To some, running conjures up images of burned lungs and dread. For others, it is as essential as coffee to a morning routine.
For senior Matthew Baxter, running is a way of life. It has allowed him to push the limits of what he can achieve.
However, after three years competing in track and cross country, his visa is up and he will soon return to New Zealand.
While Baxter has the option to stay in the United States and continue pursuing a master’s degree in criminology, he said he would like to focus on his future as a professional runner. He isn’t sure if he will complete his master’s at NAU.
“I’m done competing for NAU now so my eligibility is up,” said Baxter. “If I want to stay in the country, I have to keep studying. With how my running is going, it’s just not the right time to be trying to do both.”
Balancing athletics with coursework is one thing — most professors understand just how rigorous sports schedules can be. Competing professionally as an independent athlete, however, is a different ball game. Baxter now faces the task of finding sponsors and races to run on his own.
Obtaining an F-1 or student visa involves jumping through several hoops. First, students must be accepted into an American university, then that university provides an I-20 form. Students must also be able to provide proof of funding for their entire cost of attendance, which typically amounts to roughly $37,000.
Courtney Luque, director for the International Students and Scholars Services department, said obtaining a visa is a time-consuming process with several steps involved.
“There’s a lot to know for international students,” said Luque. “They have a lot of things to be thinking about and worrying about along the way.”
F-1 visas are given to degree-seeking students, whereas those studying abroad for a semester or two typically receive a J-1 visa. The latter has similar requirements but lasts for a shorter period of time. A visa is required to enter the U.S. but not to remain within it. So, as long as other requirements are continually met, students do not have to renew their visa.
Upon arrival, international students must maintain full-time enrollment at the university, which for undergraduates is 12 academic credits per semester. For graduate students, this requirement is met with only nine credits. With this in mind, Baxter said being able to focus on his running while simultaneously maintaining a course load is simply not viable.
“What happens in your life often directly impacts what’s going on with your immigration status,” Luque said.
The stress of living in a different culture might cause international students to struggle and eventually drop courses. However, considering the federal requirements, dropping a class could impact their ability to remain in the country.
New Zealand native and Baxter’s girlfriend Emily Roughan completed a three-year trek with the cross country team in spring but stayed to finish her master’s degree in education. She plans to graduate at the end of fall.
Roughan traveled from New Zealand, alongside Baxter, to run with the team. Despite an initial culture shock, she said the community at NAU made her transition much easier.
“The support we had, the friends we made on the team and the coaches made it a lot easier,” said Roughan. “We took a risk coming over here, and it paid off.”
Baxter and his teammates have garnered national fame and acquired their third victory in the 2018 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship. According to NAU Athletics, they are the first non “power five” school to win a three-peat in NCAA cross-country since 1981. In his tenure, Baxter’s team never lost a meet.
“I’ve had a great time competing with these boys,” Baxter said.
At this year’s championship, Baxter ran the 10-kilometer race in just 29:35, and ranked No. 15 among the best collegiate cross country runners in the country. In imperial measurements, that means he ran 6.25 miles at an average pace of 4:45 per mile.
Other teammates placed well to boot, with Tyler Day ranking No. 6 overall, and Luis Grijalva ranking No. 23. The team’s overall average race time was 29:39 seconds - a solid 7 seconds better than the runners-up.
Michael Smith, NAU director of track, field and cross-country, said every second counts at an event like this.
“Every inch of this championship win was earned by these young men,” said Smith
Now that Baxter’s gaze is set on loftier goals, he will compete in a half-marathon in January, shortly before returning home. He expects to be back on his home island by the end of February 2019. Once home, Baxter is going to work on training for the track season then focus on trying out for New Zealand national teams.
“Coming over here and being able to compete against some of the best college athletes in the world has been huge in terms of my progress as an athlete,” Baxter said. “Trying to get on any kind of world champ or Olympic team is definitely hard though.”
Studying and competing in America comes with its fair share of challenges for international students. New Zealand is 103,483 square miles with a population of just over 4.7 million Arizona on the other hand, is just one of 50 states, spans 113,998 square miles with a population of over 7 million. Baxter’s home state of the past years has been larger than his home country.
“The U.S. is so different to home,” Baxter said. “It’s been a nice three years of just doing different stuff.”
Despite the challenges faced by international athletes studying abroad, many find a community at NAU ready to accept, embrace and support them for the entirety of their stay.