Mobility Programs and Student Action on the UN SDGs: Going for Olympic Gold!

We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

The COVID-19 public health crisis created critical global health challenges that have disrupted student mobility in unprecedented ways over these past 18 months. But as countries dispense vaccines limiting the impact of the virus around the world, international mobility programs are recovering as well. One hopeful sign of this recovery is the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games planned for 2020 but cancelled in the midst of the virus. And while concerns remain about the spread of COVID-19 during the events—what to do about athletes testing positive in the Olympic Village and, more to the point, whether the Games should proceed at all—the Opening Ceremony on July 23rd will signal that international mobility, in this case through sport, and cross-cultural interactions, although more limited than normal, are nevertheless making a come-back.

Over the past year and a half, study abroad and other university classes transitioned from in-person to virtual attendance.  Similarly, while Olympic athletes are competing in-person in Tokyo, spectators of the Games must watch from home on TV and computer screens. This is another example of the struggle to get the right mix of the “real” and the “virtual” in today’s socially distanced relationships and it’s one of the unfortunate legacies left to us by COVID-19. Indeed, for both international education and international sport, the pandemic has painfully revealed just how globally interconnected we all are, for better or worse.

In this context, it is expected that study abroad will grow slowly in fall 2021 and see increasing recovery in spring 2022. At the same time, it is expected that the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing, scheduled in February 2022, will allow for greater in-person interaction among both athletes and spectators than we will see in Tokyo. The revitalization of study abroad and the return of the Olympic Games are encouraging signs because such initiatives constitute important ways we foster positive connectivity between peoples, cultures, and countries around the world.  Indeed, given the years of training to prepare for the intense personal challenge of contending with others through cross-cultural events and exhilarating experiences, there are real and compelling parallels between Olympic athletes competing in their sports and university students studying in their programs abroad.

When highlighting the similarities between international Olympic competition and study abroad, it’s important to ask whether those who participate—athletes and students—are maximizing their potential for international learning and understanding.  To this point, and beyond the nuts and bolts of administering complex international programs, sports administrators and coaches on the one hand, and university faculty and staff on the other, have a real opportunity to achieve high Olympic ideals and to maximize the impact of learning experiences abroad—for athletes, students and the wider world—by leveraging key educational resources for addressing the global challenges faced by athletes and students today. The pandemic is one such challenge but climate disruption, collapsing biodiversity, and resource depletion are no less critical to our shared future. In response, two examples of such high-impact teaching and learning opportunities are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the values and goals of the International Olympic Movement.

Starting Blocks: Mobility Learning Via the SDGs and Olympic Values

Olympic and study abroad leaders can increase the impact on their respective participants through improved orientation prior to participation, expanded learning while abroad, and re-entry support after the return home.  Along with learning in and about the country where athletes compete and students study, the UN SDGs provide a sturdy ethical framework for intercultural learning and cross-cultural understanding. Indeed, many Olympic athletes are also university students.  Nearly 80% of the US 2016 Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has competed in college sports.  The University of Southern California alone identified 63 students who will be competing in Tokyo.

Indeed, if we as international education administrators help students learn about the importance of the SDGs and connect to colleagues in the Olympic movement to do the same for athletes, and then guide them towards taking individual and group action in ways clearly more responsive to the challenges of the SDGs, then we can better help them maximize their potential for applying their international learning towards positive change as global citizens.

Similarly, the three values of the Olympic Movement—excellence, friendship, respect—serve to promote sport, culture, and education, all in the cause of building a better world. They align well with the SDGs and to the promise of international education generally. As such, they should be integrated into programmatic design, delivery, and assessment outcomes. By engaging students and athletes in direct responses to post-COVID-19 global challenges and by intentionally embedding such learning and action into pre-departure, on-site, and re-entry programming, universities and providers alike can create international mobility programs that truly help their programs and students achieve “Olympic Gold.”

Whatever the curricular focus and physical location of international mobility programs today, there is an SDG that provides an appropriate framework, agenda, and sense of urgency that both faculty and students can embrace. By “co-branding”[AS3] pre-departure, onsite, and re-entry programming to a mix of practical global challenges and realities, study abroad professionals signal to students and extended stakeholders that the fostering of global citizenship and the tackling of urgent global problems require us to pool our energies, align our efforts, and collaborate in partnerships as an integrated part of student mobility programs. [AS4]This approach also holds for Olympic leaders and athletes.

SDG Resources for the Recovery and Growth Ahead

Faculty and administrators can choose one or more of the SDGs to both brand and enhance the impact of their mobility programs.  To this end, there are many resources available to support the connection between study abroad and the SDGs. These include:

As athletes re-establish international connectivity through the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2021 and pursue this agenda at the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2022, and as international students emerge from a year confined to their homes, cities, and countries, there is promise in the revival of international travel and mobility. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the hope is “to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.

The resources listed above provide study abroad professionals and students with important tools, processes, and mindsets for engaging in deeper, more impactful, and more environmentally responsible international mobility experiences. While there are already connections between the Olympic Movement and higher education and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, more can be done to engage athletes and students, to expand their knowledge about the UN SDGs and engage in action to support a more positive global future. If we follow this model, embrace the spirit and values of the Olympic Movement, and work together as a team of administrators, faculty, and students in the U.S. and abroad, then we all will be better placed to “do things right for the future” and develop study abroad programs and engaged athletes that Go for Olympic Gold!

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-Being
  4. Quality EducationPoster displaying the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals


Author Bios

Gary Rhodes, Ph.D., Profesor, Coordinator, Graduate Higher Education Administration and Leadership (HEAL) Certificate Program, Director, Center for Global Education, College of Education, California State University at Dominguez Hills
Gary Rhodes, Ph.D., is a Professor in the College of Education, Coordinator of the Graduate Higher Education Administration and Leadership Program, and Director of the Center for Global Education at California State University at Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) . Along with research and teaching in education abroad and university internationalization, his efforts to support the ideals and values of the Modern Olympics as President of the US Pierre de Coubertin Committee integrate learning and understanding of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  He publishes articles and presents widely at conferences across the U.S. and around the world.  

Scott G. Blair, PhD, is Director of Accreditation and Quality Assurance at AIAASC, Vice President of CANIE-Europe, and Affiliate at the Gateway International Group, LLC. He served on the faculties of the University of New Haven, the Institut National des Sciences Politiques, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, and the American University of Paris. Blair also served as Resident Director at Boston College Paris and Director of Assessment & Sustainability at TEAN. Based in Paris, he has worked in education abroad for over 30 years—as instructor, Academic Director, and Director of Assessment for US study abroad providers. His research appears in Frontiers, Routledge and Stylus publications and he is a regular speaker at educational conferences on learning outcomes assessment and study abroad program design around UN Sustainable Development Goals. Blair holds a doctorate in history from the Sorbonne, an MA in European history from Georgetown University, and a BA in English from Miami of Ohio.