Social Reproduction and Student Development in College Extracurricular Spaces

My name is Amber Wright (she/her) and I am a member of the Class of 2020 majoring in Sociology and International Relations. Throughout the course of the Fall 2020 semester I conducted a series of nine qualitative interviews with current Wheaton students on their extracurricular experience. I then evaluated my findings according to existing literature which highlights extracurricular participation as a widely understudied facet of college education that shapes campuses by prompting the formation of student social groups, upholding a unique relationship with social inequalities and largely swaying student long term identity formation and career attainment. Thus, my final project: Social Reproduction and Student Development in College Extracurricular Spaces was born.

I set out to answer: how does extracurricular participation on college campuses sway student development (i.e. identity formation, career advancement, breaking down of inequalities etc.) and the formation of social groups?

I ultimately found:

  1. Over time individuals either completely transition away from athletics to another realm (activism, academic clubs, etc.) or begin to solely focus on a sport.
  2. Those participating in extracurricular spaces share similar questions about society and social structure.
  3. Extracurriculars can act as safe spaces for students.
  4. There is a high rate of internship participation by extracurricular leaders.
  5. Institutionalized racism, classism and hyper professionalism are reproduced within college extracurricular settings; and hyper professionalism (both in attitude and language) serves as a particularly prevalent barrier to entry.

While conducting this research, I was able to uncover the deep rooted nature of extracurricular participation in the college student experience. In doing so, I had a particularly unique research experience. Participants disclosed statements such as ““[I find] doors opening because of race, class and manners” and “being an involved student athlete is a rarity.” However, on the other hand, I heard statements such as ““[my activist space is] one in which I do not need to brush off racist experiences as ‘funny’ and can simply discuss them.” And, five of the nine participants noted they gained a sense of empowerment through extracurricular participation. Therefore, I could begin to break down the two sides of the extracurricular realm: seclusion and success; and begin to hypothesize how to address each.

I propose:

  1. Colleges need to begin concentrating on the extracurricular transition period  (in which students decide to focus solely on athletics or pivot away) and ensure athletes can easily access other groups.
  2. The role of the college administration in fostering greater inter-group dialogue and ensuring equal access to extracurricular spaces on the grounds of race and class needs to be expanded.
  3. Extracurricular spaces are realms in which needs are met, not simply interest.
  4. Colleges should continue to expand their investment in extracurriculars and stress extracurricular involvement as a means of career building to students.

This project is increasingly important because it fills an existing research gap, as the majority of available literature focuses on high school extracurriculars. Additionally, the project largely highlights existing gaps between extracurricular groups; the reproduction and dismantling of social inequalities within said groups; the correlation between participation and career building and trends of like mindedness, comfort, and mutual questioning of social structures within extracurricular spaces. It can in turn be used to foster greater inter-group dialogue on college campuses, help to decrease the presence of inequalities within college groups, incentivize colleges to recognize extracurriculars as safe spaces for students and to diversify resources toward the extracurricular realm given its role in career acquisition.

In February of this year I had the opportunity to present the project in the Undergraduate Poster Session of the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Philadelphia. However, I hope to continue discussing the impact of the extracurricular realm on college campuses with the Wheaton Administration and beyond.

Social Reproduction and Student Development in College Extracurricular Spaces (pdf)