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Student organization aims to improve accessibility for international student athletes

International Athletes and Allies hosts a workshop on the theme of identity in sports and society. Photo by Shabana Gupta.
International Athletes and Allies hosts a workshop on the theme of identity in sports and society. Photo by Shabana Gupta.

By Jonathan Gomez

Although most varsity sports offered at Grinnell College are popular across the world, international students often feel discouraged from joining a team on campus due to the overwhelming number of white, domestic American athletes. At the College, international students represent 18 percent of the student body, yet only 7.6 percent of the student athlete population.

The International Athletes and Allies organization, along with other identity-oriented groups on campus, was founded to create a space within athletics that champions diversity and inclusion. Nana Okamoto ‘20 and Vishva Nalamalapu ‘20 were both on the Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams when they decided to create the organization in October 2017. “I personally had been struggling with being an international student and doing athletics. I always felt like I didn’t belong. Second year, we both realized that it was not just a personal problem but more systemic,” said Okamoto.

After discussions with other international student athletes, Okamoto said she realized others shared her sentiment. “A lot of international students share the same difficulties, whether it be navigating health insurance or other social barriers like not knowing culture references. It’s just harder to integrate yourself into the team. We made it [International Athletes and Allies] more as a way to improve accessibility in athletics and make it a more comfortable space for everyone, while specifically focusing on international students.”

Although the athletics department does provide valuable resources for many challenges student athletes face, Okamoto said she didn’t believe enough attention had been given to topics such as race and identity. “We do have talks with Jen Jacobsen that go over alcohol use, but we never talk about race, gender, or any of those identities.”

Since its conception, International Athletes and Allies has been able to facilitate diversity discussions with various varsity and club teams. These discussions have been in collaboration with other student groups such as Queer Athletes and Allies, and they “talk about how to improve inclusivity on your team and what steps that you individually or the team as a whole can take to improve,” Okamoto said.

IAA has also been focusing on addressing other issues such as those that have arisen due to new fitness center rules. “The rules of the fitness center need to be clearer so people feel more comfortable. There are currently guidelines for the fitness center that a lot of people don’t know about, just in terms of dress code and a lot of other things. It is really an accessibility issue and we just want to make this a place that makes everyone feel comfortable,” said Lauren Miller ‘21, IAA co-chair.

One specific issue that IAA helps international students with is improving the information provided to incoming first-years who are interested in becoming student athletes at the College. “International students are very rarely recruited for teams. Oftentimes, coaches only find domestic students because that is the limit of their reach. … Even if international students did want to play sports, since they don’t have that information, they join late and oftentimes end up missing that whole season,” Okamoto said.

To buck this trend, the organization created a document to help inform incoming students. “We made a document that gives information on how to join varsity teams and expanded that to include information about how to join club teams, PE courses … we sent it out to the Grinnell College Class of 2022 Facebook group in hopes that people interested would see it and be able to prepare for the season,” Okamoto said.

While International Athletes and Allies is focused on improving inclusivity for international student athletes, the founders of the organization would also like diversity among members of the organization to increase as well.

“I personally would want more non-athletes to come because a lot of people come up and ask us whether they can join because they are not international or an athlete. The truth is that everyone can join and the point is to create space that welcomes all identities and specifically promotes the inclusion of underrepresented groups,” said Okamoto.

The International Athletes and Allies organization meets on every other Wednesday at 8 p.m. in JRC 202.

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