Feel Included: Creating the Space to Be Yourself

feel included

Marc Iturriaga shares how to make your campus community feel included through campus recreation in Part Four of The Power of Belonging in Campus Recreation series. 

In The Power of Belonging in Campus Recreation series, we have explored the importance of meaningful invitations that lead students to show up. We have examined how a welcoming environment, where students feel comfortable and accepted, goes beyond the customer service desk. These are critical for the increased recruitment of students in our programs, facilities and opportunities. However, this is all a wasted effort if students don’t stick around because they don’t feel included.

Being included is the way people are motivated and inspired to be lifelong participants and/or co-creators of their experience that leads them to participate as their authentic selves. It means everyone of all shapes, sizes, identities, abilities, races, religions, cultures, motivations, histories and lived experiences are able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences that match their physical, social and mental well-being. Are students struggling to fit in or are they encouraged and supported to participate as their authentic selves at a level they are comfortable with? How are you removing barriers and negotiating constraints to ensure all students feel included?

Create the Space to Feel Included

Coined by my friend and colleague Scott Flickinger at Cornell University, “The Space to Be Yourself” is a great lens to look at your campus rec program. Now that your students have been invited and welcomed, are they free to participate in a way that leads them to thrive as their authentic selves or are they being asked to fit into a sport and rec culture that has made them feel excluded?

Do you openly celebrate and support the varied lived experiences and truths of your students? What words, imagery and actions do you choose that demonstrates this? How do you ensure all students, including LGTBQ+, BIPOC, with disabilities, on the spectrum, veterans, less physically-skilled, with varied religious beliefs and traditions, from different backgrounds and cultures, or those who feel disconnected from the traditional campus experience, feel included in campus rec?

Rules and policy can be very exclusionary practices. My younger intramural self used to get frustrated with participants who chose to play in a golf shirt and jeans, ignorantly judging this isn’t how you dress for sports. There was a dress code policy, which was quite arbitrary, that reinforced my bias. I learned and now embrace that as long as it isn’t dangerous to participants, then I want students to play in the way they feel most comfortable.

Forcing students to fit into the system isn’t the way to include them in a way they are able to participate as their authentic selves. Do your policies exclude people in wheelchairs, with guide dogs or support staff, wearing hijabs or ceremonial items, who are non-binary or transgender? Do you even know?

Accessibility for Everyone to Feel Included 

Facilities play a huge role in including or excluding students from participating. There are some obvious examples with regards to physical access for students with a disability. If they are unable to enter the activity area, or there is a lack of equipment necessary for them to adapt the activity to meet their physical needs, then they are unable to be included.

How do gender specific changing rooms create a sense of exclusion for non-binary or transgender students? How might your intramural, club or fitness programs respond to a student with a disability wanting to participate? Do they have the tools, equipment, experience and understanding to help everyone feel included?

What about students who cannot afford the programs and services you offer, or students with young children who aren’t allowed to bring children into the center? Do you have space and accommodations for students with religious, cultural or individual needs that are different from the majority of the students? All of these questions are common concerns that affect students feeling included in campus rec.

Create Program Offerings with Inclusion in Mind

The what and when of programming plays an important role in participation. I may feel invited and welcomed to campus rec, but if I don’t see an activity I want to do or a time when I can do it, I won’t feel included.

Do you have a wide array of traditional and non-traditional activities that meet the diverse interests of students? Activities like cultural dances, fun-focused fitness classes and new sports like Quidditch may help bring out new people to campus rec. I hate swimming but love playing in the pool. If you only offer lane swimming, then count me out. However, if I see a rope swing, a water wall or logrolling, I’m a weekly participant.

Are your programs geared to multiple skill levels and motivations? Health, physical fitness and competition often overshadow goals of fun and social connectivity. An intramural program that is highly focused on intense competition will leave out students who may just want to play for fun with friends. Fitness classes geared to “rip those abs” and “push you to the max” will ensure those looking to move their bodies in fun ways will not return for further “punishment.”

If your intramural soccer league plays on Monday nights, but a student has a night class at that time, they are unable to participate, despite wanting to. Can you ensure there are multiple opportunities to participate in activities that meet the scheduling realities of your students?

Accept Help, Collaborate and Include All 

Campus rec professionals are experts in recreation, but not everything, and it’s OK to admit where we need help. There are so many partners on campus you can turn to, but if all you do is tell them what you have to offer, those relationships become very transactional. Instead, look to create true collaborations by understanding their values, challenges, successes and goals and look to see how working together can help include the students they serve.

Don’t program “at” these partners and target student populations, but instead look to work with them to co-create meaningful opportunities. This may mean what you create together may not be in line with your traditional programming system, but if you are willing to be flexible and think of inclusion and belonging as your outcome, this new system you create will be a wonderful addition to an inclusive campus rec department.

I leave you with this quote:

“Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies; it is about transforming those systems and structures to make it better for everyone. Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone.”
– Diane Richler, president of Inclusion International

Next time on the final segment of The Power of Belonging in Campus Recreation, we will be highlighting some success stories of belonging initiatives from different campuses.

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Marc Iturriaga is the founder of Bonobo: Fostering Belonging in Sport+Recreation+Community. Marc has over 20 years building inclusive programs and communities through his work in higher education, sport and recreation, and community development. He has held senior leadership roles in Campus Recreation at several institutions and frequently volunteers with NIRSA, most recently as an appointed faculty for their School of Collegiate Recreation.

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