Building Community Through Sports
Bharat (BK) Karunakaran took his passion of sports to impact the lives of NC State students.
Sports can invoke an innate response for people. Take for example, a soccer ball–a natural inclination might be to kick it in an empty field. Or a basketball, shooting it through a hoop. Sports can also give people a sense of community and break borders, connecting people of various cultures and backgrounds.
This impact changed Bharat (BK) Karunakaran ’21, shaping his experience at NC State, renewing a passion and forging a new sense of purpose.
Growing up in India, BK took up sports at an early age, starting tennis lessons at four years old. He chose the sport out of convenience—with a court adjacent to his home. Living in a country with more than 1 billion people, there was no limit to the opportunity to try different sports, eventually moving to soccer, basketball and cricket. For him, sports was something that he could make his own—a way to get away from the academic rigors and make time for himself.
BK chose to attend NC State, over other universities like UCLA, because of the prestige of the engineering program–specifically mechanical engineering. Although he grew up in India, BK was born in Charlotte, N.C., which factored in his decision, tipping the scale toward the Wolfpack.
Traveling more than 7,000 miles from home to start a new chapter in your life is no small task, especially when you do not know anyone. As part of the Summer START program, BK actively sought opportunities to meet people and immerse himself into American culture, playing organized activities like bubble soccer and pool battleship. Although highly involved as a first-year student, it was him kicking a soccer ball into an empty goal on Miller Fields that he found his community—International FC.
What started as a pick-up game of soccer turned into many international students, forming several intramural sports teams. BK was invited to play because the group was down a player, soon discovering the students spoke different languages and were from other countries. Even with a language barrier, the game continued, primarily relying on body language and knowledge of the game to work together.
This experience ignited a passion. After receiving an interest email to be a soccer official, he tried out and landed a job. His experience with onboarding and first months as an official changed his life. When asked to lead programing for incoming students as part of New Student Orientation, Karunakaran emphatically agreed, seeing the opportunity to give back to the community.
“The impact that I knew I could have on people if I just went all-in into the [sports] field and gave it my all. It was a way for me to give back,” said Karunakaran.
After deliberation, BK chose to change his major from mechanical engineering to sport management, switching after three years in the program. At the same time, at the urging of his supervisors, BK sought additional opportunities, eventually promoted to sports programs supervisor and cross-training, working in Carmichael Gym as a facilities assistant and supervisor.
His passion helped bring awareness of a sport played by more than 2 billion people worldwide but has little following in the United States.
Increasing awareness of cricket, BK encouraged his coworkers to play, forming teams and even using the sport as a teambuilding initiative during staff training. Because of his outreach efforts, team registration for 2020-21 intramural sport cricket reached an all-time high, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with participation doubling from the year before.
BK was recognized this spring as the John F. Miller award recipient during the 2021 Wolfies student-employee recognition event. The award is given to a Wellness and Recreation student-employee program assistant who demonstrates leadership, teamwork, commitment to healthy, active lifestyles, exemplifies professionalism, and reflects a positive representation of the department.
“The journey that the last three years have taken me shows my time has been well worth it, and my efforts have been well worth it,” said Karunakaran.
For the future, BK plans to work in the sports industry, bringing further awareness to diversity and inclusion efforts and their impact on communities.