How it began is worth a smile.
“They arrived in Sri Lanka on 13th August,” writes Sri Lanka’s YMCA of Pamunugama, telling of its visitors from NIU and elsewhere in the United States, “and in the evening … went on a boat trip in the lagoon, enjoying nature and encountering wild monkeys and birds.”
But as the website recounts, and as the participants in the ENVEST Sri Lanka project say, what happened after that is worth much more.
NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education faculty Paul Wright, Steve Howell, Jenn Jacobs and Jim Ressler, accompanied by three graduate students and one undergraduate, primarily made the inaugural Engage Global trip to check on the progress of those Sri Lankans who visited the NIU campus this spring.
A key part of that initial collaboration was the creation and development of action plans to implement the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model through sport; Wright and Co. wanted to see for themselves how those ideas were coming to life.
“There are soft skills you can teach through sport, no matter what culture you come from, whether it’s the United States or internationally. Leadership. Organization. Following the rules. Being a good teammate. Staying positive,” Howell says.
“It’s much more than performing on the court, or the field or the pitch,” he adds. “It’s the other skills that are going to help you in the long run, even if you don’t win or don’t earn a top spot.”
Other activities in Sri Lanka included an open-to-the public panel discussion and workshops on TPSR as well as research on the efficacy of the ENVEST project itself.
“We followed up with three of the four organizations that came over in April,” says Wright, NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education and a Presidential Engagement Professor.
“After three months, they were all still engaged. They could report steps they had taken, and could tell us what was next. We thought that was very encouraging,” he says. “All four of them had left with action plans that they started taking action on and had initiated something. Three of them stuck with it – at a long distance and minimal interactions with us. We’re pretty happy with that.”
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.
During the panel discussion at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, he adds, lively contributions from the audience turned the event into a true conversation and “not just the people at the front of the room being experts. People had perspectives to share, and it became a really rich and nice public forum. It was one of the best panels I’ve ever been a part of.”
Programs represented included archery, handball and fencing – offered by various federations and YMCAs – that translated into more than 60 leaders and youth in the room.
Reception proved positive from the guests, Wright says, mentioning one woman who is connected with one of the federations as well as a local police department.
“She said to me that what we’re offering is so relevant, and so many people would want to hear it, that we should come back and do this on a much larger scale,” he says. “She said we should get in touch with the Sport Ministry to host us and to have us do more training to reach a lot more people. That was encouraging feedback, and we got it from so many people.”
The trip also served as an educational experience for KNPE graduate students Karisa Fuerniss and Adam Zurbrugg (Sport Psychology) and Timothy Mack (Sport Management) as well as for Zakyrah Harris, an undergraduate Political Science major.
“It was a phenomenal experience for them,” Howell says. “Seeing the difference between the facilities and the infrastructure that our sports programs have relative to theirs, and teaching those transferable life skills using sports as a vehicle – they really took positively to that.”
“Broadly speaking, the cultural interaction was the biggest deal for them,” Jacobs says.
“I got to read some of their reflections starting out, and they were just talking about the different way to eat, the different way to greet people,” she adds. “That just opened up their eyes. It was really prominent for them to see how things are done differently.”
Visiting Sri Lanka offered “a cool way to take what they’re learning in the classroom and literally apply it to another culture.”
“The resounding thing I’m seeing from the reflections so far is that these students are feeling very competent,” Jacobs says. “Adam’s major contribution, for example, was in the relationship he established with one of our partners there named Abraham. They had dozens of conversations about sport performance.”
Fuerniss, who is from Loveland, Colo., wanted to see what her profession looks like in a foreign country.
She became involved in the Sri Lanka project through her work with Jacobs to run an after-school boxing club for girls at Clinton Rosette Middle School – something the international visitors experienced in April – and was excited at the chance to travel abroad.
“While we were in Sri Lanka, our group primarily did two things,” Fuerniss says. “One was to create space for the Sri Lankans in building relationships and networking. The groups that came here in April are from different parts of the country.”
The other, she says, was in helping to encourage local leaders to adopt and endorse TPSR.
“On one of our training days, we had a Sri Lankan coach demonstrate how he’s already teaching life skills from sport,” she says. “I think it was powerful for the other Sri Lankans to see that.”
Powerful for Fuerniss were conversations with a YMCA director involved in boxing – “To see how people around the world are connected with similar interests and can be working for the same purpose? I think that’s really cool,” she says – as well as a greater cultural awareness.
The latter is something future teachers from the college’s Educate Global program also mention frequently upon their return – and teaching is a career Fuerniss might pursue at the college level.
“I need to consider the different backgrounds of the students I’m working with and how that plays into how they see the world,” she says. “I need to be mindful of that in my teaching.”
But her favorite memories lie in “strengthening the relationship” with her professors.
“One of the really cool parts of the trip was just getting to know the NIU professors on a little bit deeper level,” Fuerniss says. “There was a lot of time for networking with them and talking through what their experiences in research have looked like.”
“The students hit the ‘reset’ button in working with professors,” he says. “In this setting, we were teammates. It really leveled the playing field. We were helping each other, relying on each other, watching each other’s backs in terms of making sure things were getting done. Getting to know other students and faculty was really enriching.”