When Miles Williams joined the Elon University football team out of high school, he was told players should not study abroad until their eligibility is up. But he chose to take advantage of Elon’s Winter Term his junior year and study abroad in Ghana, which challenged his position on the team when a new coaching staff came in.

“As a program, if you’re going to talk about student-athletes being students first, they should be able to get the whole student experience,” said Williams, a senior captain. “The coach that I asked to go on the trip was fine with me going because he knew the type of leader I was on the team and things I do in the classroom.”

The new coaching staff disagreed.

“They thought that going abroad for that amount of time was going to be a hindrance to developing cohesion on the team and I guess felt that I wasn’t a good teammate by choosing to go abroad,” Williams said.

As result, Williams had to fight to regain respect from his coaches and teammates and complete additional early morning workouts for several weeks. For him, though, it was worth it.

Elon University has made a commitment to global engagement, touting the No. 1 undergraduate study abroad program in the nation. This commitment applies to all students, but many student-athletes feel they have less of a chance than others.

For some athletes, it’s a smooth process. For others, easy is an understatement. There are no sports where a study abroad experience is absolutely unattainable. There is also no path that guarantees an athlete the opportunity, but it’s possible with some sacrifices and flexibility.

In the 2013 graduating class, 75 percent of non-athletes studied abroad at least once during their time in college, but only 35 percent of student-athletes had that experience.

In the past five years, 97 student-athletes representing 12 different sports teams studied abroad. They have traveled to over 30 countries throughout the summer, fall semester and Winter Term.

The only women’s team that hasn’t had at least one study abroad is women’s basketball. And on the men’s side, the baseball, basketball and tennis teams haven’t had a player study abroad in the last five years.

“Study abroad is an experience that any student-athlete should have the opportunity to do,” said Clay Hassard, Elon senior associate director of athletics. “And we want to encourage athletes to try to pursue that in any way possible with the realization that there are certain responsibilities student-athletes have.”


A deeper look at the numbers

When looking at the number of student-athletes who have studied abroad compared to non-athletes, the distinction of opportunity is clear: More than twice as many non-athletes study abroad than student-athletes.

According to Dean of Global Studies Woody Pelton, the general demographics for Elon’s study abroad students are in line with the national numbers. Women study abroad more than men, white students study abroad more than non-white students and those with financial need are less likely to study abroad.

Pelton admitted there is room for improvement, and said the university is taking steps.

Elon athletics has a large minority population, featuring some from a lower socioeconomic class.. Of the 382 student-athletes at Elon, 205 are female and 127 are minority athletes. A large number of student-athletes also receive scholarships based on financial need.

“A lot of people will say student-athletes are studying abroad at a lower rate than other students,” said Cayce Crenshaw, director for academic support services and assistant athletics director. “But if you look at those other populations, student-athletes cross into them a lot.”

The average cost of a Winter Term study abroad runs the gamut from $3,950 to $8,100 per course.

“Cost is a big issue,” Crenshaw said, “because the NCAA doesn’t allow for us to pay for that study abroad fee. Even for a full scholarship athlete, much less a partial scholarship.

“Where is a student from a lower socioeconomic status going to come up with $7,000 or $4,000 when they don’t even have enough money to buy a winter coat?”

The Elon Commitment strategic plan is striving to achieve complete access to a global engagement experience by 2020, and in order to reach that goal, the university is expanding financial aid to students who can’t afford the cost.

“The university has made a substantial commitment of resources to support global access, however any assistance provided to student-athletes must be in compliance with NCAA regulations,” Pelton said. “This sometimes restricts our ability to provide additional funding to student athletes.”

In addition to restricting financial access to study abroad for student-athletes, the NCAA also constructs the calendars for each sport, which tightens schedules early.

“When you’re going to play your games, how many games you’re going to play, when your preseason is going to be, how many preseason practices you can have, when you can lift more, run more — that’s all dictated by the NCAA, and a coach is having to follow those guidelines,” Crenshaw said. “It’s more dictated by calendars and practices, and that’s something not many people realize.”

Almost 90 percent of student-athletes who have studied abroad in the last five years did so during Winter Term, an option unique to Elon that offers a three-and-a-half week course.

Then there are programs that present hurdles, where planning in advance is essential.

“We’re telling a student-athlete who is in one of those sports you need to start early,” Crenshaw said. “You need to map out what you’re plan is and you need to make sure you’re communicating your plan with your coach a year in advance.”

Fall sports coincide

Of the 97 athletes who studied abroad in the last five years, 67 of them were fall sport athletes. The volleyball team had the most athletes study abroad, with 19 players, 18 of whom did so during winter term. “I chose to come to Elon because of the offering that you can study abroad as an athlete,” said Megan Gravley, an Elon volleyball player who studied abroad in Greece during Winter Term in 2013. “It was a good opportunity and a good time to go, and my coach gave me the option to go so I took it.”

Head volleyball coach Mary Tendler agrees that student-athletes should have the chance to travel and fully encourages her players to go abroad.

“It’s such a big thing here at Elon, and a large percentage of students study abroad, so why shouldn’t our athletes study abroad as well?” Tendler said. “I think it’s up to coaches to make a way for that to happen for each player, if they do indeed want to study abroad.”

When Tendler is recruiting players, she isn’t just recruiting them to the volleyball team. She is recruiting them to Elon, and study abroad may be part of that.

“Lucky for us, we have that winter term so a lot of our players will study abroad during that period,” Tendler said.

For volleyball players and other fall sport athletes, including soccer players and cross country runners, the experience is attainable. For others, like football players, there are some hurdles, but the option remains. According to Williams, a former teammate had studied abroad while he was still playing and managed to perform on the field, so he thought he could, too. Williams ran it by his coach at the time, explained why he was interested in and asked if it was something he’d be OK with.

The coach said yes.

But the new football coaching staff, which was hired the month before Williams was scheduled to study abroad, questioned his commitment to the team. Williams, who prides himself on being a good teammate and leader, thought his character had been called into question, which was tough. Although he was hurt he knew he would have to prove himself.

“My No. 1 goal while I was abroad was making sure that I came back in better shape than they expected me to be,” said Williams, who was doing intense rehab after coming off hip surgery. “I knew that that’s one of the first things they would be able to put on me if I was unable to perform.”

Williams built time into the day to make sure he was running and stretching to stay ahead of schedule. He faced consequences upon his return, along with another teammate who studied abroad in South Africa that same January. The two football players had workouts at 6 a.m. from the time they got back until spring practice started.

“At first, we were like there’s no way we’re going to be able to do this, but after two or three workouts, it was just a part of our regular routine,” Williams said. “Nothing that was too tough, just waking up in the morning you were reminded of the decision that you had to go abroad.”

Gravley knew she would be missing the entire Winter Term training season when she applied. She said the main consequence of going abroad is feeling behind when you get back.

“You know the rest of your teammates are going to be there working and getting ready for the spring season,” said Gravley, who went to Greece with another teammate Tendler sees the cultural experience as educational.

It marks a positive change in perspective for student-athletes, who receive a locker full of athletic gear each year and many of whom are on scholarship.

“They come back a different person,” Tendler said. “All of a sudden they appreciate some of the things they have back here at Elon, and they get that education and a lot times it’s in the field that they want to go.”

Spring sports collide

Student-athletes whose regular season is in the spring haven’t pursued the study abroad experience too often. Only 15 spring sport athletes have studied abroad in the last five years, and 13 of them were from the women’s track and field team. No baseball or men’s tennis players studied abroad, and only one softball player did.

“I’ve had once player study abroad in 18 years and we just had a second one who is no longer with us,” said Mike Kennedy, Elon baseball coach. “It is very rare.”

Although he supports Elon’s goal to provide every student a chance to travel abroad, Kennedy also believes it doesn’t necessarily apply to student-athletes.

“There are some challenges with baseball, but overall I think it’s within the structure of the university,” Kennedy said. “There are two times that fit in with what we try to do. You have Winter Term, which is preseason right before you get started, and then you have what would be more beneficial, which would be summer.”

One of the main differences between fall and spring sports is the climate of the offseason, which impacts the chances to study abroad. Kennedy believes student-athletes shouldn’t be able to miss the heart of their practice season because it puts a challenge on the coaching staff, as well as the team as a whole.

“When he gets back, how is he going to be ready to go?” Kennedy said. “You have to make a tough decision sometimes as a player, what’s more important to you.”

Blaine Bower was the first baseball player to try to study abroad for a semester, and went to Spain last fall.

Now, he’s a former baseball player.

“It was required for my major,” said Bower, who went into school as a double major in Spanish and international business. “I figured with Elon’s reputation being such a good school for sending kids abroad, it was an opportunity to take advantage of.”

He started applying in the fall of his junior year, informed Kennedy during the application process and was then accepted in the winter. He made arrangements to practice and play with a semi-pro team in Seville to prepare for the season, but Kennedy said it wouldn’t be fair to spend an entire fall away and then play over someone who was at Elon. For Bower, studying abroad was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but he lost the chance to play baseball without really knowing it.

“Nobody really told me if you’re going to pick this major, you have to study abroad and it could jeopardize your sports career,” Bower said. “We don’t have a season where we can study abroad and we want to have that opportunity that other students have.”

Marissa Stefanelli, a former softball player, also made the choice between her sport and studying abroad when she applied to the Greece program for the 2015 winter Term.

“I just found it unfair that I did not get the opportunity to do both,” Stefanelli said. “It was my choice to pick one or the other, but it really wasn’t a choice or an option because study abroad is something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

According to Stefanelli, she emailed head softball coach Kathy Bocock when she applied and asked if it was something they could work through, even though it would mean missing the preseason. Despite phone calls from both ends, the two were never able to touch base over the summer, but they met once Stefanelli was back on-campus.

“She basically told me to pick between Greece and softball,” Stefanelli said. “It was kind of blind-siding because I didn’t see it coming that I would have to make a decision since I asked her for her opinion. She wasn’t giving me her thoughts. It wasn’t more of a discussion. It was basically you have a choice.”

With the refund deadline approaching and pressure from the coach to make a decision before she put the money down, the clock was ticking for Stefanelli.

“I don’t regret my decision,” Stefanelli said. “I do miss it, obviously, and would love the chance to compete again. It just didn’t work out for me.”

Teams travel internationally

Seventy-two percent of Elon students study abroad, which leads the nation. That is more than seven times the national average. With only 35 percent of athletes studying abroad, more of a burden falls on the athletic department to get its players overseas.

The NCAA allows the school to take a team abroad and compete every four years. Elon wants to take advantage of that and enhances the competitive experience by adding an academic element.

The Global Education Center at Elon collaborates with the athletic department in supporting team-based programs. Of the 16 athletic teams at Elon, seven have traveled around the world to compete and gain an international cultural experience.

The women’s volleyball team, for one, traveled to Italy and Switzerland to play during the summer of 2013.

“You don’t really know the benefits until you go through it,” Tendler said. “Our team chemistry was better immediately after the trip. And I don’t think it would’ve been like that without us going overseas.”

In addition to playing volleyball, the team wrote a blog and fulfilled the Experiential Learning Requirement (ELR) for academic credit.

“We could be dipped into that culture together and we came back even closer than we were when we left,” Gravley said. “You get a different look at a team if they are together in a new environment, in a culturally diverse environment.”

The next two teams on the travel budget are men’s and women’s soccer, which are planned for spring break 2015.

“Being able to do that, not just in a study abroad experience, but in a team experience, that gives you a different experience that you wouldn’t get any other place,” Crenshaw, of academic advising, said.

A complicated commitment

Sometimes, it comes down to a choice: study abroad or stick with the team. And many schools don’t even extend the option.

“This is the third school I’ve worked at, and it’s never been an option for any student athlete at the other two schools I’ve worked at,” Crenshaw said. “When you have a student athlete who isn’t there, it changes everything for everybody else. It changes the dynamics of what you’re trying to do. It changes your ability to try to build as a team rather than individual players.”

“It’s a huge challenge,” Kennedy said, “because we are competing at a high level at the Division 1 level and we’re expected to win. But at the same time you do want to try to fit in what we’re doing with our academic goals with our institution.”

There’s still a ways to go, for some.

“It’s a scary thought for a coach whose livelihood depends on winning and losing games,” Crenshaw said. “But when coaches have student-athletes who did it well and it doesn’t have that impact, then they are going to be more willing to let students do it. As we are doing it more and more, it’s going to take away the fear of the unknown.”