From Zambia to University of Illinois Chicago Soccer Team: Nkusuwila’s Story

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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on August 10, 2023

University of Illinois Chicago student Nkusuwila came to UIC from Zambia and, by his junior year, has become a key starting player on the UIC Flames football (soccer) team.

NkusuwilaZambiaUniversity of Illinois at Chicago

Nkusuwila, an international student from Zambia at UIC, wears his UIC Flames soccer jersey and smiles at the camera

As a junior at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Nkusuwila played in all 10 football matches (or soccer games, as they are called in the US) with the UIC Flames team. He led the Flames in goals and assists, with five each. But when he originally came to UIC from Zambia in Spring 2018, he was not sure he would play soccer for the team. 

Instead, he was focused on his academics, first studying civil engineering before deciding to switch majors to earth and environmental sciences. In fact, it was a chance encounter with a fellow student at the gym that led him to the team and being able to try out, eventually earning a spot as a forward. 

Choosing the University of Illinois Chicago

While many students in the United States move straight from high school to college, the journey was not as linear for Nkusuwila. After he completed high school in 2015, he began the process of pursuing his goal of studying in the United States. He started his journey at the American embassy in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where he got information on how to use the Common Application, as well as how to prepare for the SAT, ACT, and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exams.

From there, he began studying and preparing his US university application materials, so when he did finally apply, he would have the best chance of getting in. The colleges on his list, including UIC, were all National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I soccer schools. (Division I refers to universities with the highest caliber sports teams in the US.) Even though he was focused on academics, he figured that if he did end up trying out, he may have a chance. 

UIC was the last school Nkusuwila applied to, but, as he says, became the most important one. Initially, he had some reservations about Chicago, and his parents “wanted me to go someplace quiet.” But after doing his research, UIC became the frontrunner. 

Chicago became one of the biggest advantages for his studies. “One, it is so diverse. I met people from all over the world. That is not what I expected,” he begins. “Two, people were so nice. They were saying ‘hi.’ And the city is beautiful. I have never seen anything like this.”

“A lot of people may tell you not to do it,” he says, but you should still go after your goals. “Pursue your dream, do not limit yourself, but pick a dream that you know you can work towards, that you know you have an ability to achieve.” (He jokes that he cannot pick “being a singer” as his dream since he cannot sing.) 

Dream big, but dream smart.” – Nkusuwila, UIC Flames soccer star

Landing a Spot on the UIC Flames Team

Despite Chicago surpassing his expectations, Nkusuwila still experienced culture shock. It was his first trip overseas – a “big transition.” 

UIC Global played a major role in helping him adapt to life in the US. “Their orientation helped me settle in pretty fast and that is what I think allowed me to try out [for the UIC Flames] in time.” The way Nkusuwila sees it, if he did not settle into his life in the US, he would have missed tryouts. “Everything happened in the perfect time and space. It was very favorable,” he says. 

The diversity of UIC Global students made the adjustment especially smooth. “All international students from all over the world, we are all in the same boat,” he explains. “I was not settling in on my own. I was settling in with six or eight other friends,” he says, referring to other UIC Global students. “We put our heads together and it was easier to solve problems.” 

He notes that the field trips they took as part of UIC Global helped them learn about the city, whether it was understanding local history, like the Great Chicago Fire, or visiting outdoor attractions like the lakefront. 

“It was the perfect environment for me to succeed,” he concludes.

For someone who has been part of a team his whole life, surrounding himself with teammates was a natural way for Nkusuwila to excel. “I like competition, but at the same time, I like to learn from people next to me.”

He does not even remember when he first started playing soccer, explaining that as a kid he was always kicking a ball around in the road and eventually got better. “You just love doing that and keep doing it, kicking around, kicking around,” he recalls. “Around 11 or 12 [years old], I went to an academy and that is when it really became a dream of mine that I had to chase.”

He realized that soccer was one of his best talents, despite excelling in other sports like tennis. 

It was a chance encounter with another student at the UIC recreation center that led Nkusuwila to the Flames. “He said, ‘Bro, where are you from? You should try out! I have tried out before, you should try out,’” Nkusuwila recalls. “He is the one [who] told me where to go.” Nkusuwila walked to the coaches offices, knocked on the door, filled out some paperwork, and was given a date for tryouts.

Nkusuwila kept working out, keeping his goal in mind, and tried out for the UIC Flames two months after he arrived. They called him back for a second tryout and was accepted on the team.

“It was a really good tryout,” he says with a smile. He scored two goals that day, helping his team win the scrimmage.

The experience also motivated him to keep pushing.

As a freshman, he played in the regular season finale against Northern Kentucky. By sophomore year, he played in 12 matches with three starts, finishing the season with 13 points scored — fourth overall on the team. And as a junior, he was regularly starting games, proving that hard work really does pay off. 

Life After the Flames and University of Illinois Chicago

With one semester left at UIC, Nkusuwila is amazed as how fast his four years have gone by. “It feels like I have been here for two months,” he says. 

He has two plans he is considering once he graduates in December 2021: Plan A is to try his best to become a professional soccer player. Plan B is to use his degree to go back home and teach other people what he has learned, expanding on his father’s legacy in the mining industry. “With my major [earth and environmental science], it was because my father is in the same field,” he explains. “I want to pick that up where he left off.”

Nkusuwila said the knowledge he gained from his father helped him immensely with some of his initial classes, giving him a strong foundation once he started taking harder classes. “I can guarantee a job in Africa with my degree. Brain drain is not helping my country in any way,” he admits, noting he wants to try to do his part.

But for now, he is focused on the last semester and final season playing with the Flames.

“All I can think about is finishing strong,” he says.

With the determination it has taken for Nkusuwila to get here, you can be sure he will — both on and off the field.

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