For most UNC students, the journey to college means traveling to another part of their home state — for others, the process is much longer. Instead of cramming clothes, books and furniture into a minivan, some students grab their passports and hop on planes to travel thousands of miles.
First-year women's golfer Natalia Aseguinolaza, a native of San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa, Spain, did just that to join the North Carolina women's golf team.
Aseguinolaza began playing golf when she was just three years old. She won the Basque Country Championship with a round of 66 at just 12 years old, and when recruited by UNC, she was ranked No. 98 in the world for amateur golfers and No. 86 in Europe.
Aseguinolaza not only faced the challenges of a language barrier in her international move, but also the still-worsening COVID-19 pandemic. She, like many other athletes, had her season cancelled due to COVID-19, but nonetheless, decided to make the transition to UNC this semester.
Joining a 'small sorority'
Aseguinolaza first took note of UNC when an American family friend mentioned that he knew some UNC golfers. From head coach Jan Mann’s perspective, it was Aseguinolaza’s composure that grabbed her attention.
“The way she handled herself on a golf course was impressive," Mann said. "When we’re recruiting players, we’re trying to recruit individuals with great character and strong values. You can tell a lot about an individual by how they behave on a golf course.”
The first impression Aseguinolaza made got UNC's coaching staff excited about the beginning of her tenure with the Tar Heels. Her sunny disposition, coupled with a spectacular short-game, made her the perfect player to join what Mann referred to as a “small sorority.”
“Traditionally, we are a very, very close-knit team," Mann said. "I think we’re a great representation of being Carolina family. Natalia always has a smile on her face.”
With a small team of nine players, the Tar Heels said it was important for the group to feel connected. The team still does socially distanced bonding events, such as cookouts and dinners. Aseguinolaza even attended her first-ever American football game with her teammates when UNC played N.C. State. She attributed the familial feeling of the team to Mann.
“Jan Mann is like a mother for us. She is all the time thinking about us and if we’re good or need anything,” Aseguinolaza said. “It is really nice to have someone like her around.”
UNC women's golf is one of the most internationally diverse groups on campus, with players coming from Germany, Spain, Finland, China and Taiwan.
“While we would love to find golfers that represent the state of North Carolina, we have to look not only in the U.S., but around the world for the best players we can possibly find,” Mann said. “Most of the countries that are represented have a national team where the players have been competing on that national team for many years, so they get a lot of training. They’re very well-prepared.”
Aseguinolaza joined the Spanish National team when she was just 13 years old and has traveled to Morocco, Japan and all around Europe to compete at the international level. She said the experience of traveling helped calm her nerves around coming to America, but she still faced challenges.
“I was more nervous about the language,” Aseguinolaza said. “It comes up in everything, like when coach asks me what I’ve been working on. I try to explain, but some terms I don’t know how to say in English.”
Aseguinolaza was not alone in her quick adjustment to the United States, assistant head coach Kristen Simpson said. Simpson noted that international golfers have an easier time making the transition because of their well-traveled lifestyles. Where American athletes travel state-to-state for tournaments, many European golfers begin traveling the world at a young age.
“They come over super independent, and not that they have everything together, but they’re a little more mature, I think, than I was as an 18-year-old entering college,” Simpson said. “Just because they’re used to the traveling and missing school because that’s what they do with their national team.”
An unavoidable aspect of a culture change is experiencing new food. Aseguinolaza’s hometown is in the north of Spain along the coast, meaning she was used to a diet of fresh fish — not something commonly found in the North Carolina piedmont. During her time in Chapel Hill, she said she found a new favorite worth the 4,000-mile flight.
“I really like burgers, have you tried Al’s Burgers on Franklin Street?” Aseguinolaza asked. “I like it a lot. It’s really good.”
'Adapt to here'
While Aseguinolaza is learning about the United States, the team has learned a lot from her about Spain. They have adopted a tradition of learning a new Spanish word or phrase each week.
“I think it’s a great learning experience for her, but I think myself, Coach (Mann) and the other girls on the team from the U.S., we learn so much from her,” Simpson said. “Definitely beneficial to both of us and a fun time this semester for sure.”
Before she came to the United States and began to gel with the team, Mann said she was hesitant to let Aseguinolaza begin her college career amid the pandemic due to concerns about her health and the unusual college experience. Aseguinolaza insisted that this semester was the right time for her.
“I felt like it was better for me because I can adapt to everything and get to know everything and improve my English,” she said. “Even if we don’t have a season, it’s helping me a lot to practice every day without the pressure of the tournaments. I felt it would be a great opportunity to adapt to here.”
It was her persistence that convinced Mann to let Aseguinolaza come to UNC this fall, instead of delaying her move to the United States. After spending several months with the golfer, Mann has changed her mind about the benefits of Aseguinolaza’s journey.
“She was the one that convinced me that it was good for her to come over,” Mann said. “Quite honestly, I‘m so glad she did because it has been a great adjustment for her, and she’s fit in so well.”
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