Health and Exercise Science recognizes excellence in their international students

Colorado State University Rams come from near and far, from all over the country, and all over the world. With the challenges that have come in the 2020 school year, we recognize that all Rams have been far from home, and many have not been able to return. The CSU Department of Health and Exercise Science is lucky to have international students who are eager to learn and excel and deserve recognition for their hard work in making the best of the circumstances in their new home away from home.

Savannah Ager and a typical sunset elephant sighting at Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
Savannah Ager and a typical sunset elephant sighting at Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe

Coming from all corners

International Rams come from all over the globe, traveling long distances away from their family and culture to become a part of the Ram family here in Fort Collins.

Rongyi Zhang is an HES student hailing from Shanghai, China.

“It is a big city with a large population,” said Zhang. “The environment for living, studying, and working is competitive.”

Savannah Ager comes from Harare, the capital and largest city in Zimbabwe.

“It’s still what I consider home, and my entire family lives there,” says Ager.  “Growing up in Zim was such an incredible experience, and I would never want to have grown up anywhere else. I grew up in the suburbs and frequently traveled throughout southern Africa (Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia) and was able to deep-sea fish off the coast, watch herds of elephant graze, all with some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. It’s an unimaginable experience, that was all so standard for us back home.”

Sasha Colombo grew up in Milan, Italy with her two brothers and her parents.

“I love Milan, it’s a beautiful city and very historic,” said Colombo. “I love spending Christmas and a couple of weeks in summer at home reunited with my family. The weather is a bit warmer in Milan compared to Colorado, and it definitely doesn’t snow as much!”

A love for Fort Collins

Just like Rams from the United States, our international Rams have made Fort Collins their home away from home, and have found their favorite spots around town.

“The mountain view in Fort Collins is my favorite,” says Zhang. “When I bike home every day, the Rocky Mountains are in front of me. I like that feeling of biking toward the mountain. Also, the people here are very nice. If I have difficulties or problems, my professors and classmates are all happy to help me.”

Ager was less taken by the scenery, but the spirit of the people and their love for the outdoors.

“I love how active and outdoorsy everyone is,” said Ager “No matter the weather conditions!”

For Colombo, it was a combination of the view and the activities, which she takes advantage of whenever she can!

“My favorite thing about Fort Collins is surely Horsetooth Reservoir!” says Colombo. “I love it during every season, but especially in summer. I go there often to paddleboard or just hang out with friends for picnics. I love the view in autumn or winter when it’s covered in snow or ice, it’s so pretty up there! Another thing I love about Fort Collins is the community, everyone is really kind, helpful, and curious about my experience as an international student.”

Sasha Colombo outside the Health and Exercise Science building in July 2018 after committing to the major

A home in HES

Like many HES students, our international students were drawn to the major because it embodies their love for health, wellness, fitness, and science, combining their passion outside the classroom with their pursuit of knowledge.

“This major is close to my life, said Zhang. “I am an active person, and I am interested in nutrition and exercise. I was a sprinter in the school sports team from primary school to high school. I’d like to learn more about the mechanisms and strategizes related to athletic performance.”

Many of our students are former or current athletes that turned their recreation into scientific curiosity, and our international students are no exception.

“I’ve played sports my entire life, various disciplines,” said Ager. “Some of which I represented Zimbabwe for in a few different international competitions/championships. I played water polo and track & field as a national athlete. So, having my life revolve entirely around sport it would make sense that I was intrigued and interested in HES. However, the real reason I picked HES was Tami Boday. When we met to discuss what HES was, and what the major was like, her absolute passion and dedication as an adviser was what swayed my decision!

Despite a love of exercise and fitness, our students all share a passion for the hard sciences and strive to understand the inner workings of the human body. This passion for the answers to the inner workings of humanity is an international interest, shared by domestic students and international students alike.

“As soon as I read the HES major description I was immediately hooked,” said Colombo. “In Italy, we have a different school system, and I chose to attend a scientific high school there, meaning that my education was primarily focused on biology, math, chemistry, and physics. I love that HES focuses on practical knowledge and learning health promotion skills in labs and practicums. I’ve always been very interested in the field of public health and hopefully teaching and inspiring people to engage in healthy lifestyle habits.”

A different country, a different culture, and a different language

Although there are many things that our international students and domestic students share, international students are facing a transition that is unique – they are transitioning to a new place and new academic setting like all students, but also have to adjust to a new country, a new culture, and a new language.

Sasha Colombo celebrating her first point as a CSU Ram, surrounded by thousands of fans in Moby Arena.
Sasha Colombo celebrating her first point as a CSU Ram, surrounded by thousands of fans in Moby Arena

“The language barrier has been the hardest thing when I transition here,” said Zhang. “English is my second language, and it is so different from Chinese that I am not confident with my pronunciation and grammar. This makes me a little shy to talk with native speakers and have a hard time cooperating with other students. Another big difference is the weather.”

“There’s definitely a language barrier to overcome,” Colombo agrees. “In Italy, our schooling is entirely in Italian and we learn English as a second language. My mother is British and I grew up bilingual, so I never had to deal with the difficulty of another language, but it’s still challenging sometimes to live your life and interact with people in a completely different language than your native one.”

For some, the transition also comes with dealing with drastically different climates, including weather patterns they may not have encountered before.

“It snows a lot in Fort Collins,” said Zhang. “Since I was born in the south of China, I seldom see snow in my hometown. I was excited about the snow days when I first came here. However, it can be difficult to come to classes and exercise outside on snow days.”

Some days, the differences between life in Colorado and life abroad can seem overwhelming.

“There are countless differences,” said Ager. “A huge part is being away from family and missing out on a lot of experiences, such as my nieces growing up, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. But I think the biggest difference for myself was the culture shock, Zimbabwe is a big community-based country, and everyone is connected or knows someone who knows you. So, coming to the U.S. and experiencing how difference/less community-based culture was really big for me.”

Sasha Colombo standing outside Moby arena under the words Colorado State University after deciding it would be her new home for 4 years
Sasha Colombo standing outside Moby arena under the words Colorado State University after deciding it would be her new home for 4 years

However, not all cultural differences are negative, and some differences help our international students succeed here at CSU.

“I never attended university in Italy, as I started my university experience in America,” said Colombo. “But I know that most classes in Italy are very big, with one professor lecturing in front of many, many students. At CSU, most of my classes have been relatively small, and I have had plenty of opportunities to engage with my professors one on one.”

Good or bad, there are differences no matter where you go, and our international students make the best out of their new environment every day, even if it means learning about a few new cultural quirks.

“Another funny thing that I had to get used to eventually, is how early Americans eat,” Colombo joked. “I’m used to having dinner later in the evening, around 8 p.m. My freshman year the dining halls closed around 7:30 p.m. so I had to get used to a different eating schedule than back at home.”

Proud to be a part of HES, and making a mark along the way

Although the transition to college can be particularly challenging for international students, that makes their journey in HES all the sweeter, as their triumphs feel momentous as they feel their hard work pays off. We asked our international students what moments made them proud of their work, and they had many highlights to share.

Zhang carved out her experiences with the CSU Recreation Center, choosing to expand her hands-on learning and programs where learning was both verbal and kinetic, so she could support her academic journey even when translation got tough.

“Although my speaking English is not great, I try my best to participate in lab activities and programs held by the Recreation Center,” said Zhang. “I think the HES major calls for a lot of hands-on experience that allow me to better understand and apply the knowledge I learned in class. I did quite well to work with other students and improve our skills with each other.”

Savannah and her teammates celebrating the first CSU Women’s Club Season - (TOP LEFT) Skye Parisi, Tierra Mathews, Madelyn Lippmann, Kaylin McBride (Vice President), Erica Heistand, Savannah Ager (President), Jess Pavek, Meredith McKeown (Coach), (BOTTOM LEFT) Alison O’Dell, Makes Riordan, Julia Cancino, Quinn Shiraishi
Savannah and her teammates celebrating the first CSU Women’s Club Season – (TOP LEFT) Skye Parisi, Tierra Mathews, Madelyn Lippmann, Kaylin McBride (Vice President), Erica Heistand, Savannah Ager (President), Jess Pavek, Meredith McKeown (Coach), (BOTTOM LEFT) Alison O’Dell, Makes Riordan, Julia Cancino, Quinn Shiraishi

Ager paved her own way, making opportunities for herself when opportunities were not already accessible, leaving her mark for women coming after.

“I’ve really pushed myself to do well in school, and I’ve succeeded in so many classes that I think high school me would never have imagined I could do well in,” said Ager. “I was also lucky enough to be able to establish the Women’s Water Polo Team here at CSU with the help of Tami Boday, which is a huge step for us as we’ve been playing on the men’s team for a really long time. It’s a huge accomplishment for me, and I’m so incredibly proud of all of the ladies who’ve pushed to make it happen!”

Colombo had worked hard to balance grades and recreation and found a way to maximize her performance in both.

“I am proud of how well I have handled balancing being an athlete on the CSU volleyball team while keeping a 4.0 GPA,” said Colombo. “I’m very proud of everything I’ve learned, and my performance in the harder classes in this major, such as exercise physiology. I also loved the opportunity offered by the Adult Fitness program within HES; there I get to work one on one with an older adult client and be responsible for teaching them workouts and reinforcing the importance of healthy lifestyle habits.”

Experiencing COVID-19 as an international student

The pandemic has brought unique struggles to every student, but international students share the weight of being far from family and unable to travel to see them for long stretches of time. Although it is not unusual for international students to go home less frequently than domestic students, this length of time and the lack of ability to see loved ones has been uniquely difficult.

“I haven’t been home for a year and a half due to the COVID,” said Zhang. “Although my roommates and my friends give me a lot of support, I still feel kind of lonely here. Family is an important concept in China. I miss them very much.”

Being away from home also has its perks, Zhang reflects.

Sasha Colombo holding the Mountain West Conference Championship trophy for Volleyball in November 2019
Sasha Colombo holding the Mountain West Conference Championship trophy for Volleyball in November 2019

“The positive side of living on my own is that helps me become independent,” said Zhang. “I can deal with various situations now and feel confident with my choices.”

For many, as the virus began shutting things down, they considered whether going home or working remotely from their home countries would be a better option for their education.

“COVID has been an incredibly difficult time for the international students without a doubt, said Ager. “I spent a long time considering whether I should move home and try continue school there, but the logistics of it would be impossible, and unfortunately some professors are not as lenient as we would appreciate them to be.”

Some students did make the decision to make the journey home, but that did not erase the challenges.

“When the pandemic started in the U.S. and CSU switched to remote learning, I decided to go home back to Italy to be with my family,” said Colombo. “I stayed in Italy until July, but throughout those months I was very worried I may not be able to enter the country again or attend CSU, due to new immigration laws. I’m glad everything is hopefully getting better now, and I’m excited to continue attending classes and labs in person at CSU.”

Despite the challenges, the HES community has allowed them to find an outlet in this stressful time.

“Without the community of friends I have created for myself here, I’m not 100% sure I would still be able to stay at CSU with the current COVID situation as it relates to academics,” said Ager.

Advice for international students

As COVID-19 begins to come under control in many parts of the world, and more vaccines are distributed and treatments discovered, the world has begun to open back up, and international students are once again looking for a new home here at CSU. We asked our international students what advice they would give to incoming students just like them.

Zhang encouraged students to speak up, even if they’re unsure of the right words.

“I’d like to tell them to open themselves and be brave to share their ideas with others,” said Zhang. “The people I met in Fort Collins were all kind to me and were patient to hear my voice no matter how bad my English was. If they met problems, be sure to reach out to someone for help. I believe most people here can provide them warm welcome and support.”

Ager encouraged them to take the CSU experience for all it has to offer and to explore Fort Collins as much as possible.

Savannah Ager and her roommate Megan Martin graduating on the Oval in Spring 2021
Savannah Ager and her roommate Megan Martin graduating on the Oval in Spring 2021

“Experience as much as you can, take the leap and say yes to unexpected trips or plans,” said Ager. “Get out there and do as much as you can because yes we’re all here for the academics but what will truly make your time at CSU out of this world is the people you meet and the memories you make! There are so many places close by to visit – Horsetooth, Poudre Valley, Siemens Reservoir – and they’re all worth it!”

No matter what they try, Colombo knows that they will find their place.

“I’m loving my experience at CSU as an international student, and I’m already sad I’m soon going to be starting my last year soon, said Colombo. “My piece of advice would be saying ‘yes’ to any opportunity or adventure while here in the U.S., such as attending a country music concert or visiting Aspen, so you can experience as much as possible and as many cultural differences in your years here.”

The Department of Health and Exercise Science is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.