For Quoc Nguyen, a 19-year-old sophomore studying physics at the University of Kansas, leaving his life in Hanoi, Vietnam, to attend college in America was an easy decision.

 “Since I was really little, American culture always influenced me through movies, music, the language I was learning,” Nguyen said. “So, I always wanted to come here to study and to live.”

It wasn’t until he arrived in an empty, dark apartment with nothing but his suitcase and backpack in summer 2021 that he started to feel uneasy.

“I had nobody when I first got here, I started from zero, so it was really tough in the beginning,” Nguyen said. “I would be so nervous; I wouldn't eat anything. I'd get home and go straight to the Goodcents down the street so I could get Wi-Fi to call my mom.

According to Icef Monitor’s coverage of the 2022 International Student Barometer (ISB), international students’ stress levels are currently at 35%, which is four percentage points higher than what it was in 2018. ISB authors said that this is likely related to life experience, with many international students living overseas for the first time, usually without family.

KU International Support Services (ISS) encourages new international students to participate in an online program designed to help them prepare for and adjust to life at KU. Despite going through this program, Nguyen said that talking to people he saw on campus and in class was what helped him most during the transition.

“I didn’t live in the dorms, so I’d talk to people I saw every day,” Nguyen said. “Eventually, I just started to make new friends. I had to in order to survive.”

It was this attitude that pushed Nguyen to introduce himself when he saw a group of students training mixed martial arts (MMA) at the Ambler Student Recreation Center.

“I saw these guys in the rec, and I thought to myself, I need to be a part of that.”

As a former wrestler for the youth national team in Vietnam, Nguyen already had a combat sports background that helped him make the transition to MMA.

“I’ve been a wrestler my whole life, but I stopped when I came here,” Nguyen said. “I knew that I needed to find something else to keep me active.”

For Nguyen, MMA was that something. After befriending the group he met at the rec center, one of them invited him to Lawrence Fight Club (LFC) for an MMA class.

“I remember being so excited to go and try it out,” Nguyen said. “That night when I got home, all I could think about was going back the next day.”

About a year later, Nguyen has competed in two amateur fights and has been a consistent and familiar face at LFC. He said the relationships formed with his coaches and other fighters helped him to move forward during uncertain times.

“Everybody cares about each other,” Nguyen said. “At some point, I was out of money, so one of my teammates brought me to his house after practice to eat and gave me food to take home.”

Nguyen’s teammate at LFC, KU student Arthur Bagdasaryan, said that he thinks the sense of community in the gym keeps people coming back every day.

“We’re all a family here,” said Bagdasaryan, who is majoring in global and international studies... “I think that’s why we’re seeing more and more people coming back. They just want to be a part of something.”

As relationships with his coaches and other fighters developed, so did his overall quality of life. Nguyen said that since training at LFC consistently, his mental health has drastically improved.

“Before I was really lost, I had no family, no friends, no plan,” Nguyen said. “MMA gave me everything. It saved my life.”

Nguyen has his third amateur fight scheduled in February and believes that a dominating win would help him make the jump to professional fighting. “That’s my dream at the end of the day,” Nguyen said. “My studies always come first, but if I get that chance, I’m gonna go for it.”