ENVEST Reflection: A Youth Persepctive
by Anne Christian Robertson
A couple months ago my mom sent me an email about a trip I could apply for where I would get to go play soccer in Kazakhstan in order to promote social change. To be honest, I had never even heard of the country, but, I thought to myself, “why not apply?”; I want to travel the world and I love soccer, so let’s do it.
When I heard the news I had gotten into the program, I was absolutely ecstatic to be given such a cool opportunity. As summer went by, I attended meetings where I got to meet who I would be going on the trip with, and learn a little more about the mission of the trip and what I’d really be doing over in Kazakhstan: using soccer to promote cultural understanding and spark social change.
As the day of departure grew closer, I couldn’t help but be excited for the trip, but honestly a little nervous. I was flying extremely far, living in a country with a ten hour time difference for over a week, and to top it off I didn’t really know everyone in the group that well. A recurring theme of the trip, for me and everyone else in the delegation, was stepping out of your comfort zone; and flying all the way across the world with relative strangers was definitely stepping out of mine. As we left the United States, I was hopeful for what was about to unfold, and like many other group members, unsure as to what would come.
On the first day of our summit, all of the delegations attending were sticking to their own group, and avoiding a lot of interaction with each other, considering not all of us spoke the same language and none of the groups knew each other at all. All of the US youth members really stepped out of our comfort zones by attempting to communicate with and make friends with the youth in the other countries. Nico Cavallo, a youth participant in our US Delegation, said that, “having to put myself out there with people that I didn’t know and that I didn’t speak the same language as was hard for me, but eventually I became so comfortable with all the other delegations that we just felt like friends.” Even though all of us had to step out of our comfort zones, it was definitely worth meeting the people we got to meet. “All of the kids I met from Kazakhstan inspired me,” said Mitchell Brown, and I have to agree wholeheartedly. All of the youth we met in Kazakhstan were so happy to meet us, and extremely hospitable and welcoming. In fact, on the last day of our trip, the US delegation had originally planned to walk around Astana by ourselves. Instead, we were met by dozens of our new Kazakhstan friends who showed us their home and took time out of their day off to spend time with us, which goes to show the type of bonds all of us made. Ethan Johnson put it especially well when he said, “It felt as though I was back in America just hanging out with my friends because I learned that your home is where your heart it.”
One of the most amazing parts about these friendships we all formed, was that none of us could speak Russian, and only a small amount of our new friends could speak English. We all were able to bond over our shared love of soccer, which truly became our universal language. “I learned that no matter where you’re from, you can communicate without actually having to speak. Your body language and your actions can portray the same thing,” said Nico Cavallo. All of us truly got to know these kids, and soccer was our biggest asset in doing so. Even while we’re all the way across the world, the sport itself is constant. And despite our language barrier and cultural differences, nothing got in the way of playing the game… it even got pretty intense at times! So many of the youth were fantastic players, so not only did all of us get to learn about their cultures, we also got to learn about how they played, or the differences in their thought-processes throughout the game; they also got to observe and learn how we played the game.
Other than the bonds we formed with the other delegations, we also used soccer for its main purpose on this trip: as a vehicle for social change. Every day at the summit, each delegation was divided into groups, and given the task of creating social change projects where they needed to target a particular social issue in their own community, and think of a way they could use sport to promote change for that issue. When it came time to present these projects on the last day of the summit, it was so interesting to see the similarities and differences in each country’s social issues compared to ours. For example, one of the Kazakhstan groups found their social issue to be underage drinking and smoking, which is also a social issue in America. But the Tajikistan group, an all girls delegation, said their social issue was the accessibility of sports to women and women’s acceptance in sports, which typically isn’t a large social issue in American culture. Each group found a unique way to combine soccer with their particular social issue, and even in the four days we were all together at the summit, each had elaborate plans they were truly passionate about. As Nick Vantre put it, “The purpose of this trip was to interact with students from an entirely different culture and background, ultimately creating a change in society through sport. This goal was most definitely accomplished because by the end of the trip, our whole group intermingled effortlessly with the foreign students and inspired them to create change in their own societies.”
After many emotional goodbyes and several long plane rides, we were back in America. The time we spent in Kazakhstan went by in the blink of an eye, but it was an experience that is sure to stick with all of us. We were able to share and learn each other’s cultures, teach leadership skills, and use soccer to spark social change. Not only that, we made bonds that are sure to last a while: with each other, our adult leaders, and of course, our new friends across the world. I asked all of the participants what the most important knowledge or lesson they learned from this trip, and Connor Peed’s stuck out to me, and truly embodied our experience in Kazakhstan: “Always have the most open mind you can. Always try and look at things from new perspectives. Don’t ever judge people or a culture before you’ve met them. Always travel to new places, new countries, and new worlds. Never stop spreading love and giving back.”
Saying goodbye to all of our new friends we connected with in Kazakhstan was extremely hard. But we all connected through social media and have remained in contact since coming back to the states!
All of the youth experienced Kazakhstan differently, but we all learned so many lessons and attained our goal of using sport as a means of social change and cultural understanding. Now, as I reflect on the trip, my only disappointment is that we couldn’t have stayed longer.
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