Thousands of miles from home, tennis players must perform at a high level both on the court and in the classroom.

For many students, going to college can feel like entering an entirely new world. It’s their first taste of being on their own. maybe they’re from a different state or region of the United States and are surprised to hear new dialects or try new foods their new home has to offer, or maybe they’re coming from a small town and are surprised to see a bigger college city.

For some students, however, it really is like seeing a new planet for the first time. Junior tennis player Polina Mutel hails from Yaroslavl, Russia, and made her first visit to the U.S. when she chose to attend Northwestern State University on a tennis scholarship.

Mutel could barely speak English when she arrived, only taking basic level classes in Yaroslavl.

Polina Mutel Photos by Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services

“I could barely understand anyone. I was just listening and pretending I understood what they [were] saying and didn’t want to talk at all,” she said. “It took a year and a half, and extra classes with tutors to learn English.”

Being on opposite sides of the world, it’s no surprise that the cultures of Russia and the U.S. would be vastly different.

“[The] first thing that surprised me was when everyone said ‘hey’ or ‘what’s up’ when we didn’t know each other,” Mutel said. “People are actually friendly and want to talk to you. In my country, it’s not common thing to say ‘hey’ randomly.

“Also, food; food [here] is really spicy, and I cannot really eat spicy food,” she said. “I miss my mom’s food, homemade food. When I go home, my mom cooks all day long for me.”

The tennis team, as of right now, has only international students on the roster; players come from India, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Spain and Ukraine. Mutel mentioned that much of the team’s cultures were similar since they’re mostly from eastern and western Europe and all felt the shock of coming to the U.S.

“As the oldest, I feel I have more responsibility than everyone,” she said. “[The] younger girl[s] – they are still getting in the process of getting used to the U.S. I feel like I have to help them.”

One thing that has made it even more difficult is the distance from her family she left behind, who she only gets to see twice a year.

“It is hard, especially when school is hard, and tennis is hard,” Mutel said. “When it’s too much pressure and hard to handle by yourself, I always can call them and ask them advice. They always support me despite the distance.”

Even though she misses her family, Mutel said NSU makes it worth it.

“Coming here was honestly the best decision in my life,” she said. “I feel great. My team, my coaches, my friends, my professors – everyone is great.”