Preparing to attend college can be an intimidating, complicated experience.

Lucas Paixao Trindade, a junior studying sports, exercise and wellness at Dakota Wesleyan University, knows those challenges well. A native of São Paulo, Brazil, he became interested in attending an American college when he learned of the chance to both play sports and attend college for an education. And since his arrival he has worked to help the school and other international students navigate the waters of applying to and attending a college far from home.

His efforts recently earned him the Collegiate Student-Athlete of Character Award, part of the Champions of Character Awards given out by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Paixao told the Mitchell Republic of the award in a recent interview. “It was totally unexpected but it made me really happy.”

Coming to America

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Paixao said the seeds of his traveling to the United States for school were planted when his mother made him take English classes when he was 11. At first, he didn’t see the point of studying a foreign language.

“When I was 11 years old, my mother told me that she was going to put me in school to learn English. And at that time, I asked why?,” Paixao said. “But now I thank her so much. English is the language of business around the world.”

Learning English was also a bridge that allowed him to consider studying abroad after he finished his primary schooling. He had stopped playing soccer at 14 years old to focus on his schooling and technical studies. He eventually obtained a degree for construction management and worked in that field while he continued to study.

Paixao, now 21, said he hadn’t seriously considered studying in the United States until a YouTube video informed him of a chance to combine two things he enjoyed — playing competitive soccer and schooling.

“When I found out through YouTube that a student could study and play at the same time, I was amazed. I started looking into how it worked, and ended up hiring an agency that recorded me playing, and based on that and my English test grades they found me a place in Texas,” Paixao said.

He first came to the U.S. as a student-athlete in 2018 to attend Coastal Bend Junior College in Texas. He transferred to Dakota Wesleyan and is currently studying sports, exercise and wellness. Since arriving at DWU in January, he has displayed leadership in the classroom, on the pitch and as a student manager and student assistant. Paixao was voted co-captain of the 2021 men’s soccer team and was promoted to student manager at the campus cafeteria.

It’s been a successful stop in Mitchell, he said, but he learned during his application process for coming to the United States that he had a lot to learn about how American colleges functioned. Drawing from his own experiences, he soon became a student assistant on campus to help create DWU’s International Student Services.

“The USA and Brazil have two different educational systems,” he said. “I faced challenges like 'What is an application? What do they want from me? What do I submit?' You have to worry about getting your visa. All that you did for the admissions process won’t reflect on anything if you don’t get your visa.”

Lucas Paixao Trindade, a junior at Dakota Wesleyan University who plays soccer and studies sports, exercise and wellness, was recently named the recipient of the Collegiate Student-Athlete of Character Award by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The native of Sao Paulo, Brazil has helped DWU enhance its resources for welcoming new international students by providing guides for the college application process and orientations for students newly-arrived on campus. He also took part earlier this month in a international student meal at DWU, where he served Feijadoa, a traditional Brazilian dish. (Submitted Photo)
Lucas Paixao Trindade, a junior at Dakota Wesleyan University who plays soccer and studies sports, exercise and wellness, was recently named the recipient of the Collegiate Student-Athlete of Character Award by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The native of Sao Paulo, Brazil has helped DWU enhance its resources for welcoming new international students by providing guides for the college application process and orientations for students newly-arrived on campus. He also took part earlier this month in a international student meal at DWU, where he served Feijadoa, a traditional Brazilian dish. (Submitted Photo)

Paixao worked with DWU staffers, including Missy Leuthold, international student service coordinator, on enhancing the school website with clear information on what international students should do as they apply for attending classes at the school. They included step-by-step instructions for starting a college application as well as obtaining other important documents. He has also since helped organize orientations for international students, introducing them to the campus and the Mitchell community itself and reviewing class credit procedures.

Sharing the benefits

DWU is a great place to receive an education, he said, and he knows other international students enjoy their time here, as well. The school has numerous international students hailing from places like Germany, South Africa, Peru, Chile and Panama, and all have to overcome similar challenges.

But once they complete the process and get here, they find DWU and Mitchell a wonderful place. As a native of São Paulo, a city of 12.3 million inhabitants, Paixao said he enjoys the slower pace of the small-town atmosphere that the school and community provide. He is happy to have had a chance to make the transition for his fellow international students a smoother one because he knows experiences like the one he has had at DWU are worth pursuing.

And the process is ongoing. Campus life for international students is a continuous learning process, one that can broaden them in ways that go beyond the classroom. That’s something he wants to continue to foster in his fellow students.

“The challenges (as an international student), you face them daily. I like to say this is our choice, we were the ones who chose to be here and the reasons vary. Some of us want to come to the United States as they believe they will have a better opportunity and education,” he said. “Some come for athletic reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard being away from family, especially if English is not their first language.”

Leuthold, who nominated Paixao for the award, said he made an excellent candidate for the recognition because of the work he accomplished after drawing on his own experiences of coming to the United States for school.

“There were two things that stood out - his leadership and his empathy,” Leuthold said. “He was willing to put future international students ahead of himself and look at how they could get additional scholarships and make the process easier for them. He took his own experiences and took what would be helpful for him and implemented it for other students.”

Jim Carr, CEO and president of the NAIA, said Paixao and the other four winners recently recognized by the NAIA represent the core values of the organization.

“Character-driven athletics are a primary focus for us and our institutions. These honorees embody those five values, and we are excited to celebrate their achievements,” Carr said in a statement.

Into the future

Paixao said he and the staff at DWU will continue to refine their approach to welcoming international applications. He expects the process will only improve as they get more feedback from students around the world who have taken the leap to study at a school far from home.

For himself, he is expected to graduate next December and wants to apply for a 1-year work visa to work in the area of his degree. He is pondering sticking around in the United States to work for a short time, but his ultimate goal is to return to Brazil with the experience he gained while studying in a far-off land called South Dakota.

“Once back there, I have a plan to start a company that can help people get the same opportunities I had. To make those opportunities more accessible to them,” Paixao said.

After all, he has been able to enjoy the benefits of studying abroad, and he hopes others can follow in his footsteps on their own path to a career.

“I’ve been loving this process so much. I wish to share it with more people,” Paixao said.