Why Student Athletes Should Study Abroad

by Susan Salzbrenner
Two boys playing cricket in India

Try your hand at a new sport like cricket here in Manali, India.

Mary was a standout high school student athlete and captain of the state champion basketball team. Needless to say, she did not have difficulties in receiving scholarship offers from various colleges, given her track record in sports and academia. But nevertheless, she struggled to make the right choice. There was something that made it difficult for her to find the best college. She had always dreamed of studying abroad in France to continue her French language studies and experience life in Europe. But doing that while being a student athlete on a full basketball scholarship? She was lost in finding a way to go study abroad while pursuing her talent for sports.

Unfortunately, Mary is not the only one with this dilemma. Student athletes are the one group of students continuously missing out on enjoying the study abroad experience to the fullest!

But that should not have to be the case. 

What did Mary do, you ask? Well, she did not take the decision of which college to attend lightly. She researched day and night before the signing day approached to find ways to fulfill her dreams of playing division one basketball and studying abroad. In a nutshell, these are the things student athletes should do when considering study abroad programs:

  • Seek out information early, look for colleges with past success stories of student athletes studying abroad
  • Signal your ambitions early on to coaching staff and keep an open dialogue, show flexibility on your timing
  • Check for athlete-specific study abroad programs (Ohio State University, Lehigh University, Macalester College) (See Our List of Picks at the Bottom of the Article!)
  • Look for study abroad destinations that run on a different academic year so you don’t have to cut your sport season short (e.g. most European universities don’t start their spring semester until March/April, some Australian universities run on trimesters, South African universities summer semester runs from late July to late November)
  • Be open to alternative programs abroad (like internships abroad during the summer, sports volunteering abroad, short-term programs, and more)

Study abroad programs serve the purpose of expanding your worldview, developing new language skills, improving your academic outcome, and adding employment opportunities, but for student athletes, there are additional benefits too.

A cyclist competing on the Tour de France

Cheer on cyclists taking on the Tour de France!

Grow As a Person and as an Athlete.

When Mary returned from her spring semester in Lyon, France, she realized that the past six months had not only improved her French, but also her understanding about herself and the world around her. She came back as a more mature person and player, confidently leading her teammates. Her coach was positively surprised. 

Having left her comfort zone to adapt to local conditions, finding creative solutions (for example, finding the right building in a university that is distributed around the whole town) and most of all, being flexible to do things in ways she hadn’t known before, had led to an immense personal growth. While studying abroad, she lived with two roommates from Portugal and Chile and learned a lot about accepting other culture’s value and behaviors in late night talks over wine. She was also able to find a local basketball club to join and play in some friendly matches (competing at professional level was against NCAA eligibility). The level of basketball and the facilities were great, and she was able to learn a lot about the European style of play which made her a more versatile player back home.

Immense Benefits for Student Athletes Abroad.

Student athletes that take the leap abroad will often have a competitive edge over other players in the mental aspect of the game upon returning. Being thrown into situations where you understand one word in each five sentences, or simply trying to understand the daily college routine in another country, gives you a very clear picture of who you really are. The growing independence and confidence in your abilities are matched with the humbleness and appreciation of what you have and were able to accomplish. What better benefit is there to take home with you? At the same time, you are making international friends with the help of a sport you love abroad (or a new one you have tried while you had the chance).

Whether you will continue your athletic career on a professional level or start a career somewhere else, the ability to take charge, yet adapt and remain flexible in situations with many unknowns, is a huge advantage. Future work environments are becoming more complex and global (especially in the sports industry), which means that graduates and athletes with high intercultural competence will get a head start. 

What happened to Mary, you wonder? She continued her hunger for international experience by playing professional basketball in the Czech Republic after she graduated. 

Here are some Great Organizations that offer Programs Abroad Specifically Geared Towards Student Athletes:

(Note: Mary is a fictitious character, but the story is based on a true experience)