TAMPA, Fla. - As the University of South Florida's school year starts up one of the Bulls' biggest men on campus is noticeably missing.
Russell Tchewa, the Bulls' 7-foot-tall, 260-pound starting center is currently stuck in his home country of Cameroon after the U.S. State Department denied his student visa this summer.
"It’s our understanding that Russell’s application has been flagged," said men's basketball Head Coach Brian Gregory.
At this point, the Bulls don't know why.
"There has not been a response," said Gregory.
Visa applications are at the complete discretion of the U.S. Consulate and officials are not required to give any explanation when flagging or denying an application.
According to immigration experts, the problem with his application is unlikely to have been caused by name or terrorism-related confusion because Tchewa has already been issued a visa into the U.S. several times before.
Tchewa was born and raised in Cameroon before spending high school playing at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut and three years of prep basketball in Italy, according to his USF bio. After starting his college career with Texas Tech, Tchewa transferred to USF in 2020 and quickly became a centerpiece of Gregory's team.
"He was one of the best big guys in our league at the end of the year and has made dramatic improvement," said Gregory. "He was poised to have another breakout year for us this season."
That all depends, of course, on whether he can get there in time.
Tchewa initially planned to spend the summer in Florida training with teammates, but when his father became severely ill from COVID-19, Gregory agreed to give him time to be with his family.
"What should have been a month-long trip is almost at four months right now," explained Gregory.
Gregory said Tchewa has traveled internationally numerous times without issue and doesn't understand why his visa renewal has been held up this time.
"A year ago, he went back to Cameroon and went through the Visa process and stamping of his passport, and it took two days to get it done. Same process this year. He went there, did all the paperwork, and he was asked to fill out some additional questions, which he did and sent those in," said Gregory. "We’re just trying to get to the bottom of if there’s something else that needs to be done."
With classes beginning, Tchewa is starting his senior year online, navigating Wi-Fi issues and major time zone differences from his parents' cramped home shared by siblings and extended family in Cameroon.
"There’s a time situation here. Obviously, we started classes. Russell will graduate with his bachelor's degree in December, and he’s already scheduled to start his master's degree in January," said Gregory. "But it’s also critical for his basketball future as he enters his third full year of playing. His aspirations of a professional career are within his reach, so it’s critical for him as well as our team. We are counting on him."
Immigration attorneys said Tchewa's status as an elite college athlete could be causing his visa issues. Since 2021, college athletes have been allowed to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL). Athletes on student visas, however, are tightly restricted on their ability to work and earn money while in the U.S.
"He has not taken advantage of or been part of any NIL situations," said Gregory.
But immigration attorneys warn the prospect, or even perception, of a foreign athlete profiting from an NIL deal could be enough to compromise their visa status and leave them sidelined by state department officials.
For now, Gregory said he continues to check in for updates on Tchewa's immigration status daily.
"We’ve been told it could be that all of a sudden his visa is approved, so we’re holding out hope," said Gregory. "The most important thing right now is that we have the academic piece situated as best we can for Russell so that he stays on top of his work and as soon as we get the word of approval then he will be flying back here."
The Bulls are scheduled to start their season November 1 in an exhibition game against The University of Tampa.