September 30, 2011

Athletes miss out on the study abroad experience

Traveling abroad can be a wonderful experience, and luckily, more and more Chicago students are being given the chance to see firsthand what it is like to live in another country. The opportunities are plentiful—between FLAG grants, Civ programs, and a bevy of Chicago-affiliated institutions and programs across the world, there are plenty of ways for students to take advantage of study abroad opportunities. However, there is one very distinct group of students that is continually unable to enjoy the study abroad experience to its fullest capacity: Varsity athletes.

Associating “disadvantaged” with “varsity athlete” might seem a bit oxymoronic. The stereotype is of the pampered athlete, who is allowed to breeze through classes, getting preferential treatment by professors and fellow students. Chicago, however, prides itself on being an “uncommon” institution above the stereotypical, and this should hold for all students, regardless of whether or not they participate in a sport. Athletes are students just like any other, and, as such, should be allowed the same opportunities.

The dilemma lies in the enormous commitment that is required of those who participate in sports. A male basketball player can’t study abroad in the winter because otherwise he misses an entire season. Men’s and women’s soccer compete not only in the fall, but in the spring as well. Runners who compete in both cross country and track and field are in season year round. Even in the offseason, athletes seldom take too long of a break. No athlete takes his or her sports commitment lightly. So when are these student-athletes—and notice that student comes first –supposed to get their invaluable study abroad experience?

A good answer, although understandably not an ideal one, lies in athletic trips abroad. Since 1997, 18 teams have traveled to countries around the world, going to places as exotic as Costa Rica and as far away as Japan and Australia. Several teams have gone to Europe, and the women’s soccer team in particular has been to Italy four times now, the first time being in 1999 and the latest trip being just this past summer. Even club teams are getting into the mix— the rowing team just got back Monday from a trip to Paris.

These trips don’t replace study abroad, and never could. Study abroad trips allow students to immerse themselves completely in a culture for two to three months, while athletic trips abroad last a little longer than a week. They’re not the best substitute, but we’re lucky that the university provides athletes an avenue to go abroad without missing any training.

Chicago is unique in its commitment to sending teams abroad, and is one of the best universities in the country at doing so. An NCAA restriction only allows the athletic department to fund travel every three years, and our soccer teams have been traveling every four—it’s hard to make the case that our teams aren’t traveling enough, and that’s certainly not what I’m trying to say here. If there’s one aspect of our athletic trips abroad program that could be improved, it’s the funding.

To pay for their recent trip to Italy, each member of the women’s soccer team had to pay $500 out of pocket. In addition to that, each player had to sell ten raffle tickets at $100 each, the prize of the raffle being a chance at a $3,000 dollar pot. That amounts to $1,500 for each athlete. Additionally, each girl had to work a certain number of hours during last year at various sporting events. That is a lot of time and money for athletes to spend for a trip that non-student athletes get to enjoy for comparatively less. By comparison, it costs students only $4,000 additional dollars to spend a full quarter abroad with the Civ program.

The athletic department already funds a large portion of the trips abroad, and according to athletic director Tom Weingartner, roughly three quarters of the women’s soccer trip was paid for from the athletics department, in large part through the Edith Ballwebber Fund, an endowed account specifically made to fund women’s athletic programs abroad. Complete funding, according to Weingartner, is withheld on purpose: “It’s important that they’re invested, they take ownership of [the trip abroad], and work towards it,” he said.

For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. I don’t think the trip should be entirely funded by the athletic department, but at the same time, I don’t think our athletes should be required to foot a $1,500 bill for a nine day trip to Italy when other students are paying $4,000 for a much more expansive experience. There’s no easy solution, but I think a reasonable one would be to allow student-athletes to apply for grants similar to FLAG grants, available exclusively to athletes, which would help pay for their trips abroad. The money could be provided through alumni donations (for the most part, athletes sell their raffle tickets to alumni anyways, so this could simplify the process), or could be taken out of funds used for other study abroad programs. Applying for a grant would still give the athletes ownership over the program, as they’ll have to work through a rigorous application process, while still allowing them to pay for their trip. Applying for a grant, even one requiring a lot of work, takes much less time than working countless hours at track meets and asking alumni to buy raffle tickets.

By all indications, the trips seem to be worth it. “It took four or five days into our preseason Italy trip [to bond] to the same point it took us a month to get to last year,” said second-year Claire Mackevicius. Head women’s soccer coach Amy Reifert also attested to the importance of the trip for her team.

“The whole reason to go abroad is for a shared experience and for the team bonding that you get from traveling in a foreign country. There’s nothing you can do here to replicate sharing everyone jumping into bluest water you’ve ever seen in Capri.” The bonding experience seems to help— the last three seasons Chicago has gone abroad have been successful ones.

Studying abroad at Chicago is easier than at almost any other university, and all students, athletes or not, should get the opportunity to get that experience without sacrificing their full commitment to the extracurricular activities they love.