Five Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education students will spend their Spring Break in Belize this March as part of a new Engage Global initiative called Alternative Spring BAE.
Two master’s students and three undergraduates will train about 50 Belizean coaches, teachers and sport administrators in topics including teaching new sports in schools, first aid, facilities and equipment management, and even fundraising.
More important, says Jenn Jacobs, an assistant professor of sport psychology, is Alternative Spring BAE’s focus exploring a societal struggle in Belizean culture: inequality in sport.
“How can we use sport to foster social change? Specifically, how can we help others advocate for gender equity in sport? What can we do from our positions in power?” Jacobs says. “The backdrop to all of this is creating a more inclusive sport experience for people from Belize by bringing in a sociological focus, advocating for women, and empowering Belizean youth from disadvantaged settings.”
Jacobs is grounding her project on work begun in 2013 by KNPE colleague and mentor Paul Wright.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s SportsUnited program, Wright’s Belizean Youth Sport Coalition involved 27 organizations, 121 coaches, teachers and youth workers and 4,500 youth during its three years.
It also made an impact on Jacobs, who worked with the BYSC as an NIU graduate student.
“We have established relationships with sport professionals in the country of Belize, and those have been going strong for five years now,” she says. “When we spent time down there from 2013 to 2016, we saw this great hunger from local leaders for learning about sport practices that happened to align with the research we were doing.”
That appetite extended to the high-quality training provided by NIU, something borne out in written feedback from the Belizean participants. “Their evaluations of our trainings in 2014 and 2015 told us, ‘We want more,’ ” Jacobs says. “But the grant money was gone.”
Grant dollars were not necessary, however, to keep the lines of communication open. Kaya Cattouse, national sports coordinator at the National Sports Council in Belize City, had become a long-term friend and collaborator.
“Kaya is a professional cyclist in Belize who uses her position of influence to advocate for youth participating in cycling and for females receiving equal treatment in her sport,” Jacobs says. “That’s always been her platform and passion – long before we came into the picture – but we also realized what a champion of change she was, and wanted to support her however we could.”
Cattouse is thrilled that NIU is returning to Belize from March 9 to 16, even in a different capacity.
“Working with the professors and students from NIU in the past was a great success,” Cattouse says. “They opened the eyes and minds of the Belizeans through their sessions on working with children through sports. But this is still so needed. The collaboration we have scheduled for March will help us returning participants sharpen our skills and give newcomers the opportunity to take a different approach to physical education and after-school sport activities.”
After “brainstorming ideas for years on how we keep this collaboration going,” the pair have found advocacy for their plans.
“The National Sports Council has been extremely supportive of the collaboration,” Jacobs says. “They’re providing a training space and lodging for our team as well as support for all National Sports Council members across the country to attend the training.”
Funding also is coming from an NIU College of Education Curricular Innovation Grant and from the NIU Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning.
It adds up to “all expenses paid” for the travelers, who were first notified of the trip in early December and given a tight deadline to put their names in the hat. Thirty applied; 15 were interviewed during Finals Week.
M.S.Ed. student Karisa Fuerniss, who is serving as “the right hand person” for Jacobs, has designed weekly training sessions that fellow BAE travelers Emma Baumert, Benjamin Lee, Dwight Lewellen and Lauren Meyers will attend until Alternative Spring BAE begins.
Language, fortunately, is not a barrier. English is the national language of Belize.
“Karisa and I are treating this like a professional work project. You have to get to know your team – their strengths and backgrounds – so we have quite a bit team-building activities planned. Almost no one knows each other so half the fun is going to be building our team culture,” she says.
“We’re also spending quite a bit of time entrenching ourselves in Belizean culture. What are their practices? What are their norms? How can we positively represent American culture, and be stewards of learning about Belizean culture in a respectful way?” she adds. “We want to teach our students to be dynamic and competent leaders, and to represent America and NIU well.”
The students already have begun to keep journals, the written reflections of which will help Fuerniss with a research project on how cross-cultural experiences impact college students.
Jacobs can predict those outcomes already.
“I know the power and the impact that a transformative experience like this can have because it’s very near and dear to my heart,” she says. “Paul Wright gave me the opportunity to be part of the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition as a graduate student, and I can confidently say that being part of that experience completely deepened and redirected my career path to where I am now.”
She also has expectations.
“I want the world to feel a little bigger for our students. We don’t have to be this American-centric society; there are other places and people we can learn from,” she says. “I also want them to feel confident, empowered and proud of their NIU education, and to effectively share their knowledge.”
Of course, the trip will come with some fun – and eating plenty of locally caught seafood.
“Belize has over 450 islands, so we’ll definitely do some island-hopping. Belize is also known for having the second largest barrier reef in the world, so snorkeling and seeing some animal life and cool coral is on our itinerary,” Jacobs says. “Kaya also wants to take us cave-tubing.”
And what about the “BAE” part of the project’s name?
“Besides the acronym ‘Belizean Academic Experience,’ BAE is a trendy word all the kids these days use as a term of endearment,” Jacobs says. “Karisa and I chose this name to speak our students’ language and to personify this trip and project as something they can love.”