Authors:James Allen and Robert Lyons

Corresponding Author: James Allen, PhD
Blair College of Health
Queens University of Charlotte
1900 Selwyn Avenue

James Allen is an Associate Professor at Queens University of Charlotte.

Robert Lyons is an Associate Professor at Queens University of Charlotte.

International Students Participating in Campus Recreational Sport


Numerous studies have investigated the relationship between cultural heritage and sport participation behavior (11,22,24). Not far from this notion, yet underrepresented in the literature, is the review of international students participating in campus recreational sport. Specifically, the impact of cultural identity on campus recreational sport participation patterns. Campus recreational sport programming has the potential to assist international students with acclimating to their new environment. Therefore, it is essential for administrators of campus recreational sport to recognize the cultural dynamics among international students and their participation behavior. A sample of international students attending universities in the United States was obtained and 8.2% of those targeted (N=242) responded to the survey. Findings indicated that international students use their campus recreational sport participation in a variety of ways. While some utilize their sport participation to maintain their cultural identity, others use it to cross cultural boundaries and acclimate to a new multi-cultural environment. Others expressed elements of exclusion and marginalization pertaining to campus recreational sport programs. Implications of the findings are discussed.

Keywords: Campus Recreational Sport, Cultural identity, Multi-Culturalism, International Students


While many recreational sport participants consider the health benefits associated with their activities, some participants incorporate recreational sport into their lives as a means of expressing their cultural identity (26). Recreational sport offers unique opportunities to either maintain one’s cultural identity or adapt to a new cultural environment (4). Sport managers responsible for the programming of recreational sport should consider the socio-cultural impacts on participants. Ideally, program development occurs with an emphasis on the diverse needs of stakeholders. Overlooked stakeholders during program development may miss valuable opportunities for socialization, learning, and even career development (20). Previous studies suggest that sport assists in the attainment of social capital (19,25).  Perhaps more importantly, social capital can be converted into economic capital (19,20). The term “globalization” often eludes to Westernization and can promote homogenous societies while marginalizing foreign cultures and ethnic communities (14). Sport can be used to promote conformity and express Western cultural norms, however, sport can also assist foreign nationals in maintaining their cultural identity (4,8,12,17). 

Purpose of Study

College campuses across America enjoy a constant inflow of international students. The Institute of International Education (15) indicates that there were 1,078,822 international students enrolled at universities in the United States for the 2016-2017 academic year (n.p.). This data reveals that international students traveling to the United States for higher education is at an all-time high. For most, gaining a quality education and developing a rewarding career path is the prime motive for pursuing their studies in the United States (18). Nevertheless, it is important that these students be delivered opportunities for socialization, cultural expression, and upkeep of physical health (28). Recreational sports can serve a multi-dimensional role for international students. Sport can aide them in staying physically fit. Other students may consume sport to retain a sense of their heritage by engaging in a familiar recreational activity. Sport affords chances to socialize with other international students with the same or comparable cultural background. Additionally, some international students view sport participation as a vehicle for adapting to their new surroundings and new culture. Participating in public activities, such as recreational sports, alongside individuals of the native culture facilitates incorporation for individuals of the foreign culture (13).

International students utilize sport in a variety of ways. Allen et al. (3) revealed that sport spectatorship provides international students studying in the United States opportunities for social networking. It is logical to assume that recreational sport participation also provides students opportunities for social networking. These networking prospects may permit the international students to adapt to his/her new cultural environment. Others may utilize their sport consumption to maintain or strengthen ties to their ethnic group (3). Another benefit of recreational sport participation for the international student is the prospect of gaining insight about other cultures and build trust and mutual appreciation between diverse ethnic groups. The purpose of the present study is to gain greater insight into the recreational sport participation experiences of international students in the United States. More specifically, the researchers are investigating the relationship between sport participation, cultural identity, and adaptation to a new cultural environment. The findings should enable campus recreation department’s to enhance their offerings and better meet the needs of international students.


When cultural traditions, religious practices, and political ideologies increase in diversity, usually there remains some point of attachment that enables group cohesion. Durkheim (10) asserted that society is greater than the sum of its parts and he devised the term collective consciousness. He labels shared beliefs, or the collective consciousness, as a mechanism for preserving social solidarity. In order for society to function, social solidarity must be present. Chaos will ultimately ensue without this binding of individuals into a unified social entity (10). Sport facilitates the process of group attachment, much like organized religion or educational systems. As a result, international students are able to gain a sense of belonging through their participation in recreational sport.  

Previous researchers studying the sociological aspects of sport have indicated that symbolic interactionism and identity theory guided their studies (27). The Symbolic interactionist frame coupled with identity theory allows researchers to gain insights into concepts of self and identity. Identity is expounded as internalized expectations resulting from roles that are engrained in organized systems of social interaction (2). Social structures work to get people into networks or as barriers to keep them on the outside looking in.  Sport organizations can facilitate networking opportunities, or serve to exclude marginalized groups. Mead, the father of identity theory, was concerned with the social basis of meaning, self, and action (2). Identity negotiation is described as the process occurring when individuals interact with others in an attempt to develop their personal identity. Mead (21) suggests the determination of identity negotiation is to cultivate a set of behaviors that will support the identity of the individual. Sport participation can provide interactions which aide in identity development.

Blumer introduced the term symbolic interactionism in an article he contributed to Man and Society in 1937 (7). This framework suggests that individuals form their behavior in arrangement with their anticipations of others and contingent upon their fluency with the situation (5). Symbolic interaction can also be understood as the exhibition of gestures and responses to the meanings of those gestures (7). Symbolic interactionism supposes meanings as social products shaped by significant activities of individuals as they engage with one another. Culture, social systems, societal roles, and social stratification affect an individual’s actions but do not completely dictate their actions. Thus, Blumer leaves room for individual agency as he suggests that individuals are shaped by culture and social structure, but they ultimately act toward situations. When applying this framework to recreational sport, it appears that for some, participation will provide meaning and serve as a formative process.

Reciprocal relationships between persons inside social structures can be studied via Blau’s (6) social exchange theory. Blau contends that social exchanges form confidence over time and they are meaningful (2). Essentially, any action has meaning and points toward or suggests something beyond itself. These social exchanges serve as the starting mechanism for group structure. Interaction is commenced with the intention of gaining something from the exchange. This occurs prior to group identities and boundaries being established and before roles, status, and norms are shaped (2). We can apply social exchange theory in the campus recreational sport setting where international students participate with domestic students. Recreational sport participation enables the exchange of norms allows for trust to be built between participants from differing backgrounds.

Gordon (13) researched social structure within the United States. His research reveals that social interaction with primary groups and primary relationships tend to restrict people to their social class subgroup and to their ethnic group. Additionally, he suggests that individuals often feel that by engaging in prolonged interactions across racial and religious boundaries, risk of being marginalized increases. What Gordon is referring to is individuals feeling they are straddling a line and thus no longer being a member of any group. He indicates that some foreigners or recent immigrants will display cultural pluralism to cope with this. Cultural pluralism allows individuals to participate in societies major institutions (work, school, sport) while holding their own ethnic customs (religious worship, holidays, and meals).   

Sport and Cultural Identity

Elbe et al.’s (11) study examined the relationship between cultural identity and environmental factors in sport. The researchers surveyed Eastern European migrants in Greece and Latin American migrants in Spain in order to measure cultural identity, task-oriented motivational climate, and coaching behavior. Results suggested that Eastern Europeans participating in sport in Greece displayed higher levels of cultural assimilation than that of their Latin American counterparts in Spain. Interestingly, autonomy-supportive coaching predicted an integrative identity for the Eastern Europeans in Greece (11). However, the coaching environment did not impact acculturation patterns for the Latin Americans living in Spain. Thus, sport may serve different acculturation purposes depending on the environment and background of the participant (11).

Nakamura and Donnelly (22) investigated the relationship between sport participation behavior, interculturalism, and lifestyle trajectories among various ethnic communities living in the Greater Toronto Area. Researchers conducted interviews with different cultural groups based on their involvement as a participant in the sport generally associated with their ethnic group (ex: South Asians participating in cricket). Findings suggest that when a member of an immigrant community initially begins their sport participation it is most often with those of the same ethnic or cultural group. However, their sport participation may alter over time, shifting to activities that are more inclusive. The researchers appear to have identified multiple patterns of sport participation behavior; participating to maintain ethnic identity versus wanting to participate in ‘Canadian’ culture via sport or participating in activities across cultural boundaries.

Schinke et al. (24) assessed adaptation to a new cultural environment via elite amateur sport. Utilizing conversational interviews with elite amateur athletes that immigrated to Canada, the study focused on acculturation challenges for new comers. The researchers found that elite amateur athletes experience a variety of phases while becoming acclimated to their new environment. During the first phase, the athlete perceives their new environment to be welcoming and they tend to be overly optimistic regarding their new environment. Many then transition into a less optimistic phase where they feel isolated from their culture, defenseless, or even a target for abuse. The athletes appear to have initially built up their receiving country to be an unrealistically idealized version. Ultimately, reality sets in and the immigrant faces numerous challenges while attempting to adapt to their new cultural environment. The researchers use these findings to suggest programmatic strategies to facilitate social connections for the newcomer as well as aiding the dominant group in acculturation. The onus of acculturation should not fall solely on the new comer.


This study utilized a mixed survey design. Demographics, such as age, nationality, and gender were obtained. The survey also gauged the participant’s length of time in the United States. Qualitative data was acquired through providing the subject an opening to describe their personal experiences participating in sport in the United States as it relates to socialization and opportunities to adjust to their new environment. Subjects were also requested to provide their personal definition of ‘cultural identity’. 


The researchers contacted international students attending four large public research universities in the United States via their institution’s international studies department. The entire population of international students at these institutions were messaged regarding the survey; conversely, varsity athletes engaged in intercollegiate sports were instructed to not respond to the survey. The researchers acquired written permission from the university’s international studies office and Institutional Review Board (IRB). These four academic institutions were chosen because they are large comprehensive universities with undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students, therefore yielding a representative sample of students from a variety of degree programs. Additionally, these particular institutions allowed the researchers to assess international students located in diverse geographic regions in the United States. Fortunately, the institutions in this study were enthusiastic about the research focus and suggested that the data obtained would provide useful information for their international studies offices.

Qualitative Data

The survey’s qualitative data included two questions where the international student was encouraged to elaborate:  (1) Please provide a brief explanation of the way you define ‘cultural identity’, and (2) Please provide further details that you feel describe your experiences with sport in the United States as it relates to socialization as well as opportunities to adjust to your new environment. A focus group at one of the four universities was utilized to ensure that foreign students with English as a second language could accurately comprehend the questions.


As formerly described, international students participated in this study by responding to an e-mail message which enclosed a link to the online survey. All international students with a registered e-mail address attending the four institutions received a message informing them of the study via the international studies office at their university. Subjects completed the survey online before the data transmitted straight to a file that only the researchers had access to. The researchers did not make any distinction between which specific institutions the international students attended. 


Ultimately, 2935 international students were contacted and supplied with a link to the survey and 242 responses were received. This represents a return rate of 8.2%; however, the survey is only relevant to those international students that participate in recreational sport. Therefore, it is impossible to identify the true response rate. While the researchers received 242 responses, only 240 surveys were useable for analysis. The researchers were forced to eliminate two of the surveys for having too many missing values. There were 133 males (55.4%) and 107 females (44.6%) retained in the analysis. International students from Asian nations (eg. China, Japan, Korea) made up the largest segment (36%) followed by international students from South Asian nations (eg. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) making up 25%. International students from European nations (eg. France, Germany, Spain) made up 11% and international students from either Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom made up 10%.  Nine percent were from Latin American nations (eg. Brazil, Columbia, Mexico). International students from Middle Eastern nations (eg. Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) were 5% and 4% were from African nations (eg. Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria).  Roughly, 30% of the international students had been residing in the United States for one year or less. Approximately, 23% had been living in the United States for more than one year and less than two and 18% had been living in the United States between two and three years. Lastly, 29% had been living in the United States for more than three years.

The researchers performed content analysis for the qualitative items. First, the researchers performed line-by-line coding (9). This allowed the researchers to focus on meaningful units to analyze. Subsequently, the researchers performed open coding in order to identify potential themes (1). During the third reading, the researchers generated code notes. The researchers cross examined their code notes in order to identify prevalent themes. By incorporating multiple researchers during the analysis of the qualitative data, trustworthiness was enriched (23).

The first research question requested the international student provide their personal definition of ‘cultural identity’. The participants overwhelming emphasized the distinctiveness of culture. This is consistent with the findings of Giossos (12) and and Kosebalaban (16). One Latin American student defined cultural identity as “a behavior, language, and tradition shared by members in a group of peoples that distinguishes them from others. A European student expressed that “cultural identity can be defined in many different ways. In its most basic form cultural identity is reflected in norms, values, and morals one projects and is related to their regional or ethnic origin”. An international student from Africa states “I define cultural identity as what tells others about your background; behavior from you that helps them recognize who you are and where you are from”. However, another student raised an interesting point regarding the complexity of cultural identity by stating “Since India is culturally very diverse, ‘cultural identity’ to me usually refers to people with whom I share the same religion, food and festivals. In that sense, it makes me feel culturally at ease with people of other nationalities as well with whom I share the above”.

Perhaps resulting from the survey being related to recreational sport, numerous students pointed out the connection between cultural identity and sport participation. A Latin American student stated “cultural identity is the group you feel you identify with regarding activities, music, sport, arts, dance, language, etc.”. Another student stated “cultural identity is your beliefs, traditions and the way you live. An English culture is a lot different from American culture, particularly with regards to sports. An Asian student suggested that cultural identity is “expressed via language and popular sports”. Interestingly, two participants specifically suggest that sport is unrelated to cultural identity. One South Asian student expressed “I don’t agree with sports being strongly linked to culture. Sports transcends culture. That is why so many cultures play the same sport. Cultural identity is owning the language, rituals, food, clothing etc. of a particular group of people”. Another South Asian student suggested “cultural identity has nothing to do with sports. As I am a new comer to the US, I am not playing any native games. There might be time where I might get an opportunity to play cricket which I am interested in playing”. However, these two students commenting that sport is unrelated to cultural identity were outliers in the data set. Based on the responses to the first research question, the researchers were confident that the international students understood what the term ‘cultural identity’ was in reference to. This research question was important for two purposes; English is not the primary language for the majority of these students, and the term ‘cultural identity’ may mean different things to different people.

The second research question instructed the international students to elaborate on their personal experiences with sport in the United States as it relates to socialization as well as opportunities to adjust to their new environment. The researchers were able to identify four distinct themes; socializing with students from diverse cultural backgrounds, socializing with those of the same or similar cultural background, exclusion or isolation, and becoming familiar with the new (United States) environment. The most prevalent theme was socialization between diverse cultures. A South Asian student expressed that participating in recreation sport “has been a wonderful experience for me to embrace new cultures and get used to a new environment”. A student from Africa explained that “meeting new people through a team sport builds trust. Once they see that they can trust you on the field, they trust you more as a friend too. A Canadian student described recreational sport as “a great way to meet people with similar interests.  Each person can learn about the other’s cultural background and make the international student feel more accepted”. A student from Asia suggested that sport provides opportunities to “meet people with different backgrounds. We help each other and hence build new relationships”. Another student from Asia described recreational sport on campus as “helping me to understand and appreciate other cultures even though they may be different from my own”.

International students also display a pattern of participation with those of the same or similar cultural background, perhaps to retain a sense of their identity or to feel more at home. A Latin American student elaborated on “getting to know similar people experiencing what you are experiencing. You practice the same sports and you get to share somewhat same values”. An Asian student revealed “I had just arrived in the USA a few months prior when I became acquainted with a few people from my culture. It became a weekly routine to meet up with them to play sports together. I felt more comfortable as time went by because they made me feel as I was back home”. One international student suggested “the sports I play are usually played by people from Asia, so I’ve had the chance to socialize mostly with people from Asia. A South American student revealed “I, like most international students, do not engage too often in recreational sports, but when we do, we tend to socialize more with those that are similar to us. We socialize more with other people from the same region and it does not leave room to adjust to the new environment and new people”. Unfortunately, several students eluded to the exclusionary elements of recreational sports on campus. A Canadian of Caribbean heritage revealed:

I have not met any Canadians here. The people I met playing intramurals were all white Americans. I did not feel especially welcomed, nor was I trying to feel more a part of their culture. I wanted to play and make friends in the process, it did not matter to me what race or cultural background they came from, but unfortunately, they were not the most open to me. If international students were to have intramural teams (I’m not aware if they do at this university) it might be better. It is easy to feel isolated in the US. People are not as interested in getting to know people from other cultures, at least in my experience. Although, one or two people that I played with from my department have been very welcoming, they too are out of state.

A South Asian student “suggested no one is willing to share and play other sports. International barriers need to be broken.Another South Asian student indicated “more opportunities and facilities should be provided to encourage multinational games. I could not find a cricket stadium over here”. Lastly, A Latin American student expressed “everything on campus is still very segregated, whether it is your religious beliefs, social class or ethnicity. There is a lack of international student involvement in campus activities, and it is very hard to adjust.

 Several students suggested that one of the benefits of their recreational sport participation are social interactions with American students. A European student indicated that “spending time with American students helps me learn about American culture and also helps me improve my language skills. Another European student indicated that recreational sport participation “helps me relate to my American friends. Interestingly, only European students specifically commented on interacting with American students. One Asian student, while not specifically describing American students, revealed that sport provides “opportunities for me to know this new environment and meet new people.


Administrators in campus recreation, student-life, and international studies departments can benefit from familiarizing themselves with the findings from the present study. Sport plays a multidimensional role in the lives of international students attending universities in the United States. The qualitative data obtained during the present study supports Nakamura and Donnelly’s (22) findings that ethnic minorities use sport participation for maintaining ethnic identity, interacting with the majority culture, and for crossing cultural boundaries. While the health, fitness, and stress reduction benefits of sport are crucial pieces, it is essential for industry professionals to recognize the identity, socialization, and adaptation processes associated with sport participation.

On one hand, the qualitative findings provide campus recreation department’s at large, comprehensive universities with evidence of the profound and positive impact their programming is having on international students. The researchers observed numerous international students that felt as though their experience participating in campus sport programming was enriching their lives, allowing them to network, and aiding in acculturation. One prevalent theme observed by the researchers was that sport participation aides in adaptation to a new, unfamiliar environment. However, several participants offered specific details and insights into the exclusionary elements of recreational sports on campus. Thus, for some subjects in the study, sport did not serve as a positive force in the acculturation process. This supports the findings from Elbe et al.’s (11) study. It is highly possible that administrators in campus recreation departments have overlooked certain ethnic communities when developing programming while addressing the needs of others.


Universities throughout the United States have placed significant emphasis on the importance and benefits of diversity and inclusion initiatives. However, it is unclear if many universities have aligned their campus recreation departments to support these initiatives. It may be fruitful to develop campus initiatives that raise awareness among American students regarding the adaptation struggles international students experience and encourage them to participate in recreational sport alongside their foreign counterparts.

The researchers of the present study have several recommendations. First, when there is a significant number of international students from a particular region of the world, campus recreational sports departments should be certain to provide opportunities for those students to engage in their preferred sport. For example, in order to satisfy the demand from South Asian students, there should be opportunities for cricket. Second, for those international students that have difficulty acclimating to their new environment and are feeling excluded, the researchers recommend programming that intentionally mixes domestic and foreign students on the same teams. One option is to advertise these sport opportunities to the domestic students so that those most interested in participating with international students can self-select to engage in these programs. This will reduce the likelihood that the foreign student feels excluded by the domestic student. Likewise, international students that prefer to participate in traditional sports with those from the same culture (Ex: Chinese students participating in badminton together) should not feel compelled to participate in these optional programs that foster cross-cultural interactions. Results from this qualitative study display the multi-dimensional role that recreational sport plays in the international student’s life. International students will continue to be a crucial stakeholder segment for universities in the United States and it is essential to design recreational sport programming that effectively meets the needs these students.



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