In the Locker Room with Alicia Smith-Tran, Sociology Professor and Basketball Guard


Photo courtesy of Alicia Smith-Tran

Smith-Tran has done significant research on sociology and sport.

During her time as a student at Oberlin, Assistant Professor of Sociology Alicia Smith-Tran, OC ’10, was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and a member of the women’s basketball team. After graduating, she received an M.A. from Newhouse School at Syracuse University and a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. She began teaching at Oberlin in 2021 after three years at Texas Christian University, and her research focuses on Black women’s health and sport sociology.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve published several works about race, gender and sport. How did you first become interested in the intersectionality of those topics?

Like a lot of sociologists — and maybe researchers in general — many of my academic interests are rooted in personal experience. Being an athlete most of my life, especially being a Black, biracial woman in sports, shaped my interest in learning more about how our positionalities affect our athletic and fitness experiences and our perceptions of our own bodies. When I was in graduate school, I had an identity crisis of sorts; I had always been active and involved in sports and was always training for something, but suddenly I wasn’t. I started running and after a while I loved it. I did several 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. The sociologist in me could not help but notice how white and homogenous recreational running tends to be. It is also expensive to participate in these events, buy the gear, and embed yourself in “running culture.” Studying Black middle- class women in recreational running ended up being the focus of my dissertation.

Members of the Oberlin College community are known for being unafraid to talk about social issues — how did the school’s culture influence your work?

Oberlin’s progressive history, and being in a community that encouraged exploring new ideas, speaking up, and challenging authority, are definitely factors that shape my work and how I approach it. Being a Sociology major at Oberlin really helped me hone my critical thinking skills and opened my eyes to issues of social inequality that I wasn’t fully aware of before coming to college. Now that I am a sociologist, I engage in sociological storytelling — methods like life story interviewing and autoethnography — which are definitely grounded in my desire to center marginalized voices and go against the grain with how I approach better understanding society. I think my inclination to question the status quo and push the boundaries of what it means to engage in scholarship is very Obie.

How did your experience as a basketball player at Oberlin influence your areas of study?

Playing basketball at Oberlin was one of the most meaningful, life-changing experiences I have had to date. The central role of athletics during these formative years will make sports and physical activity a part of my life forever. I love that I have been able to make thinking, writing, and talking about athletics, empowerment, and camaraderie among Black women a part of my job.

What made you want to come back to Oberlin as a faculty member?

When I started graduate school more than a decade ago, I told my mentor that working at Oberlin was my dream job. Some people told me not to share that goal with others, because many academics think we should only strive to work at large research universities. I never really had that desire. I wanted to work in a close-knit community, spend time getting to know students in smaller classes, and engage in mentorship. When there was an opportunity to come back to work at Oberlin and I was offered the job, I was excited. I never thought I would be in my undergraduate academic advisor’s former office, doing my best to make an impact on students’ lives as much as he did. It is a comfortable and familiar environment for me. It is also closer to our families than when we lived in Texas, so it is nice that our kids can grow up within driving distance of their grandparents and other extended family and friends. Hopefully when they get older, we can take them to enjoy events on campus like my partner and I did as students.

In what ways have you stayed connected to Oberlin’s athletic community?

I have stayed pretty connected since I graduated from Oberlin. For a while, my teammates and I made a point of coming back for our alumni games every year, but that fell off as we scattered across the country and started having kids and achy backs. I have served on the board for the Heisman Club and now am a member of the Faculty Athletics Committee. I also enjoyed doing some Zoom conversations with the Black Student- Athlete Group during the pandemic before I became a faculty member. I try to make it to a few women’s basketball games per year, and hopefully I’ll have more time in the future to go see more of my students compete on their respective teams.

What impact do you hope to make with your work going forward in Oberlin’s Sociology department?

I hope I can keep teaching material that resonates with students and gets them thinking about topics in new ways. I also like to teach material that makes students walk away not only feeling like they better understand the inner workings of society, but like they also see themselves and their biographies with more clarity. Making learning accessible is really important to me. I did not see many teachers or instructors that looked like me coming through school and higher education, so I also hope I can show other women of color on campus that they can be professors —and whatever else they want — too. We belong and are needed in these spaces.

What are some areas within sports specifically where you think people could do better to address social issues?

I hope conversations will continue about gender identity in sport, so we can find better ways to make competition and fitness inclusive and empowering spaces for people with marginalized gender identities. Using an intersectional perspective in these conversations is really important, so we ensure that we are centering the voices of student-athletes who may identify as trans or non-binary but also identify with a marginalized racial group, have invisible illnesses or disabilities, or are from a disadvantaged economic background.