Shooting for Success: Doctoral student shares power of sports with refugees, studies barriers in South Africa
By Nicole Geary
“Moja, mbili, tatu… Team!” the boy from Tanzania shouts, throwing his arms up in unison with friends from Burma, Kenya, Ethiopia and … Michigan State University.
Then the huddle breaks and, despite differences in language, history and hardships, they throw themselves into an experience they can all appreciate: soccer.
There are no score-keepers, or even goal posts. The tiny gym, in the basement of Lansing’s Refugee Development Center, is simply a place where they can play sports, laugh and pick up lessons about respect and responsibility from their leaders.
A former college basketball captain, the program director towers over most of the teenage refugees in height. But Meredith Whitley, who often squats to speak with students eye to eye, gets down to their level in more ways than one.
They know the founder of their weekly Refugee Sport Club, a sport psychology scholar from MSU, has her heart in the game. For three years, the structured experience she created has been helping young people who have had to flee their home countries, many in fear, transition to life in the United States – and build character in the process. Research on the program is underway.
“She’s in heaven with these kids,” said kinesiology Professor Daniel Gould, who supports the project as part of MSU’s nationally known Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “You can see the kids light up, and she does too.”
Making connections (cautiously)
While completing her Ed.M. in counseling at Boston University, Whitley served as an academic coach and life-skills mentor to inner city high school athletes, including immigrants and refugees.
Gould recruited her to the sport psychology concentration in MSU’s doctoral Kinesiology Program knowing that she had the credentials and, more importantly, the spark. She is motivated to understand how sport transforms attitudes off the court.
When Whitley, the recipient of the prestigious University Distinguished Fellowship at MSU, first walked into the Refugee Development Center (RDC) in downtown Lansing, sports time for dozens of youth who rely on the center’s services amounted to what looked like a chaotic open-gym session. She saw an opportunity.
The Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility Model was originally conceptualized in the 1970s by University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Don Hellison (who also received a College of Education Crystal Apple Award). His model has been adapted to many settings as a framework for helping underserved youth build character through physical activity. However, it had never been used specifically for refugee youth.
So with approval from the RDC, which helps resettle more than 600 refugees from around the world each year, Whitley and her team became the pioneers in sensitive territory.
Most of the young refugees in the sport club were born in refugee camps, their families having faced persecution and a life on the run – or worse. Some have been in the U.S. for years, others just a few weeks.
“We are not quite sure what they have been through,” Whitley said. “They have all had so many different experiences growing up, so you have to be respectful to them and not ask intrusive questions.”
Getting to the know the kids, as she knows, takes a lot of kind words, high fives and sometimes hand signals, depending on their English-language abilities. Early in the fall semester when she wasn’t writing research manuscripts or preparing detailed lesson plans for the program, Whitley was recruiting students during daily tutoring sessions available to them at Eastern High School.
“I’m not really that good,” one student said.
“That’s okay. I’m not really good either. We are just there to have fun and try sports,” Meredith said from her perch next to his desk and waited.
“… Alright, I will play,” he said and broke into a smile.
Welcome to basketball
Each Monday night, the club meets to shoot hoops and go through a series of teachable moments, scripted and unscripted. Sitting in a circle during one break, Whitley led them through some deep breaths to help them focus. Then, she rolled out a world map so each participant could point out their home country and get to know one another.
They also talked about what it means to be respectful, both while playing sports and when they are at home and school. Then it was back to the game. Many of the refugee teens say they never had a chance to shoot a basketball, or try volleyball for example, before coming to the U.S.
“If we think about the big picture and what sport can do for underserved youth… I think we can see it as a hook,” said Whitley, who has also studied sport-based youth development programs in Detroit as a research assistant in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “You can use that excitement and teach them something along the way, without them really realizing it.”
After a pilot study on the impact of the Refugee Sport Club during fall 2009, Whitley is now pursuing multiple case studies to document how some of the participants are growing and changing. Along with undergraduate volunteers, she is collaborating with fellow Ph.D. student Elizabeth (Missy) Wright. Wright helped administer the program this year by leading a separate Refugee Sport Club for the middle-school-age refugees.
The easiest thing for these students and their families, uprooted from their own culture, is to retract themselves from extra-curricular activities, said Shirin Kambin Timms, executive director of the RDC. But the sport club members want to keep coming back.
Staff members at the RDC have been able to use messages relayed through the program as a strong point of reference when talking to the youth about making good decisions. It is another welcome partnership with MSU’s College of Education, which has long arranged for teacher candidates to volunteer as academic tutors for the center.
“Meredith has been able to lay best practices and good research over a very unique set of circumstances that are part of life in Lansing,” Timms said. “She used the threads that exist in our community and has woven them all together with this program.”
International insight on youth sport: South Africa
Finding a balance between conducting research and providing direct service to the community is central to the land-grant mission of MSU of course, as well as an enduring priority in the more than 30- year-old Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
“Most of our students have one foot in the research world, and one foot in the practical world,” said Gould, who as director oversees a variety of projects focused on coaching education and youth development through sports. “That’s what we expect here.”
Making a difference in international communities, as Whitley is now learning, can be particularly challenging. She and Gould are working on exploratory studies about the nature of sport for underserved youth in South Africa, where they found issues of poverty, substance abuse and limited resources are similar to some urban areas of the U.S. – only magnified.
In parts of Stellenbosch, South Africa, where Whitley spent much of summer 2009, a basketball backboard won’t last 24 hours without security and girls fear walking home after 5 o’clock.
“Coaches talk a lot about getting kids off the street and into sports, but they are not really teaching life skills yet,” said Whitley. She facilitated focus groups and interviews with South African coaches and community members that turned up heartbreaking findings about the physical (i.e. no facilities or transportation) and social (non-existent parental interest) barriers to meaningful participation in sports.
Whitley also ran a short-term, culturally adapted sport program based on the Personal and Social Responsibility model for children in the underserved Kayamandi Township just outside of Stellenbosch. She trained facilitators who live and work in the community – but continuing such a program is nearly impossible with few committed partners in the field and thousands of miles between them.
Gould and Whitley presented a paper on the South Africa research at the Association for Applied Sport Psychology conference in October 2010. They also gave a symposium in Morocco and continue to analyze data collected during their time in South Africa.
“We are thinking about what other things we can do to inform the coaches in the community, and make sure we are not just conducting research but giving back as well,” Whitley said.
Most likely, MSU researchers will look for other global contexts in which to explore the potential for youth empowerment through sport. Gould said there is little international research in the area, including on the impact of big charitable organizations such as Right to Play and Kicking AIDS Out.
‘Catching’ character, and more, on the court
Back in Lansing, the enthusiasm of young refugees offers a glimpse into the status of youth sports in some parts of the world.
One young man whose family fled from Burundi to Tanzania* said he played soccer often while still living in Africa. But he remembers always screaming at other kids just to get his chance at the ball.
That was before he came to the RDC, started learning about sports with Meredith and playing on teams for his new American school. He tells everyone about the day Meredith had former MSU basketball star Goran Suton visit the club to demonstrate dunk shots, discuss doing well in school and share his own path to America.
Now 18, this young refugee speaks clear English and is ready to graduate from high school.
“Actually, Meredith is a good person. We’ve been friends for like three years,” he said. “She taught us how to work with a team… like even when you lose, you tell your teammate ‘It’s okay.’”
Whitley it seems, under the guidance of Gould and other esteemed faculty members at MSU, is one of many students in kinesiology that are putting the principles of sport psychology into action in ways that can dramatically shape the future of young lives.
Under Whitley’s wing as a mentor in the Refugee Sport Club, recent kinesiology graduate Gem Sabolboro had a chance to participate in research firsthand and learned that social lessons can’t be learned just by playing sports. They must be purposefully taught in order to transfer to the real world.
“It has inspired me to start my own program using the same model for the disabled population, because I know and see how it works,” said Sabolboro, now pursuing her master’s degree in occupational therapy at Western Michigan University in Grand Rapids. “You have to develop a relationship with every child at every session and, even if they are having a bad day, you try to lift them up.”
Despite this being Whitley’s last year on campus, she and the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports have taken steps to make the refugee program sustainable with the help of Wright and, hopefully, additional groups of graduate and undergraduate students yet to arrive.
“It hasn’t changed the life of every refugee that comes in, but the kids know 100 percent that the MSU mentoring team cares for them,” said Gould.
“We always say that kids don’t catch character through sports – it’s taught by caring adults.”
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* Student names were not published in this article at the request of the Refugee Development Center.