News & Press: Articles

Student Athletes Abroad: Recognizing Intersectionality

Friday, October 18, 2019  
Share |

Contributed by: 2017-2018 Diversity Abroad Student Athletes Task Force members:

Lou Berends - Syracuse University; Susie Duke - Grinnell College    


The barriers between student athletes and participation in a global experience are as diverse as the population that forms this group. With an extreme level of intersectionality, “the idea that the crossing of multiple forms of oppression with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexuality produces distinct sets of perspectives and consequences among individuals” (Melton & Cunningham, 2012, p. 46), international educators must acknowledge that intercollegiate sports’ participants face extremely complex challenges. In the work to increase access to global programming, a first step to facilitating the student athlete experience abroad seems to be that important element of simply recognizing those intersecting identities.

Student athletes may tend to object to an off campus experience out of the logic that commonly reverberates the locker room or playing field which is “I don’t have time.” The truth is these students truly are in training for such large blocks of time each week that it could equate to much more than a part-time job. The disparate enrollment in international programming between student athletes and their non-athlete peers could be explained straightforwardly by a scarcity of time. However, by taking a deeper look at the concept of intersectionality within the athletic identity, international education professionals may be able to better advise one-on-one and advocate for more comprehensive short-term, faculty led, and co-curricular programs that may better serve the needs of this student group.

Notwithstanding the importance of personal decision-making of student-athletes and whether or not to study abroad, the significance of institutional context is also critically important. To be sure, the "culture" of a college or university shapes the expectations of student-athletes, but perhaps just as important, the attitudes and perceptions of coaches are vital regarding study abroad opportunities. Whether an institution is Division I, II, III, or even for the student playing club-level sports, this will certainly have an external influence on the topic of education abroad; however, the willingness of coaches, and the Athletic Director(s) in particular, shape the vision and expectations of student-athletes and how study abroad fits (or does not fit) into these perspectives. Navigating these issues and the stakeholders involved takes time, patience and a willingness to build consensus between international education professionals and athletic personnel. 

By first considering alternatives outside of the traditional semester or year overseas, educators can offer a menu of viable short-term programs that are as legitimate academically, when properly facilitated, as longer stints abroad. Plus, learning that takes place during these shorter programs can be enhanced when preceded by preparatory and/or post-program class time on-campus. One example could be a Division I school model of adding an academic component to an NCAA “foreign tour” where, perhaps, a coach partners with a faculty member to create a one-credit short course prerequisite pertaining directly to the content that will take place abroad. The on-campus component could happen during the latter part of the first semester and then the team travel could occur during January—to be in compliance with NCAA bylaws, the foreign tour team travel must take place during a period of academic recess. On the smaller school scale, a Division III coach who may also be a faculty member could build and lead a similar short-term program which is a modified NCAA “foreign tour” or perhaps create a short-term option that includes some student athletes in addition to some non-athletes on a faculty led program abroad.

Adapting the foreign tour model to be credit-bearing could take many successful forms. But student athletes should be encouraged, ideally upon matriculation, to deliberate upon how they might incorporate an experience abroad into a portion of their subsequent four-year plan. This advisement would be best received if and when international education professionals collaborate with coaches and athletics department staff to help them understand options up front. Other short-term offerings could take the form of international internships or research or an equally valuable non-credit bearing co-curricular program where the focus is more on personal and intercultural development than academics. Whatever the model, student athletes and their coaches are going to be most receptive to a carefully curated menu of options that will fit well within their sports’ schedules. Whether topical or interdisciplinary learning, language or culture learning, when done right, student athletes will likely go abroad at a higher rate and make significant gains in a short time that will last a lifetime.