Mythbusters: 3 Ways Collegiate Athletes CAN Study Abroad for a Semester

Kelly Slatery is a Cognitive Science student at the University of Virginia and attended the IFSA-Butler Spanish Translation and Linguistics in Buenos Aires Program in Argentina in 2016. Kelly is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study program.

I may not be a collegiate athlete myself, but I’ve been surprised throughout my semester in Buenos Aires to discover just how many people on my program are. Grace and Robby play lacrosse, Cirkine and Mitch row crew, Tristan is on the powerlifting team, Sophia and Kathrina run track… you get my point. It shocked me at first to hear just how many people had made it possible to study abroad for a semester, despite their extra responsibilities and commitments as members of competitive sports teams. So I started asking around to figure out:

  1. How they made it happen, and
  2. How being a collegiate athlete has shaped their experiences abroad.

And they had a lot to say! From insight into how to stay in shape abroad to explanations of why they decided this once-in-a-lifetime experience was worth the extra challenges, here are the three pieces of advice everyone I talked to seemed to agree upon.

1. Find a Balance

Mythbusters: 3 Ways Collegiate Athletes CAN Study Abroad for a Semester

No matter how well you’ve mastered the art of time management, it’s impossible to keep up that same rigorous workout schedule you have with your team at home while you’re abroad—but that’s not to say it’s impossible to stay in shape and even keep being a competitive athlete!

The experience of study abroad means you’re met with new challenges on a daily basis, from dealing with cultural differences to maneuvering a new system of expectations. That demands a change in your priorities. “You’re abroad to experience the culture,” says Cirkine Sherry, a rower at Bowdoin College. “If you miss a day or two of working out because you’re doing something cultural or you’re exhausted from trying to adjust, that’s okay!” Cirkine admits that it wasn’t easy to adjust to this mindset herself, but it helped that her coach told her he didn’t expect her to come back to Bowdoin in the same shape she left in—he only expected that she do something while she was away.

College is such a bubble, especially when you’re on a sports team, and I think study abroad really helps you break those boundaries and get out of your comfort zone.

So while fitness is important, especially as an athlete, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the gym and your team’s support will be there when you return to the States. Enjoy your time abroad while it lasts!

2. Join a Local Sports Team

Moving to another country for a semester and taking classes at a new university doesn’t mean you have to relinquish the opportunity to play a competitive team sport! On the contrary, being an athlete abroad opens doors for you integrate with the local culture in a unique way.

Mythbusters: 3 Ways Collegiate Athletes CAN Study Abroad for a Semester
Cirkine, a friend from soccer, and a couple IFSA friends switched it up and went rollerblading in the park!

“I joined a lacrosse team while I was here because I was a little stressed since I’m missing six weeks of fall lacrosse,” says Robby Paul from Colorado College. “It was really cool because it was a new way to integrate and talk to people in Spanish.” Robby first heard about this semi-professional club lacrosse team from a teammate back home who had studied abroad in Buenos Aires the previous semester. However, Robby says being able to continue playing lacrosse is just a perk; he knew he might need to sacrifice a few months of lacrosse and find new ways to stay fit in order to have the study abroad experience he was looking for.

Cirkine also joined Universidad de Salvador’s women’s soccer team—for free! That means two practices and one game a week, bonding with a team of girls her age, and adding some structure and variability to her weekly workout routine. As she puts it, “Sports are the kind of thing you can just jump into if you have a basic knowledge of it, and from there you can even make friends!”

3. Plan Ahead

Developing a good relationship with your coach early on will probably make things a lot easier when it comes time to tell them you want to leave for a whole semester. And on top of that, as a student athlete, it is essential to plan which semester you leave based on your competition season—and to research the country!

Mythbusters: 3 Ways Collegiate Athletes CAN Study Abroad for a Semester
A kayaking excursion in Tigre with IFSA-Butler–fun exercise for free!

The student athletes I’ve spoken to on my program this semester all play at Division III schools, and some of them said their desire to study abroad factored into that decision. “Division III schools emphasize that you’re a student before you’re an athlete,” explains Grace O’Donnell, a lacrosse player at Trinity College. Her coaches encouraged her to go abroad because “They want people to know that there’s so much more than just Trinity because college is such a bubble, especially when you’re on a sports team, and I think study abroad really helps you break those boundaries and get out of your comfort zone.” Robby added that his good standing on the team and his coach’s prior knowledge of his desire to study Spanish made the study abroad conversation with his coach a bit easier.

Location is also an important factor to consider when choosing to study abroad. Fitness culture (or a lack thereof!) varies drastically from country to country and region to region. Last summer I studied abroad in Shanghai, China and was advised not to exercise outdoors because of the pollution. However, exercising inside also was not really an option. Gyms were really expensive, fairly scarce, and sometimes lacked even basic equipment. My personal fitness level suffered as a result. Safety concerns in some countries can also make it difficult to find ways to maintain above-average fitness. Doing some simple research ahead of time can make a world of difference in how easy it is to stay fit during your time abroad!

If you are flexible and open-minded about what it means to be an athlete as a student in another country and culture, being a collegiate athlete will only add to your experience abroad! Just be determined, let your passion for your sport guide you, and remember why you wanted to study abroad in the first place.

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