Living the American Dream

  • By John Terry
  • |
  • November 12, 2013 11:04 AM
  • |
Senior Elzbieta Klein celebrates with her teammates during a set earlier in the season. 
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Senior volleyball player Elzbieta Klein didn’t know any English when she came to America from her homeland of Poland. The journey she’s been on, culminating in West Virginia, has made stops in England and Kansas.
The American Dream
Klein always had a dream to play volleyball in America. When she was young and growing up in Gdynia, a northern coast city in Poland, she would watch American movies and listen to American music. Just the idea of living in America is something that intrigued her.
“Los Angeles was my dream. That life always looked so amazing,” Klein said. “When we had more than 3,000 people against Texas last year, that was just crazy. That’s something you see in a movie. I saw the American dream in movies, and saw that I wanted to do that.”
After a short stint playing volleyball in England after high school, Klein returned to Poland to get her degree.
At one of her first practices at her new school in Poland, Klein was held up by classes and got to practice late. A few minutes into drills, she noticed some men in the stands.
“These guys had cameras, and I was thinking they were parents of a teammate or something,” Klein said. “They were actually American recruiters, but I didn't know. If I had known, I probably would've stressed out about it.”
After practice, Klein had a conversation with the recruiter. Or tried to, at least. He spoke English, and her ability to speak the language was confined to just a few words she had heard in the media. A conversation about her future in another country wasn’t in her vocabulary.
“I was calling to my teammates to come over and translate,” she said. “My friends told me the recruiters wanted me to come to America.”
Her response – one that she had dreamt about for years – was easy. It took just one word. Yes.
Getting to America
The conversations between Klein and the recruiter continued over the internet. Because of the lack of English, she would communicate using Google translator.
“It didn't always make sense,” she said. “But I generally knew what was going on.”
Her desire to play in America was deep, although it was going to be a bumpy road.
Her parents were strongly against the idea of her coming here to play both because of the way America was negatively portrayed in the media, and they wanted her to finish her schooling. Klein had two more years remaining to get her diploma, and her parents were afraid if she came to America she might never receive it.
Still with her eyes on a goal she had set out for at a young age, she and her professors decided that she could attempt to finish two years of school in one year, while still playing volleyball.
“I had to write a letter to the President (of the Polish university) explaining why I wanted to do this. Not everybody can do it. Because I was a good student, I got the President’s permission,” she said.
Once she received permission, she got her parents on board with the idea. They became the biggest support system for her as she tackled two year’s worth of school work in a single year.
“I wanted to give up. I was working like crazy. If it wasn’t for my parents, I wouldn’t have finished that,” she said. “They were encouraging me.”
In time, she received 34 offers from a variety of schools – mostly junior colleges and schools at the division-II and III level.
She wanted to go to school in a metropolis, but she realized that her ambition of living the American dream needed to be met with realism.
And, she still didn’t know English. 
Ultimately, she decided on Colby Community College in the small town of Colby, Kansas – home of just 5,300 people located in the northwest corner of the state. It turned out that her Polish friend was an assistant coach there. It was a match made in heaven.
“It was a sign of God,” Klein said. “It was the best decision.”
A new reality
Klein showed up in Colby with no phone, no computer, no sense of where she was in the United States, and she still didn’t know the language.
The volleyball came easy to her. She played 126 sets and recorded 514 kills, 255 digs, 61 service aces and 35.5 blocks her first season. She was national ranked in the NJCCA at No. 5 in kills per set and No. 23 in aces per set.
Living in America wasn’t so easy. Upon arriving in Colby, she was in culture shock. Not in a bad way, but it was different.
“It was tough to communicate because they didn’t speak my language, and I didn’t really speak theirs,” she said.
For the first week she was in Kansas, Klein didn’t speak to her parents. Not only did she not have a computer yet, but she was too busy getting acclimated to her new culture.
“When I came here, I became the happiest person ever. I was so thankful,” she said. “After a week, when my mom talked to me on Skype, she knew that I made the best decision ever. She realized the people over here were good people.”
Even though her teammates had to be patient with her grasping the language, she started getting better at it. When they were on road trips, her teammates would point to things and Klein would have to tell them what it was. Naming simple things like a tree, a car, a truck or an ice cream cone were accomplishments for the Polish native.
“They would speak so slowly,” she said. “If they used a word I didn’t know - which was almost all the words - they would point to things. When you’re around people and listen to radio and TV, you get used to it. 
“Every day, I was using a dictionary to translate.”
It didn’t take long for schools to start to notice Klein’s achievements on the court. In just her first season, she was already fielding more offers from four-year schools. Even though she loved her new family in Kansas, she knew it was time to move on.
“I did everything in Colby, but I knew I wasn’t developing my skills. I would rather someone coach me and develop my skills. I wanted to learn.” 
“I loved the place.”
By the spring of her second semester in the United States, she had more than 60 offers from schools around the country.
West Virginia head coach Jill Kramer was the last coach to send her an email, but the email caught Klein’s eye. Through research and coaches, she narrowed her list of 60 to three schools: Maryland, Miami and West Virginia.
“When I came here, I really fell in love with West Virginia,” she said. “I could tell Jill was a great coach, and I got the feeling she was a great person, too. She understood that I was international, and that I needed support. I wanted the opportunity to play in the Big 12.
“I loved the place.”
Miami was tough to turn down, though.
“Who wouldn’t want to live Miami?” she said.
But she knew West Virginia was going to be the best option.
It was all different when she arrived at WVU. She didn’t have a coach that spoke her language, and she wasn’t the best player on the court anymore. And, having not even been in America for one whole year, she was still struggling with the language.
“I didn’t understand the coaches,” she said. “They were talking so fast. I couldn’t understand.”
And she still had to struggle through the little things like living on her own and going grocery shopping. She said her teammates helped drive her places, since Morgantown is so spread out. Whenever they went shopping, they asked if she wanted to come along. Her new teammates were her new family.
In her first season, she started 14 matches finishing fourth on the team with 165 kills, while also recording 98 digs and 15 blocks. But, for her, it was just as much about experiencing something new in America as it was the volleyball.
Klein will fulfill the American Dream in May when she graduates with her master’s degree in communication studies. And her parents, who were once skeptical about her coming to America to play volleyball, will make their first trip to the United States to watch her receive her diploma.
“I remember after first two months, the volleyball was too fast. I had never done lifting before. I was really upset and questioning if I made a good decision,” she said. “It was still the best decision to come here.
“My heart will always say that.”