As a student-athlete, I was very nervous to study abroad. For the last four years, I have been a part of the Mount Holyoke College swim team as a distance freestyler. I love my team and I had fears that I wouldn’t be able to perform as well as I wanted to upon my return. However, after an incredible study abroad experience in Shanghai, I am more grateful every day that I overcame my fears and chose to go abroad. More than anything, the study abroad experience gave me a new appreciation for my experience as a student- athlete. Here are my Top Three reasons why I think it is important to study abroad as an athlete.

Bring Your “Athletic Skills” to the “Real World”

As a student-athlete, we spend many hours each week perfecting our skills and getting physically fit. We also develop skills that don’t have to do with our bodies – like time management, resiliency, and communication. These are all things that are very much applicable to the study abroad experience. While studying abroad, there are an unlimited number of people to meet, new foods to try, and new places to go! Successfully balancing all these things on top of still being a student takes skill. Luckily for student-athletes, we practice this every day of our lives! We balance workouts, travel for competition, and team activities with all the things that come with being a student (classes, lectures, social life, etc). The skills developed through the years of being a student-athlete, allowed me to more fully embrace the study abroad experience.
Of course, while navigating a new place, there will be challenges and obstacles along the way. I can still remember traveling for the first time on the high-speed train in China and accidentally buying the wrong train ticket time. We were stranded for an additional six hours while we waited to take the next available train. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that to everyone, the experience taught me the value of staying positive in times of disappointment. I was able to stay positive largely due to my mental training of constantly pushing myself both mentally and physically in practices and in swimming meets. This mindset helped me tremendously in my many slip ups and crazy circumstances that I found myself in during my time in China. It made my experience much more enjoyable when I was able to move on and find the bright side to things.

Bring the “Real World” to the Athletic Experience 

On the flip side, my study abroad experiences also allowed me to learn new skills that I was then able to bring back to make myself a better athlete and teammate. Sometimes, studying abroad in China was difficult! There were cultural differences, a completely new language, and new people that I had to get used to. In each experience, my confidence grew as I successfully navigated unfamiliar circumstances. This new confidence has been extremely beneficial as I am going into my last year of college athletics. Because I was able to overcome the many new situations in China, I have a stronger mind-set needed to overcome obstacles in the weight room and in the pool. Additionally, I have a greater appreciation for the diversity of experiences and perspectives around me. Because of this, I feel that I am a better teammate. I am better able to connect and get to know my teammates on a deeper level. I credit this new mind-set to the many diverse people I met while traveling and living in a foreign country.

A Break and A Unique Way to Experience Something New

I am going to preface this section with the following: I LOVE my team. Being a student athlete has positively shaped my academic experience in more ways than I can count. But…studying abroad gave me a much needed break to focus on something other than swimming. Chances are, after graduating, you won’t go on to work in your sport (unless you’re going pro or aiming for the Olympics – you rock!) Studying abroad allowed me to concentrate on aspects of my life that are particularly difficult while being in-season. I was able to go on weekend trips, concentrate much more on my future career interests, and was even able to do cross-training with different kinds of workouts! I went to the local gym and even joined a student hiking club. I also had friends that joined school sports clubs like soccer, frisbee, and weight lifting. My friends and I also took an amazing hiking trip to the Yellow Mountains. It was so fun to move my body in a way that I wouldn’t normally be able to if I was in the swim season. After five months of biking and hiking, I returned to campus with a new excitement to getting back to my regular routine of weight lifting and swimming.
I hope this article has helped inform you of the many positive aspects from studying abroad as a student athlete! The skills developed from studying abroad combined with the expertise learned from being a student athlete has shaped me into someone who can confidently navigate the world as a hard-working and passionate citizen. I hold both aspects to the highest value and could not imagine my experience as a college student without either one.
Sarah Ratzlaff  is an International Relations student at Mount Holyoke College and studied abroad with IFSA at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics in China in Spring 2019.