For international students, the prospect of leaving home to study in the United States is one that kindles both feelings of excitement and anxiety. The opportunity to receive a well-rounded college education plants the ideas of what these young adults’ futures could be, but the potential language barrier and separation from the familiar sites and faces of home make it one to grab with skepticism. International student-athletes not only juggle these thoughts when considering this life-changing decision, but they must also weigh in the added pressure of needing to excel in their respective sport.
Eden O’Leary’s decision to take this leap of faith and leave behind everything he knew in Israel for the chance to play soccer and pursue a degree at Seton Hall was one that took all these factors into consideration.
“The United States is the only place where you can combine academics and playing sports at the highest level,” O’Leary said. “In Israel you can’t do that. Before I came here, I was talking to the coaches and Jeff [Matteo] actually came to Israel to visit me. We had a really good talk, and I talked to Andreas [Lindberg] over the phone. I asked him a million questions, he could tell you, because I needed to know everything. I spoke to Carlton [McKenzie] also because I wanted to know what exactly I was coming into because I was leaving all my life back [in Israel]. It all sounded worth it to leave everything and come here.”
O’Leary’s journey to Seton Hall in general was one of unusual circumstances, even for an international student. After finishing high school, he enlisted in the Israeli army to complete his compulsory military service of two years and eight months. His status as a professional player in the second and third divisions of Israeli soccer provided him a bit more leeway with how he fulfilled his service requirement, but he was put through the trials and tribulations of military training just like every other young adult in Israel.
“Because I played soccer, I didn’t actually have time to be a soldier on the field,” O’Leary said. “At the beginning, everyone goes away for two months to the base and they carry a gun just like preparation for the army. My role wasn’t that important. I was always with computers and stuff that was important, but I wasn’t an actual soldier.”
By the end of his service, O’Leary had already decided he wanted to move to the United States for a college education. As a 23-year-old freshman coming into the Seton Hall program, though, the distance from home and language barriers were just the beginning of the hurdles he would have to jump in his first year with the Pirates. Though he loves to be around the younger members in his freshman class, O’Leary finds it easier to connect with the upperclassmen of the team instead. His housemates – about seven other international students – have, however, provided him with a second family to overcome the difficulty of being away from home.
“At least for myself, I came here not knowing anyone,” O’Leary said. “I spent all the time with my teammates during preseason, during meals and throughout training. All the time. It was weird throwing yourself into a team where you don’t know anyone or the language but are forced to make those relationships quickly. Between ourselves, in terms of our friendship within the team, everybody loves everybody, and I feel like a part of the team.”
As the end of the 2019 season approaches, O’Leary’s move seems to have been well worth the risk. He is the only freshman to surpass 1,000 minutes of action and has solidified his position within the heart of Lindberg’s midfield. His form at the beginning of the season was admittedly off-key, but his recent performances against St. John’s and Army West Point exemplified why he has consistently been in the starting lineup.
It has been a rather unorthodox ride for O’Leary to land in Seton Hall all the way from Israel, but one he shows very little regret in taking. The opportunity has put him outside of his comfort zone and forced him to develop both on and off the soccer field as a person. Alongside his fellow international student-athletes and the domestic soccer team members, O’Leary has progressively adjusted to the lifestyle of his next three-and-a-half years in the U.S.
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.