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Ms. Chanelle Nicol Meijer
10 Abraham Kriel Steet
|Athletes conquer cultural barriers
January 19, 2006 - Cajun tennis players overcome language obstacles to compete in the United States
Celine VanWeydeveld has Belgian roots, speaks French and Spanish, has lived in the Congo and traveled extensively, and is a senior studying modern language and anthropology at the University of Louisiana.
But when VanWeydeveld arrived at UL to play tennis for the Ragin' Cajun women, she still faced a period of adjustment as she adapted to the language and culture of the area.
Freshman teammate Marine Neveu of La Rochelle, France, is only just beginning to see what VanWeydeveld went through when she arrived.
The picture wasn't as daunting for junior Chanelle Meijer of South Africa - the language barrier was much smaller, for example - but she, too, experienced her own brand of culture shock as a UL student-athlete.
Cajun men's players are not immune to the adjustments needed, but seniors Robin Ley of South Africa and Evghenii Corduneanu of Moldavia have embraced the experience and are eager to finish their Cajun careers on a high note.
It's all part of the mix for a program that has one American man and one stateside woman on its rosters, and which is welcoming Katalin Gyulai to the coaching staff this year to guide the women.
"It's a wonderful thing to be here and play college tennis," Ley said. "Lafayette's culture is so diverse, and it's great to meet people and learn about them. Americans, and Cajuns in particular, are inquisitive. They love to meet people, have fun, share their music and share food."
The outgoing Ley, a sports management major, remains open to new vistas on a daily basis.
"Today on campus," he said, "I was getting a cold meat sandwich and a couple of girls saw that I had tennis shoes on and asked if I was on the tennis team. I said yes and said 'I bet you can't guess where I'm from.' Then we sat down and shared a sandwich and talked."
VanWeydeveld found a connection through her knowledge of the French language, although it is different from Cajun French.
"The older people like it," VanWeydeveld said. "It's kind of the same. Sometimes it's the same words, but reversed. The grammar form is more simple. At one time French was a secret language here. Its use is decreasing, and that's sad. I've learned so much about the culture."
It wasn't immediately that enjoyable, though.
"I knew French and Spanish, but had to learn English," VanWeydeveld said. "For six months I couldn't understand what was going on around me. I could read it and knew grammar, but I wasn't good at speaking.
"It's stressful, because you want to talk. You learn you just have to talk. Everything is mixed. It's a different experience."
Neveu can attest to that.
"My English was very bad," Neveu said. "I knew just grammar. You have to follow in class. I knew some particular words, but couldn't understand. The difference here is that you can speak with your teacher and get tutoring."
All of them became quickly identifiable by their accents, which opened a few conversations.
"Once you talk with other students, they see that you're normal and it's not a problem," Meijer said. "They learn I'm from South Africa and they want to know how it's alike and how it's different. It depends, person to person, how much they ask."
"I had English courses in high school, but it's nothing without practice," Corduneanu said. "My understanding was very basic."
"At first, it's difficult for them," coach Justin McGrath said. "You have to constantly sell them on the idea that they're at a good place. And an education gives them something to fall back on besides tennis. Maybe five (college) players in the whole country make it on the pro tour.
"I recruit players who are looking to play pro. Evghenii was a Top 100 junior in the world, but he realized the importance of (getting) a degree. He'll graduate this semester. He's really had to work on his studies."
"The players don't have the skeleton (of language)," Gyulai said. "They don't live in the culture. It's a different world.
"I'm fluent in Romanian and advanced in Spanish. I'm able to pick up the nuances. The English I learned in Europe was British English, with the emphasis on grammar. Americans use different words and in different context.
"One word can change the meaning. It's not what you say, it's how you say what you say."
"Wherever you go," Ley said, "there are going to be slang phrases and colloquialisms. For an international student, it's important to maintain your own language, but at the same time you want to learn.
"It's fascinating to be observant, and to be invited in. It's such a huge privilege that they open themselves up."
"I've learned the language and met different people, and that helps open your mind," VanWeydeveld said. "I didn't know this country or how people think."
Still, a voice from home can help, no matter how far away.
"There's a seven-hour time difference between here and home," Neveu said. "I speak with my mother, or she e-mails me every day. But my father is coaching in Africa and my brother is in Germany. It's very difficult to stay in touch with them.
"You become close with your teammates. (Shreveport's) Kimmie Lyles is like second family to me. She's very present in my life."
"Your social life is structured around your team first," said Meijer, a 3.9 student in accounting. "They understand. They know what you're going through. There's also the international students' office, and you meet others there. Then you have classes, and have to go places, go to meetings.
"In the beginning it's difficult. I still try to speak to my parents every day, if possible."
"International students can't just pick up the phone," Ley said. "That's why our nuclear (team) circle is so important. We learn from each other."
"The holidays are hard," said Corduneanu, who hasn't been home in four years. "Most students can drive, go home and relax. Moldavia is 18 hours away, and flights are expensive. I always stick around.
"I've been out on my own since I was 16, playing junior tournaments. It's always hard, but I'm already adjusted to it. I have very good discipline. I manage things very well. I'm prepared for the real world."
That's what college is about, no matter where that experience takes place.
MEN: The Louisiana Ragin' Cajun men's tennis team will open the 2006 spring season at home, hosting the Southern Jaguars in a 1 p.m. match Sunday at Cajun Courts.
UL was originally slated to host Lamar on Saturday for the opener, but the Cardinals have a scheduling conflict and will need to be worked in later in the season.
Alcorn State will visit Cajun Courts for a 2 p.m. match next Tuesday.
WOMEN: The Cajun women, who like the men began practice on Wednesday, visit the LSU Tigers in a 1 p.m. match Saturday. They then will turn their attention to the Feb. 1 home opener against Southeastern Louisiana.
Originally published January 19, 2006
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