MADISON – The mental gymnastics of it all can make Gulce Guctekin’s head hurt.
College, after all, is a major life change.
For some it’s the first time they’ve been so far from home for so long. Everyone is new. Very little is familiar.
Now put yourself in the shoes of Gucteckin, a freshman on the Wisconsin volleyball team from Turkey, or her teammate, Julia Orzol, a sophomore from Poland.
Neither had been to the United State much less the UW campus before arriving as freshmen. As both worked to establish their place in the program, there was not only the challenge of speaking in a second language all the time but also learning in it.
College is hard enough in one's native tongue much less a second language that hasn't been completely mastered. It is much harder than either Orzol or Guctekin is making it seem.
“Julia, she was a 4.0 student last year. I think she had the high GPA on the team, a kid coming from Poland, so think that tells you a little bit about her work ethic,” UW coach Kelly Sheffield said. “And I think G.G., her scores and grades were good enough I think she got accepted to Harvard, if I’m not mistaken.”
The Badgers volleyball team has had other international players. Giorgia Civita, a native of Italy, helped the team win a national championship last season. Romana Kriskova helped the team reach the regional final in 2016. Both those players came to UW as transfers who had cleared any hurdles created by a language barrier earlier in their career.
Orzol and Guctekin are making the transition here. The effort has not only is taking their smarts, but the humility to to admit when they don't understand something. There has also been academic support from the athletic department and a regular diet of classic sitcom re-runs.
“It’s hard to understand at the beginning of classes, so I was really struggling,” Guctekin said. “For me it was hard at those times. Now I feel more comfortable because I’m used to be(ing) here and I start to understand better and I ask questions, so in between people I connect more.”
Guctekin, Orzol studied English in their homelands
Guctekin, whose name is pronounced GOOL-jay GOOCH-teh-kin, started learning English in high school. The lessons were based more on understanding the grammar of the language than using it in conversation.
Orzol, whose name is pronounced Yuh-lee-ah OR-zhol, began taking lessons when she was about 10 and had one-on-one sessions in which only English was spoken.
That experience helped her transition to classes, but getting used to the informal use of the language was tough.
"When somebody’s speaking fast and quickly, a slang-based language, that was like a challenge for me,” Orzol said. “Or like talking with kids, sometimes it’s spoken so much differently than the adults. That is a challenge. I have to listen so much more intensively.”
Easing the transition have been athletic department learning specialists like Tracey Maloney, who works with the volleyball team. Orzol and Guctekin sometimes even turn to Youtube videos or classic shows like “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” to help pick up elements of the language not learned in a class.
“When you watch with subtitles, you’re able to learn visually and hear those things,” Orzol said.
Orzol made a smooth transition last year and this year was named academic all-district. She took Guctekin under her wing after she arrived on campus in August.
Guctekin has also found a support system in other Turkish students on campus.
“Sometimes I have a headache (from talking) in English and understanding," she said. "It’s good to talk (to) somebody because it’s my language, so I can say something more easily. I don’t have to think about am I saying (something) wrong. It makes me more comfortable.”
Important pieces to the Badgers' success
In addition to transitioning to life as a college student Orzol and Guctekin were immediate impact players for the Badgers volleyball team.
Orzol, a 6-foot outside hitter, started 30 matches last season and ranked second on the team with 2.83 kills per set. A second-team all-Big Ten selection this year, she has started every match and ranks third on the team with 2.62 kills per set.
Meanwhile, Guctekin, a 5-5 libero, started every match this season except for three she missed due to a hamstring injury. She leads the team with 3.92 digs per set and twice was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week.
“You’ve got to communicate in our game and both of them, when you’re going through the learning process, you’re thinking and you’re not talking because you’re thinking,” Sheffield said. “Trying to pull the words out of their mouths was an emphasis pretty early.”
Today it’s hard to argue with the results.
Wisconsin (25-3) just wrapped up its fourth straight Big Ten title, has won 18 straight matches and enters the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 in is quarter of the bracket. The Badgers are scheduled to host Quinnipiac at 7 p.m. Friday in a first-round match at the UW Field House.
Winning translates well in any language.
“Be open to asking questions and not feeling worse because you feel people around you, they’re speaking so well, they’re so organized,” Orzol said when asked what advice she would give students faced with her situation. “Don’t be afraid of that of that. Do it your own way and people will appreciate you.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin volleyball's Julia Orzol, Gulce Guctekin adapt to language