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Professional Development in Campus Recreation

This is an excerpt from Recreational Sport by Robert Barcelona,Mary Wells & Skye Arthur-Banning.

The administration of campus recreational sport programs and facilities is the work of highly educated and skilled professionals. Professional staff members combine their love of recreation and sport with specialty knowledge in various aspects of the campus recreation field. Depending on their position in the department, staff must have expertise in areas such as officiating, fitness, strength and conditioning, facility design, tournament scheduling, and outdoor skills. In addition to specialty knowledge areas, staff must possess general sport management competencies, including business procedures; marketing, promotions, and communications; technology applications and computer skills; facilities and equipment management; governance; legality and risk management; management techniques; philosophy and sport sciences; programming and event management; and research and program evaluation (Barcelona, 2004). Perhaps most importantly, campus recreation staff must be committed to college student learning and development. They must be able to integrate their programs and services seamlessly with other areas of student life, including residence hall programs, campus health services, Greek life, student union programming, and academic affairs.

If you are interested in a career in campus recreation, there are a number of critical areas to consider as you prepare for your future. Career development in campus recreation encompasses academic preparation, professional involvement in relevant organizations, specialty certifications, and active networking and seeking of career opportunities. Professional development should start now, while you are still in college, and continue throughout your career in the field.

Academic Preparation

A good place to start the career development process is through academic coursework and cocurricular experiences. Campus recreation professionals are highly educated. Virtually all full-time campus recreation professionals have obtained a four-year degree, and a significant majority hold a master's degree. Some even hold doctorates. This is one area of the recreational sport field where a graduate degree is considered an entry-level degree. As you begin to think about your academic career in campus recreation, it is important to consider how you can best position yourself for graduate school and beyond.

Undergraduate Preparation

There is no one ideal major for a student who is interested in a career in campus recreation. Often campus recreation professionals come to the field from a variety of undergraduate majors. For example, the lead author of this textbook has an undergraduate degree in political science. Other campus recreation professionals come from diverse majors, such as business, education, and the various liberal arts.

However, if you are interested in the recreation field, you may have the opportunity to major in recreation management, sport studies, exercise science, or a related field at your school. For example, more than 500 colleges and universities offer degrees in recreation management across the United States and Canada (Rockey & Barcelona, 2012). This is a good place to start in terms of receiving a focused academic degree within the field. If you are interested in fitness and wellness, then exercise science or kinesiology would be good majors to pursue. Some schools offer a focused area of study in campus recreation, such as the recreation studies program at Ohio University, which has long been a leader in this area. Others offer broader undergraduate study in recreational sport management, such as Indiana University. Regardless, choosing an appropriate undergraduate major and working hard in classes is an important first step.

Almost as important as the undergraduate major is involvement outside the classroom. As mentioned earlier in the chapter, co-curricular experiences offered through campus recreation departments are one of the best ways to prepare future recreational sport professionals. Students should get involved early and often in campus recreation activities as participants and, more importantly, as student staff members. Opportunities to work part time as a facility or intramural supervisor, fitness leader, intramural official, lifeguard, or outdoor adventures staff member help provide exposure to the various program areas and facilities in campus recreation. In addition to part-time work, students should try to obtain progressive leadership experience - it is important to build on experiences throughout the undergraduate career. This helps to build a résumé and provide more employment opportunities down the road. Students can also find opportunities for volunteer leadership, such as on student advisory boards. Most accredited recreation and sport management majors require focused practicums and internship experiences as part of the curriculum. These are critical in helping to build professional skills as well.

Graduate Preparation

Graduate school is usually a must for aspiring campus recreation professionals. Most professional staff members in campus recreation hold a master's degree, typically in fields such as recreation management, exercise science, business administration, or student affairs administration. Campus recreation departments often offer graduate assistantships that pay the full cost of tuition plus monthly stipends for living expenses in exchange for 20 hours of work per week in one or more campus recreation programs or facilities. This is an outstanding way for prospective campus recreation professionals to obtain both the education and practical experience that they need to position themselves for their first full-time job.

To be eligible for a campus recreation graduate assistantship, applicants should have strong undergraduate academic records, particularly in the last 60 hours of coursework; acceptable scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE); have a résumé showing progressive student leadership in some area of campus recreational sport; and have the drive and desire for graduate studies and the field as a whole. Students can find out about campus recreation graduate assistantships by visiting the NIRSA job search website, Typically, graduate assistantship opportunities are advertised in the spring and begin with the new school year in the fall. Interested students are usually advised to attend the NIRSA Annual Conference and Recreational Sports Exposition, usually held in March or April, where they can find out more about available positions. It is not unheard of to interview or actually be offered a graduate assistantship position at the conference. The NIRSA job search website also includes available full-time entry, midcareer, and executive positions in the field.

Involvement in Professional Organizations

Professional organizations such as NIRSA play a vital role in the development of campus recreation professionals. Involvement in national and, in some cases, state or regional professional associations can provide a number of benefits for professionals, including conferences and workshops, specialty symposia, training resources, access to research, career and job fairs, leadership opportunities, certification, continuing education credits, and, perhaps most importantly, networking opportunities. Most professional organizations offer student memberships at low or no cost and encourage student involvement at conferences. NIRSA offers student leadership positions at the state, regional, and national levels, and many states offer Student Lead On conferences that focus on building student leaders in campus recreation.

Although NIRSA is the leader in professional development for campus recreation staff, there are many other professional organizations that students and staff can get involved with in order to supplement their education and development. Organizations for students to consider include the following:

  • National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA;
  • National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA;
  • American College Personnel Association - College Student Educators International (ACPA;
  • Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE;
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM;
  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA;
  • American Council on Exercise (ACE;
  • Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA;

These and other organizations are vital in promoting professional standards and continuing education for campus recreation staff, and they are excellent vehicles for students to get involved and learn more about their chosen profession.


For some jobs in campus recreation, certifications are important or necessary to be hired or to continue employment. Certifications are credentials given by a governing body or professional association that acknowledge a recipient's qualification to perform a specific job. Certifications may be earned after studying and passing an exam, or they may be based on demonstrating practical competence related to a particular job. In many cases, after obtaining certification the recipient must keep up with the latest job requirements by participating in continuing education, often offered through workshops or sessions at professional conferences.

Whether certification is required depends on the specific campus recreation job. For example, most positions in aquatics require certification as a water safety instructor, lifeguard, or pool operator. Many intramural sport positions require professional staff to be certified as sport officials through their local state high school association. Fitness professionals typically must obtain various certifications, including those relating to personal training or group fitness instruction. Outdoor recreation staff typically need to be certified in wilderness first aid and in specific outdoor activities, such as belaying or white-water kayaking.

For more than 20 years, NIRSA offered the Certified Recreational Sports Specialist (CRSS) exam, which was a general certification for campus recreation professionals. However, in 2005, the CRSS was suspended, and in 2007 the NIRSA board of directors approved the establishment of the Registry of Collegiate Recreational Sports Professionals (RCRSP). The registry was designed to encourage and recognize ongoing professional development in areas critical to campus recreational sport professionals, including philosophy and theory, programming, management, business procedures, facility management, planning and design, research and evaluation, legal liability and risk management, and personal and professional qualities (NIRSA, 2014).

Learn more about Recreational Sport: Program Design, Delivery, and Management.

More Excerpts From Recreational Sport