• Extra Points
  • Posts
  • How can schools better support international college athletes?

How can schools better support international college athletes?

I talked to some coaches *and* checked the research

Good morning, and thanks for your continued support of Extra Points.

Just about every athletic department, from the largest power conference programs to the smallest DIII and NAIA schools, recruits international athletes.

For some sports, like tennis, swimming and golf, this can be a competitive necessity ... .there simply aren’t enough college-level caliber athletes in the United States alone. Beyond trying to find the best possible athletes for their programs, schools might explicitly target international athletes to help improve campus diversity efforts, find more students capable of paying higher tuition rates, or even to fill out specific majors or departments.

Finding these athletes can be difficult and expensive, but sometimes getting an athlete to campus and enrolled isn’t even the most difficult part of the process. Sometimes, and especially for those of us who are getting older, we can all forget that being an 18-year old college student is a difficult thing, completely independent of being a high level athlete.

At 18, you’re trying to figure out your own personal identity. You might be adjusting to a very significant spike in academic difficulty. You could be homesick, could be dealing with relationship problems, the struggles of dealing with types of people you aren’t used to, and any number of other challenges.

Combine those struggles with the intense rigor of being an elite athlete, and it’s no surprise that many athletes report mental health struggles. Now combine all of that with what happens when you’re in a completely new country, maybe thousands of miles from your family and friends, and perhaps in a campus culture that is deeply, deeply unfamiliar to anything you’ve ever known.

That could be really hard, right? How can schools best support those international athletes after they get to campus? And how might that support look different at different schools?

Dr. Simran Kaur Sethi is studying many of these questions. What kind of experience international athletes have isn’t just an academic question to her…it’s also part of her lived experience. Originally from India, Dr. Sethi also played tennis at the University of Oklahoma.

This paragraph, from her 2024 paper “An Examination of the Assimilative and Anti-Immigrant Policies, Practices, and Cultures that Harm International College Athletes in the United States”, published in the Journal of Higher Education Athletics & Innovation, stuck out to me.

Researchers and practitioners often present ICA [International College Athletes] as a monolithic group – assuming all ICAs experience the same struggles within the U.S. HEIs. As a result, studies rarely examine the diversity within ICAs. By erasing in-group differences, researchers misrecognize the range of identities, cultures, and origin countries within ICAs. Researchers also evade the institutional assimilative and discriminatory practices ICAs face when navigating campus life. Assimilation is unidimensional and compels underrepresented groups to forgo their identity to adapt to the host culture (Kramer, 2009; Tierney, 1992). Institutional assimilative processes and expectations include requiring ICAs to speak English, eat American food, and adapt to American teaching styles – all of which may conflict with and erase ICAs’ cultural and social identities (Lee & Rice, 2007). Researchers have yet to study how the linguistically, racially, ethnically, culturally, and nationally diverse ICA population experiences these assimilative practices.

Intellectually, I think we all probably realized this, but it’s worth repeating. International college athletes are not a uniform, monolithic group, and as such probably shouldn’t be expected to benefit the same way from a uniform set of resources or programming. The challenges that a white Canadian might face at New Hampshire may not be the same ones that a track athlete from Jamaica experiences at Western Kentucky, a South Korean golfer at Arizona State, or a Russian basketball player at Houston Christian.

Dr. Simran Kaur Sethi and her research colleagues point out that integration requires “adjustment from both the incoming group and the host nation,” while assimilation requires no adjustment from the host group. The research team argues that the NCAA itself, even if it might not explicitly mean to, promotes a culture of assimilation in much of their international athlete policies, as can many individual athletic programs.

For a number of reasons, this can lead to negative athlete outcomes not just on the field, but in the classroom, and even after their athletic careers. If programs want to really set their international athletes up for success, they need a more expansive approach.

But how?

Subscribe to Premium Membership to read the rest.

Become a paying subscriber of Premium Membership to get access to this post and other subscriber-only content.

Already a paying subscriber? Sign In

A subscription gets you:
FOUR newsletters a week
Access to every single newsletter in our archives
Free stickers! (while supplies last)
Access to Athletic Director Simulator 4000

Join the conversation

or to participate.