athletes On and Off the Court
On a warm spring day in Long Beach, international students Peppi Ramstedt and Zuzanna Szczepanska had just spent five hours on the court as new members of the CSULB Women’s Tennis team. The sport and the Southern California weather were two of the big reasons that brought Peppi and Zuzanna here together from their home countries of Finland and Poland, respectively.
“I really like tennis,” said Peppi, “and in Finland it would be very hard to play tennis and study, so now I can do both. I chose CSULB because I’m a biochemistry major, and they offer a lot here, so that’s a big plus.”
“After some research, Long Beach seemed like a good option for me,” agreed Zuzanna. “I have high aspirations as a professional tennis player after college.”
Since arriving at CSULB, both players have found themselves in good hands on both the athletic and academic sides of campus life. Women’s tennis coach Jenny Hilt-Costello has taken the women's tennis program into the national elite during a 23-season run. In addition to bringing Beach Tennis their first Top 20 ranking, she was named the Big West Conference Coach of the Year a league-record nine times between 2001 and 2019. At the same time, the American Language Institute (ALI) is helping Peppi and Zuzanna to improve their English skills in order to thrive in their first-year classes.
Both students previously studied their second language in European high schools, so they already speak excellent English, but their course with ALI instructor Courtney Stammler adds more vocabulary—so they can learn to speak conversationally—as well as subject-specific practical knowledge that can be applied to their academic research and writing assignments.
“We learn English in a very formal way [in Poland],” said Zuzanna. “Also I used to learn British English, and some details vary from American English. After coming here, I found some language barriers, and it was difficult to have courage to speak out loud, especially in a classroom full of Americans in a Communications course. But practice makes perfect, and we’re working on it.”
“The teachers are very understanding when we have matches and can’t attend classes,” said Peppi. “You can get tutoring pretty easily if you feel behind. So it’s very helpful.”
Keeping a balance on and off the court is certainly a challenge, since the Women’s Tennis team keeps a busy schedule that includes about 20 hours per week of practice Monday through Saturday, as well as an average of one match per week—although March 2022 was even busier, with up to three weekly matches. In addition to playing on their home court, the team has recently traveled for away games to San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Las Vegas; as well as the Big West Conference championship tournament in May.
“Every team fights for a win,” said Zuzanna. “Everyone is very competitive, and you really need to work hard on the court every time...every point, every ball matters. You need to be very determined and focused to be successful.”
“It’s nice to play here, because in Finland, there’s not a lot of players. I’ve been playing with like the same 10 girls since I was 10 years old!” laughed Peppi. “So that gets to be boring, and it’s nice to have some new faces.”
Besides their ALI classes, a few other elements of life at CSULB have helped Peppi and Zuzanna to balance sports and studies: courses in time management, the friendliness of their classmates, and the campus itself. The wide-open green spaces full of plants and peaceful outdoor study areas are a particularly attractive highlight.
“I like the campus a lot, it just has a good vibe,” said Peppi. “I like the study areas, the library and the Horn Center, and many activities in student union too.”
“It’s so much different, so much bigger than what we have in Europe,” she continued. “I’ve never seen anything like that before…just in movies!”
“You notice a lot of international students here, and thanks to this, I don’t feel so alone in this situation,” said Zuzanna. “Sometimes it can be overwhelming surrounded by native speakers, and they do better in academics, but they’re very nice, they don’t judge. Whenever I have some questions or struggle with anything, they’re very helpful.”
This welcoming atmosphere has made Peppi and Zuzanna feel comfortable with spending the next three years in Long Beach. After that, the worlds of tennis and family may lead them elsewhere, but for now everything is up in the air—like a tennis ball in mid-serve.
“I really enjoy my time here in America, but it’s so different from Europe,” said Zuzanna. “I’m really close to my family, and it’s 15 hours by plane...but right now, America has a lot of opportunities, especially as a tennis player. I find colleges here are very developed in terms of giving opportunities for athletes.”
“The programs in Finland are good too, but if I fall in love with America, I might stay,” agreed Peppi.
Regardless of their postgraduate futures, both have made a comfortable home at CSULB.
“Compared to my first semester, it’s been a huge difference in terms of my level of English,” said Zuzanna. “ALI helps us to do better, and that’s very helpful.”
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