Ohio State then-freshman outside hitter Vanja Bukilic prepares to serve in the match against Northwestern on Nov. 4 at St. John Arena. Ohio State lost to Northwestern in four sets. Credit: Colin Gay | Former Sports Editor

Leaving home and coming to college can be one of the hardest things for a person to do, yet millions of first-year students do it every year. However, traveling from another country to attend a school with new customs, a new language and a different culture is a whole new game. 

It’s a game worth playing for Ohio State women’s volleyball players senior outside hitter Ana Beatriz Franklin, sophomore opposite hitter Vanja Bukilic and freshman setter Cecilia Rocafort, who all came into the program as international students.

“In Brazil, after you finish high school, you either go to college or you go on to play pro. You can’t do both or it’s very hard to do both,” Franklin said. “I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity to still go to school and get a great degree and play volleyball at the highest level in the Big Ten.”

When recruiting international players, head coach Geoff Carlston said he makes it a priority to meet the players and their families and provide an opportunity for them to meet the team.

Even with this layer of preparation, the difference in gameplay can still prove challenging for international players, Carlston said. 

Bukilic, from Serbia, grew up playing a stoic and straightforward game, but when she joined the Buckeyes, the coaches and players knew they needed her to get out of her shell and show more enthusiasm on the court, Carlston said.

Now in her second year in the program, Bukilic said she has adapted to many of the challenges she faced as a freshman.

“Last year I was more confused, scared with how the playing goes,” Bukilic said. “This year I know what to expect from different teams, from my team, from my school perspective, from my life.”

This confusion, though, did not stop her from having a stellar freshman season. During the 2018 season, Bukilic led the team with 358 season kills and ranked No. 3 among Big Ten freshmen with three kills per set.

As with any transition process, a support system helped Bukilic through this period of change. She said the team provided that for her even during the recruiting process.

“The first reason I came here was the team and the coaches. When I was being recruited, the team was just taking my breath, they were so honest,” Bukilic said. “They didn’t fake it like some teams do when recruits come. But I felt with this team it was actually true and now being here, it just supports my first thoughts.”

Having a member of the team who could understand the perspective of being an international player furthered Bukilic’s comfort with the team and game.

Then-sophomore outside hitter Ana Beatriz Franklin serves for Ohio State during the Buckeyes’ match against Purdue at St. John Arena on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. Purdue won the match 3-0. Credit: Jeff Helfrich | Former Lantern Reporter

“Bia [Franklin] helped me a lot. She’s one of my best friends. She knows how culturally things are different in the U.S. and home,” Bukilic said. “We go and have small coffee dates where she would help me out and support everything I do. It’s just easier when you tell people how you feel, and she would listen and give advice.”

Franklin, who grew up in Brazil and played for the youth national team, found she could overcome challenges through her teammates’ support.

“I spoke very little English but I had a really awesome class of seniors when I came in, so it was never that big of a deal. I always felt very accepted, and I adjusted pretty quick,” Franklin said.

Even with this support, she said the differences between the way volleyball is played in the U.S. took some adjusting.

“Physically we’re very different — Brazil is a lot shorter so I would say the game’s a lot faster and a lot looser,” Franklin said. “There there’s a lot of tactics and a lot more structure [here] so that took me a while. But definitely physically was the biggest difference for me.”

Hitting her stride in the 2018 season, Franklin led the team with 39 aces in her junior season and was ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten with an average .32 aces per set.

Carlston said he’s seen these differences in game play affect his players’ comfort on the court in their first couple matches, but time changes all things.

“It’s almost like I came full circle,” Franklin said. “Now as a senior, I’m so comfortable, so confident in myself and my team so it reminds of how I played back home. I feel more like myself than ever.”

This year, Franklin said she wants to exemplify the treatment she received from the seniors during her freshman season. Rocafort, from Puerto Rico, said Franklin and the other seniors have done just that.

Though this group has aided Rocafort’s transition process, she said the cultural differences continue to be the biggest obstacle.

“Even though Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., everything is so different,” Rocafort said. “Just going to church, people dress so differently. The traditions during the holidays are all so different. How we dress, how we act, how we talk. But I’m excited to keep on learning.”

In her first year in the program, Rocafort has been training with fellow setters freshman Mac Podraza and junior Becca Mauer to grow in her abilities and become more comfortable with Buckeye volleyball.

Overall, she said she wants to grow and excel like she has seen Bukilic and Franklin do after their transitions to Ohio State.

“I hope to grow to my full potential as a volleyball player, and I wish to learn a lot from what this university and the courses have to offer me and grow as a person with this university because it’s truly amazing,” Rocafort said.