Sports program addresses universal empowerment in women

By Hanna Lustig September 18, 2014

This article was created for the UT Center for Sport, Peace, and Society in partnership with the UT School of Journalism and Electronic Media. 

Sandy Cross arrived at a South Florida airport last September with great trepidation as she prepared to meet Hayam Essam for the first time. Cross, an executive at PGA, had never been outside the United States before. And the prospect of mentoring Essam, a supervisor for two women’s basketball teams in Egypt, was daunting.

“I was so nervous, so unbelievably nervous heading into the program,” Cross said. “I don’t know anything about her, I don’t know anything about her country… I was worried I was going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.”

But as Cross stepped inside to meet Essam, her fears quickly evaporated. After months of anticipation, Essam struggled to contain her emotion – she hugged Cross warmly, as if embracing an old friend.

“I was like, ‘Wow, everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be amazing.’ And it was.”

Essam was just one of 16 women to participate in the Global Sports Mentoring Program last year, and this month, 17 new participants from around the world will follow in her footsteps.

But first, some backstory:

Although the initiative was first introduced by the U.S. Department of State and espnW in 2012, the program itself was designed by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace and Society. After responding to the State Department’s nationwide call for proposals, the Center for Sport, Peace and Society won a $1.2 million grant to bring its concept to life. Established in Knoxville by director Sarah Hillyer and assistant director Ashleigh Huffman, the center remains the only university center in the country devoted to exploring the intersections of sport for peace and development. Though, in a city known for outstanding women’s athletics, the center is, as Huffman noted, a “natural fit.”

“When you talk about women’s basketball and the pioneers that have really pushed women’s sports forward,” Huffman said, “you think of Pat Summitt, you think of Joan Cronan, you think about the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and you think about the incredible legends that have played on the Lady Vol sports teams.”

Now a cooperative partnership between all three institutions, the Global Sports Mentoring Program pairs female American sports industry executives with international “emerging leaders” for an annual 30-day mentorship experience in the United States. During that month, the participants and their mentors explore the potential for social change and female empowerment through sports, a realm which holds particular significance for the center’s staff.

“We live in a world where women represent half of the population, yet are limited in their spheres of power. Sports are a great way to encourage empowerment, beginning with power and mastery over your own body. And the fostering of self-expression through physical movement,” Huffman said. “This power can then transcend into other areas of life. We have witnessed this transcendence with the women in our program within their own families and ultimately, as more economically and socially engaged citizens and leaders.”

The emerging leaders apply to the program by first identifying an issue facing girls and women in their community and proposing a way to address those challenges through sport. Throughout the program, the emerging leaders and mentors collaborate on an action plan to eventually enact when the participants return home.

Alumnae action projects include founding the first girls’ tennis tournament in Turkmenistan, creating an after-school hockey clinic in Argentina, and sponsoring workshops for Taiwanese physical education teachers to promote inclusion for female and LGBT students. Essam’s action plan was also realized: she now runs a basketball program in Cairo which fosters confidence, teamwork and growth in young women.

But, as it turns out, the mentorship experience, more often than not, is mutual. At PGA, only 900 out of 27,000 employees are female. And through Hayam, Cross found a source of empowerment, too.

“We believe we are learning as much, if not more, than Hayam,” Cross said. “It’s really been such a game-changing experience for us … She’s part of our family now, without question.”

This month kicks off Global Sports Mentoring Program 2014, which will include an activist mountain climber from Bangladesh, a basketball coach from Brazil and a former Danish Paralympian. Calling the program “one of the most personally and professionally rewarding” experiences of her life, Cross will reprise her role as a mentor this year. This time, she will collaborate with Dima Issam Alardah, who runs a badminton academy in Jordan.

Dr. Ashleigh Huffman and GSMP 2013 Alumna Hayam Essam from Egypt celebrate the start of a new class of empowered women at the GSMP 2014 Final Luncheon. Essam returned this year to “pass the torch” as a keynote speaker at the luncheon. Photo Credit: Jaron Johns

But even as the new class arrives in Washington D.C. this week, Center for Sport, Peace and Society director Hillyer explains that the Global Sports Mentoring Program is not simply an annual program – it is a permanent transformation for all parties involved. Even as the participants rejoin their communities, facing the same challenges as before, Hillyer receives messages of overwhelming hope and joy. The circumstances might remain the same. The difficulties remain present. But the women now see themselves as “empowered agents that can bring about change.”

“The end never comes,” Hillyer said. “Their lives have been truly changed. Once the project is complete, they’re not finished. That’s only a new beginning or a new chapter to their life.”