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Sports mentoring program is training women leaders from around the world

The Global Sports Mentoring Program has brought 161 women from 75 countries to the United States. Sarah Hillyer (at microphone), director of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace and Society, accepts an ESPN humanitarian award. ESPN photo

Sarah Hillyer has a global vision that keeps her on the move. In any given year, you may find her in China or Ecuador or Iran leading initiatives designed to empower women through sports.

Her role as director of the Center for Sport, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, usually has her looking ahead at where her team will go next. But in a rare moment this summer, Hillyer was forced to stop and look back at where they had been.

She called it an “out-of-body experience,” standing backstage at ESPN’s Sports Humanitarian Awards in July and preparing to be recognized on a premier platform for the program she helps run. Hillyer and the team she leads at the center are part of a collaboration with the U.S. Department of State and espnW that fuels the Global Sports Mentoring Program, an initiative that trains international emerging women leaders in sports. At the ESPN awards ceremony, the program was celebrated as a Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award honoree.

Joining Hillyer to accept the award were three women — one from the Philippines, another from Jordan and a third from Kenya, all alumni of the program. For Hillyer, seeing them together on stage served as affirmation: “It’s like, this is working.”

Tennessee’s involvement began after the U.S. Department of State sent out a call for proposals for a new program to engage and inspire women and girls through sports. The Center for Sport, Peace and Society was selected to administer what became the Global Sports Mentoring Program, which pairs women in the sports industry from around the world with American senior women leaders at top organizations. The participants, who are nominated by U.S. embassies in their home countries, are typically between 25 and 40 years old and have several years of experience working in a sports-based organization, most often focusing on underserved women and girls in their communities.

The program includes a three-week stay at a host organization, where participants work with mentors to develop action plans to create more opportunities in their home countries. In the six years since it started, the program has served 161 women from 75 countries.

“If we use sport in a very intentional way, we can make a dent in some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” Hillyer says.

With the program’s mission aligned with the values of college sports, it’s no surprise the NCAA and a couple of members have jumped on board. In addition to the NCAA national office hosting delegates, the Big East Conference and UConn have both become committed hosts. Other organizations that participate include Google, ESPN, FOX Sports, the U.S. Tennis Association, the NHL and Gatorade.

The Mentorships

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman saw firsthand the dearth of women leaders at the international level when she served on the International Basketball Federation board, so Ackerman recognized an opportunity to effect change through the program.

“The women that are coming over are very, very high-quality,” Ackerman says. “I think they make up an ideal candidate pool for leadership positions in the IOC, international sports federations like the one I was on, national Olympic committees and others. … They’re out there and ready to be called upon.”

Ackerman and her staff at the Big East work to customize the experience for each delegate. Last fall, Ackerman served as the mentor for Israeli soccer executive Daphna Goldschmidt, so the commissioner, who also serves on the board of directors for U.S. Soccer, brought Goldschmidt to a board meeting.

At UConn, Laura Burton has seen how the program also can be a powerful experience for student-athletes. Burton, a professor in UConn’s sport management program, says she and her colleagues work to provide connections between the delegate and the athletics department — usually including at least one women’s basketball practice, providing the delegate a chance to see women playing at one of the highest levels.

“Those interactions are really exciting when they see what sport can be,” Burton says. And in seeing their excitement, the student-athletes also gain perspective. Nguyen Tra Giang of Vietnam, the school’s most recent visitor, was interested in ice hockey, so they showed her the university’s arena. “She remarked that our ice hockey arena was amazing,” Burton says. “And it’s really not, but it was good for our athletes to hear that. You totally take things for granted.”

Though the visit spans only a few weeks, Ackerman says the relationships grow deep quickly. Earlier this year, she traveled to Argentina to attend an International Olympic Committee forum and reunited with a former delegate over dinner. Another invited Ackerman to her wedding in Vietnam. “We take seriously the bonds we can form, even if it’s only three weeks,” she says.

And for Hillyer, these stories serve as more affirmation that the program is working as envisioned. “It’s more than a photo-op,” she says. “I hate to say that, but oftentimes service and outreach can be a really surface-level touch point. This really allows student-athletes and coaches to meaningfully engage with change-makers globally.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.