UTEP international athletes support each other, find solidarity amid COVID

Karoline Daland and Taylor Stone, two international athletes, lived with other athletes when COVID struck

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Photo courtesy of Karoline Daland

(L-R); Briana Bustillos, Karoline Daland, Mahra Mcleod and Taylor Stone lived together when student residents were directed out of student housing.

Daniela Ramos, Contributor

Karoline Daland said she had been training so hard to finish off the track & field season earlier this year, but then COVID-19 took the world by storm. Her next track meet was only a week away, but it suddenly got canceled.

When the pandemic upended the college experience in March, most international student athletes suddenly had to pay for expensive airplane tickets to go back home, but some of them stayed in the United States.

Daland, a junior UTEP track & field athlete from Grimstad, Norway, was one of those international athletes who stayed in the U.S. and she said she found a strong sense of community and support with the other athletes she stayed with.

“Being quarantined helped us get to know each other better,” said Daland. “We were together all the time.”

Finding a new home when the pandemic struck

Daland’s family in Norway had already been on lockdown for a while when El Paso’s stay-at-home mandate was issued in late April. By that time, UTEP had already ordered students living on campus to leave their dorms.

“I was just waiting for it to happen in the U.S.,” said Daland, who’s also a business management student at UTEP.

When UTEP students were directed to leave their dorms, Daland said she was fortunate to have been living at a house in El Paso with other UTEP athletes instead, so she at least had some housemates by her side.

Daland’s housemates or “quarantine besties” were Brianna Bustillos, a UTEP sophomore who’s also volleyball player from Chamberino, New Mexico; Mahra McLeod, a junior psychology major at UTEP and ex-volleyball player for Seattle University; and Taylor Stone, a UTEP senior and golf player from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Daland said they all share a passion for an active, upbeat life and relate to one another when it comes to constant training, sore muscles, impossible schedules, and missing home.

The athletes have a mutual understanding of the grind that comes with being a college athlete and just how demanding it can be. Although two are native to the United States, they all live away from their families, something that causes them to often feel lonely, especially during hard times like the ones they faced during these past moths of COVID-19.

Fortunately, they found hope, encouragement, support, and, overall, true friendship in one another, Daland explained.

Welcoming an international athlete with open arms

Stone was one of many UTEP student athletes staying in on-campus housing when most student residents were forced out due to the COVID-19 outbreak in March, but Daland said Stone quite literally found refuge in their friendship when they moved in together.

With home being all the way in Canada, Stone had to pack everything up in a day and move out. Daland said Stone contacted her knowing she lived in El Paso with other student athletes.

Stone was immediately welcomed to the home by the housemates who arranged a space for her and all of her belongings.

“Another friend of ours that was living here moved back to California,” Daland explained. “So, there was an open spot for her in the house.”

What may have started as a need for a place to stay, flourished into long-lasting connections between them. Even though Stone moved back to Miner Canyon for the fall, the tedious quarantine period in El Paso gave way to great bonding experiences for all four of the girls.

These friendships helped see Daland through the struggle of being away from home, as it did for Bustillos, McLeod, and Stone.

Nonetheless, the challenge that COVID presents to international students, as well as the challenge of feeling different from others that are native to El Paso or the U.S., are challenges these students have been braving for months.

But they have found solidarity and comfort amongst each other.

Struggling with COVID and going back home

In the summer when restrictions began to ease in both the United States and Norway, Daland decided going back home was her best option. In Norway, she was not only able to be with her family, but she was also able to train appropriately.

During El Paso’s stay-at-home period in the spring, Daland said “it was hard to find motivation to train.”

She explained that there was no other place to run other than around the block on pavement, which she said is something as unhealthy as it is unamusing.

Nonetheless, Daland admitted being away from her family while the world grappled with the pandemic was the hardest part for her, but missing her family is something she was already accustomed to since she is a third-year student at UTEP with the people she loves back in Grimstad.

However, being stuck at her new home knowing her family was thousands of miles away was an entirely different experience.

Daland began to talk to her family more often by arranging video calls with them every day — something she used to do only once a month before the pandemic.

“It’s harder for us because we don’t have anyone to ride with us through this,” Daland explained when asked if there was a struggle unique to international students during COVID-19.

Finally returning home was refreshing for both her athletic career and spirit, but as she spent more time away from El Paso and her housemates, she said she began to miss them as well.

Her bond with the Sun City has grown so much, she said, that she refers to El Paso as her second home where her fellow female UTEP athletes accompanied her through the pandemic.

In light of all that happened in the previous months, and being able to go through it with such great companions at her side, Karoline said that if there are any lessons to be learned from the pandemic, they are that “you can always do better to maintain your hygiene,” that social media can always be used to connect with others and, finally, to “be happy and take advantage of the time you have outside because you never really know what might happen next.”

Daniela Ramos may be reached at [email protected]; @Daniela41150119 on Twitter.