CUNY Goes to Bat for International Student Athletes

Kelvin Arhire-Thomas, a Nigerian-born student who aspires to become a pediatrician, loved playing defense on Kingsborough Community College’s soccer team and running the 800-meter event for its track and field squad. Sports, he says, “brings me feelings of ambition to excel in life.”

Kelvin Ahire-Thomas

Kelvin Ahire-Thomas

But Arhire-Thomas was crushed last summer when he learned that he was no longer eligible to compete on either team–disqualified by a rule adopted in 2012 by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) that barred community college athletes who were over 21 and didn’t attend high school in the United States for at least three years. Arhire-Thomas went to high school in Nigeria and turned 22 last July.

The rule was meant to weed out older international students with professional athletic experience in their home countries, but it was so broad that it disqualified untold numbers of college-age students who had not competed professionally. At Kingsborough, a college with a high percentage of international students, 31 athletes were disqualified by the new rule in the two academic years after it was enacted.

“Some were angry, some were sad. Some stopped going to school because they were frustrated,” says Keith Heron, Kingsborough’s assistant athletic director. “For some of them, sports is what kept them interested in college; they had extra-curricular activities and friends.”

Kingsborough’s Keith Heron with Nigerian-born Kelvin Ahire- Thomas,

Kingsborough’s Keith Heron with Nigerian-born Kelvin Ahire- Thomas,

But this winter, the NJCAA agreed to rescind the rule after a long campaign instigated by Heron and Michael Belfiore, director of athletics at Bronx Community College, and led by the Athletic Conference. Taking up the fight, CUNY’s legal department brought the issue to the state attorney general’s office last fall. The office lodged an official challenge, raising state and local anti-discrimination laws, and the NJCAA’s eligibility committee agreed to drop the new rule in January.

The NJCAA — the country’s second largest intercollegiate sports association, with 525 members nationwide and 41 in New York State — says it instituted the rule because of concerns that the open admissions policies of most junior colleges were allowing foreign students with professional athletic experience to compete against “true amateurs” at the college level. “The NJCAA and many of its member colleges do not have the resources to research the competitive backgrounds of all student athletes,” says Mary Ellen Leicht, the NJCAA’s executive director. The new regulation was adopted “in an attempt to level the playing field.”

But the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau brought CUNY’s opposition to the NJCAA by pointing out that the rule was inconsistent with the athletic association’s own mission statement–especially in its effect on a highly diverse public university such as CUNY. According to the mission statement, the NJCAA seeks “to foster a national program of athletic participation in an environment that supports equitable opportunities consistent with the educational objectives of member colleges.”

“The rule had a particularly negative impact upon urban junior college systems that serve a large number of immigrant students,” the Attorney General’s office said in a statement, noting that 7.2 percent of the university’s first-time junior college freshmen in the fall of 2013 attended high school outside the United States.

In January, the NJCAA’s Eligibility Committee voted to rescind the rule, and the organization entered into a settlement agreeing to allow the New York attorney general to review any future eligibility rules concerning students’ national origins.

Michael Belfiore of Bronx Community College with Venezuelan student David Campilongo

Michael Belfiore of Bronx Community College with Venezuelan student David Campilongo

Heron noted that any institution that receives federal funding is also prohibited from discriminating based on age. “Belfiore and I spoke many times about this rule, because we were very upset by it,” he says. “We were always looking into how we could fix it. A lot of people didn’t understand the impact it would have. Community colleges are the main entry point for people who come to America for the first time; one of the reasons is financial. The entire nation of community colleges benefits from it. We should be proud to be the ones who fought for what was right and won.”

“I’m just pleased that all eligible students will now have an opportunity,” Belfiore says.

“I was really impressed by how hard both of them had been working to overturn it,” says Marcia Isaacson, a member of CUNY’s legal department. “Their passion was inspiring. Too often change seems to take forever. Not this time.”

Arhire-Thomas expressed the relief of students who can go back to competing. “I’m so excited because that was my dream,” he says. “It was a harsh rule.”
A biology major, Arhire-Thomas emigrated from his native Nigeria and entered Kingsborough in the fall of 2013. He played on the soccer team and ran track that school year but was told he was not eligible for this year after he turned 22 last summer.

In a letter to the NJCAA last August, he said the organization was discriminating against him based on age, nationality and ethnicity. “. . . Being involved in the athletic program helped me make friends and adjust to this country and Kingsborough a lot more successfully than if I had to take this journey alone,” he wrote. “I ask for these regulations to be reconsidered so that young athletes like me will not have their dreams and ambitions merely thrown away by this subjective rule.”

David Campilongo, 22, a student at Bronx Community College from Venezuela, played basketball and aged out under the rule. “That’s my only sport, and I’m pretty good at it,” says Campilongo, who plans to study computer science. “I didn’t know what to do. Now I’m pretty excited because I’ll be able to play again in October.”

Zak Ivkovic, commissioner of the Athletic Conference, said that foreign-born athletes are especially deserving because they are among the most dedicated students, not only at the university but nationwide. According to the Office of International Students, more than 90 percent of the university’s foreign students earn undergraduate degrees within four years. Nationwide, only 19 percent of public university students complete their degrees in four years.

“We fought this for the last three years because we wanted to make sure our international student athletes can get all the opportunities they can be afforded just like the rest of our students,” Ivkovic says. “It’s really rewarding to turn our frustration into a victory for student athletes in the entire United States.”