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Lobos from abroad may have difficulty returning

Makuach Maluach (10) blows past Colorado State’s Kris Martin in 2019. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Sometimes, a college kid has just got to go home to see mom.

For students studying outside their native country, the annual summer visit for some home cooking is sometimes even more important.

But as college athletic departments around the country, including the University of New Mexico, are learning, getting international students back on campus in 2020 is a unique challenge with new travel bans and restrictions amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we’re always concerned about getting all our student-athletes back on campus,” said UNM deputy athletic director Dave Williams. “And this year, it’s certainly a possibility for down the road that there will be new challenges and problems with (getting some athletes) back in time for practices and school, but we’re also very hopeful that as the world begins to make progress against the virus that things will improve and we’ll be able to get them all back.”

A UNM athletics spokeswoman said there are 64 international students who play sports for the Lobos and 45 of them have gone home since mid-March.

UNM associate AD for compliance Eric Schultz said he works with the Global Education Office to navigate the travel restrictions and help file whatever waivers are needed for Lobo athletes to make it back.

As for the return to south campus for offseason workouts, football is up first in trying to get athletes back on campus. UNM football’s lone international player is punter Tyson Dyer, who did not travel to his native Australia this offseason.

But the NCAA also has cleared the way for voluntary workouts for all sports and for a late July period for summer practices for men’s and women’s basketball. All fall sports should begin preseason training by early August.

And this year, it’s not as easy as simply booking the usual flight to the Albuquerque International Sunport.

For UNM’s decorated track and cross country coach Joe Franklin, whose roster boasts plenty of international flavor (last fall’s women’s cross country roster had 12 of 31 runners from outside the United States, and five out of 12 for the men’s roster), when sports were called off and the campus shut down in mid-March, there was a push to get some of his international kids back home. Finishing course work remotely was possible and training together was not.

UNM cross country coach Joe Franklin, left, shown talking with Ednah Kurgat, had a heavy influx of international talent on last year’s cross country rosters. “How do we get them back?” Franklin said. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal File) .

“But now, we fast forward to how do we get them back?” Franklin said. “Because there are a lot of restrictions all across the world right now that are making it a different process than it has been in the past. And it’s really a country-by-country situation.”

On May 22, acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf signed an order that exempts professional athletes from COVID-19 related travel bans into the United States, but it doesn’t cover college athletes.

Schultz and Franklin both told the Journal that coaches and compliance offices across the U.S. have been very open about how they are getting student-athletes back into the country in an effort to help out one another with what was once a simple task.

The process for getting an international college athlete into school in the past was a fairly simple process of obtaining what is called a Form I-20 and making sure they have a valid student visa. Now there are bans for direct travel into the U.S. from some countries that require quarantine periods outside of their country but before entry to the U.S. For college kids without a place to isolate for two weeks between leaving home and getting back to their dorm room at UNM, that creates unprecedented logistical issues.

Then there’s places like Australia,which has a ban prohibiting travel out of the country. It is home to several UNM athletes, including senior-to-be, four-year Lobo men’s basketball starter Makuach Maluach who is currently back home.

The “Home Affairs” page on Australia’s government website lists six exemptions for residents trying to leave the country, but studying abroad isn’t one of them. The most likely route for Maluach, and all other student athletes trying to get back into the U.S. with imminent practice dates and the start of classes, is to apply for the “unavoidable personal business” exemption.

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