That certainly proved true last month in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, where 25 young visitors from Sri Lanka and the Maldives learned about boxing from, and taught cricket to, students from DeKalb’s Clinton Rosette Middle School.
It was equally apparent during a get-together with the NIU Archery Club. Or on a guided tour of NIU Intercollegiate Athletics facilities. Or when bowling with NIU Honors Program students at the Huskies Den. Or while cheering the NIU Huskie Softball team over Western Michigan.
Yet those examples of sport’s borderless reach merely laid a strong foundation for the real purpose of the ENVEST (Empowering New Voices through Education and Sport Training) Sri Lanka program: Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) through sports.
Everyone chosen for ENVEST already had demonstrated youth leadership ability or was identified as having the aptitude for such roles, NIU Presidential Engagement Professor Paul Wright said.
“We wanted to cultivate and nurture that potential,” said Wright, the EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education. “We wanted to set a tone that everyone in the room had expertise to share.”
For Wright and three of his KNPE colleagues – Jenn Jacobs, Steve Howell and Jim Ressler – the training program offered the perfect opportunity to spread the TPSR model and to build on the experience gained through the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition project they operated from 2013 to 2016.
“One of the most valuable tools we can give to these participants is to use sports as a vehicle for social change and social good,” said Howell, an associate professor of Sport Management who greeted the travelers at O’Hare. “Sport is a two-pronged entity where you work competitively but you also work cooperatively. That’s a real powerful tool.”
NIU’s visitors arrived Sunday, April 22, as part of a series of sports diplomacy missions aimed at ways sport can create social change.
Consisting of four separate cultural exchanges with countries in South and Central Asia, including Sri Lanka, the program is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs through its Sports Diplomacy Division.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership, which received the federal grant, selected NIU to coordinate the exchange with Sri Lanka.
Almost everything on the week’s busy and comprehensive schedule, which included a day visiting a high school in Aurora, broadened their perspectives of TPSR and discussions of how bring that into actual teaching.
Workshops were taught on “Youth Development and Teaching Life Skills,” “Sport Skill Instruction/Basic Pedagogy,” “Fundamental Sport Skills-Softball,” “Sport for Diplomacy,” “Introduction to TPSR Model and Coaching Strategies,” “Sport Leadership” and “Personal and Social Change through Sport.”
Friday brought hands-on experiences for the Sri Lankans to lead several stations of sport programming for Clinton Rosette students who spent the day inside and outside Anderson Hall.
Greg Greenhalgh, director of Student Services and Outreach for the Center for Sport Leadership, was impressed by what he saw in DeKalb. “They’re doing such a great job with making the Sri Lankans feel welcome,” he said.
Greenhalgh joined the group in an auxiliary gym at Clinton Rosette to watch four 12- and 13-year-old girls teach the basics of boxing to the international visitors, who ranged in age from 16 to 22.
Lessons began with proper stretching and other warm-up exercises before turning to punching, bobbing, weaving and more.
Afterward, Jacobs (who leads the after-school Girls Boxing Club) and her quartet of pre-teens spoke about the additional benefits of the program.
Being girls-only, the club allows for questions about life, including positive body image and body empowerment for females. Goals are set at the outset of each session; one girl is chosen at the end to lead the team huddle in recognition of having best exemplified the goal.
“What has been most inspirational for me so far is watching not only what the faculty do but what the students do,” Greenhalgh said. “They’re giving the Sri Lankans an opportunity to see how they could successfully do this when they go home to Sri Lanka.”
“We didn’t want to just talk about youth leadership,” Wright confirmed. “We wanted them to see what it looks like.”
Jacobs, whose expertise is sport and exercise psychology, believes that the Sri Lankans saw “nothing mind-blowing” or unknown to them – but that they began to glimpse the possibilities of the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model and how they might implement it.
“We gave them a good space to be intentional and to reflect on what kind of changes could be made,” Jacobs said.
In their many “So What? Action Planning” discussions, the young Sri Lankans spoke of pollution, government corruption and even disability: Sri Lanka is only nine years removed from a quarter-century civil war. Many people continue to suffer from physical and psychological wounds amid recent cultural reconciliation and exchange.
Accordingly, some of the visitors told the NIU professors about their desire to deliver accommodated sport and recreation for people with disabilities. “They aren’t getting any kind of support,” Wright said. “How can they do a better job of developing and providing that service?”
Meanwhile, two Sri Lankan YMCAs were represented in the ENVEST delegation but those people had never spoken to each other. “That was a big win for them,” Jacobs said. “They’re hours away (from each other), but still believe in the same things.”
NIU’s professors will not know how much of an impact they’ve made until they visit Sri Lanka in August, but Wright already has a guess of one thing that will blossom: adapted sport.
“Play and recreation are such important parts of feeling whole and recovering from trauma. That’s massive,” he said. “They have many people missing limbs, with few services or activities available to them. Activity is good for the mind, body and spirit.”
The KNPE team also hope to see a greater sense of unity among people who spent much of the last 35 years at war.
“Sport is that common language,” said Ressler, who calls the Sri Lankan visitors “change agents” and the “next group of leaders” who validate the importance of the ENVEST project: “It affirmed to me that casting to the young group is the right thing to do.”
Ressler, an expert in Physical Education pedagogy, believes that the week was a great success as well as a good example of KNPE teamwork.
He and the others held several meetings to plan for the week and also spoke to some Sri Lankan students at NIU who served as cultural advisers on such topics as social norms and dietary preferences.
“What I do appreciate from this group is how thoughtful we have been in making sure the schedule was appropriate from not only a content perspective but also a cultural perspective,” Ressler said. “I was very proud to be a part of it.”
“We’ve got a great team in place,” Howell added. “We work really well together, and everyone plays a key role in the program and its delivery.”
Jacobs found a different takeaway: “It reminded me that this isn’t just a job,” she said. “We’re building friendships, and we’re building international relationships.”
All of that confirms the power of TPSR, said Wright, “a go-to scholar” on the model.
“It’s a balance of theory and practice; we believe that it can really make a difference in communities, in people’s lives,” he said. “It’s a great convergence of things: intellectually interesting topics that do make a difference in the real world. The interest and relevance of this work is skyrocketing.”