The International Language of Sports

Husky Sport is a campus-community partnership based at the Clark Elementary and Middle School that has tapped the power of sport to connect Hartford and UConn since 2003. (Neag School of Education/UConn File Photo)
Husky Sport is a campus-community partnership based at the Clark Elementary and Middle School that has tapped the power of sport to connect Hartford and UConn since 2003. (Photo credit: Shawn Kornegay, Neag School)

Connecticut is 12,500 miles from South Africa. But shooting hoops with fifth-graders at the Clark Elementary & Middle School gym in Hartford recently, Sikhulu Zondo was suddenly aware that playing with the American students had erased the age and cultural barriers between them.

“I’m so glad to be here,” says the Cape Town middle school teacher. Sweeping her arm in a gesture encompassing all the players – which included 10 UConn students – she added: “When I get back home, I’m going to start a program like Husky Sport.”

Husky Sport is a campus-community partnership that provides groups of UConn students as mentors who between them spend 40 hours a week engaged in sports with Clark School students. At the same time, they build friendships that, in time, allow them to also talk about nutrition, healthy lifestyles, and life skills, as well as provide tutoring and other academic support.

Zondo says her students at the Ark Ministries Christian School for homeless children where she works mostly live at the school, so after school they need something like Husky Sport.

Cultural Exchange

Through a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs SportsUnited Division, UConn, partnering with the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, hosted a 12-day Sports for Cultural Change program in October for 10 South African educators, including Zondo, who manage community or school youth sports programs that use sport as a tool for positive social change.

Developed by UConn’s Global Training and Development Institute, the two-way exchange provided the African participants – chosen by the University of Western Cape through a merit-based, competitive process – the chance to interact with Americans and experience American society, culture, and values firsthand.

As the program is reciprocal, in March 2015, 10 Americans who also work in sports-based youth development organizations, such as schools, the YMCA, and youth sports leagues, will travel to South Africa to learn more about managing and organizing youth sport in the Western Cape region. During their visit to South Africa, the American participants will also help their South African counterparts launch sport-based youth development projects in the Western Cape region that replicate some of the U.S.-based programming. UConn will support these mini-projects with funding from the grant intended to leverage resources toward sustainable capacity-building and community development.

Roy Pietro, director of the Global Training and Development Institute and architect of the program, says the focus is on “using youth sports to promote academic success, psychosocial development, tolerance, cross-cultural exchange, and conflict resolution.”

Pietro originally developed and piloted the program in Hong Kong in 2012, when Chinese and American colleagues shared their experiences administering sports programs in their respective countries. The success of that exchange led to the creation of this year’s program with South Africa.

The U.S. State Department partners with universities that have a capacity to manage programs successfully because they want the exchanges to continue, Pietro says. “The friendships and broadening of mutual understanding achieved through our pilot in Hong Kong illustrated sport’s ability to increase dialogue and cultural understanding between people worldwide.”

‘Stronger than sitting in a classroom’

A favorite feature of the program pairs the visiting participants with peers from the host country for a three-day job shadow, to help them learn about one another’s experiences and share innovative ideas and best practices in managing and organizing youth sport. Time spent watching their peers at work – as Zondo did at Hartford’s Clark School – allows visitors to observe new methods and applications that might be adapted for their communities or schools back home.

The Global Training and Development Institute worked with UConn’s Husky Sport program to include job shadowing for the South Africans.

Person-to-person exchanges play a huge role in making the program a great learning experience, says Jennifer Bruening, professor and head of the Department of Educational Leadership in UConn’s Neag School of Education. “It’s so much stronger than sitting in a classroom. It’s so much more meaningful and inspirational.”

Zondo’s American shadow partner was Justin Evanovich ’04 (CLAS), ’06 MA, ’11 Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of educational leadership and managing director of Husky Sport, who was a walk-on UConn undergrad on the men’s basketball team and also earned his Ph.D. from UConn. He says the time spent with Zondo validated his zeal for using sports as a tool for positive change.

“It’s very cool to see that we’re on the same page with some of the concepts and approaches that we’re taking,” he says. “It’s like we’re using a board with X’s and O’s, asking whether this works for your team, or how would this work at your school.”

What Can Come From Sport

Using sport as a tool is at the heart of the Husky Sport model and guides how the UConn student mentors approach their engagement with Clark School students, their curriculum planning, and lesson delivery, he says.

“Having been involved in sport my entire life,” he says, “and how it took me to different places, helped me learn and interact with different people, be in mutual relationships, develop communication skills, a respect for sacrifice, and a work ethic – all that came from sport.”

Evanovich says that understanding a community is foundational when trying to implement new programs and establish credibility with students so they will trust adults – such as the UConn Husky Sport mentors.

“But you can’t teach lessons to someone you don’t know,” he adds, noting that Husky Sport purposefully partners with the community in an eight-block radius around Clark School, going to the same location, working with the same kids and their families, and working with the same teachers day in and day out. “We think this makes a difference in the relationships we build. … Sport is a way to begin that process.”

Zondo says the emphasis on building trust through relationships was the most outstanding thing she learned.

“In our country, we don’t get to that stage of talking about relationships,” she says. “We are going to embrace this because … I think our children will benefit.”