Kerrissa Heffernan summed up the scope of the Royce Fellowship for Sport and Society with the story of a simple trade. Ask a former child soldier to trade his gun for a soccer ball, she said, and "the kid would say okay … It's powerful stuff."
Heffernan, director of the fellowship and faculty engagement for the Swearer Center for Public Service, was referring to a research project on former child combatants. The study was conducted by former fellow volleyball player Brianna Williamson '11.
This summer, Williamson conducted research in northern Uganda with child soldiers who had been kidnapped in the war. Through interviews with both former child combatants and children who had not fought in the war, she studied whether soccer — an integral part of adolescent Ugandan culture — helps them reintegrate into society.
Williamson is a development studies concentrator, and her thesis focusing on sports and development is inspired by her research. "Take what you're passionate about and turn it in a way (that's) usable to society," she said.
She said she learned that sports have the potential to instigate social change. "It's inexpensive. It's a phenomenal way to get people together. It has a wide base of support to mobilize people," she said.
‘Sports across borders'
The Royce fellows research and promote awareness on the importance of sports in the developing world. The goal of the program is for academics and athletics to intersect and flourish together, Heffernan said.
"Sports across borders have importance," Heffernan said.
The fellowship was established in 2007 with support from Charles Royce '61. It awards $4,000 to an undergraduate student for international and domestic research that examines the relationship between sports and issues such as healthcare and education in the developing world. According to Heffernan, varsity, club and intramural athletes are eligible for the fellowship.
The fellowship was proposed by Heffernan and Eli Wolff '00, who is a visiting fellow in international studies and co-director of the fellowship. Wolff assists in designing the curriculum, planning seminars, advising and placing students in organizations and agencies. He also runs the Sport and Development Initiative at the Watson Institute for International Studies, which examines the intersection of sports, development and human rights in global, domestic and local contexts. "Sport and development recognize that sports is not just physical activity or games," he said. "It can be used to engage a community to help with education, look at issues of equity and (address) issues of justice and respect."
After returning from their summer research, fellows attend seminars every other week and take part in conversations on related topics. The fellows also take part in forums with speakers and presentations during the semester.
Students were often surprised by what they learned from the fellowship, said Heffernan. "They would say, ‘I never knew I could do this. This is a whole new intellectual pursuit. I can actually make a living out of this!'" she said.
Bridging the gap
The coordinators and students agreed that bridging the separation between athletics and academics is a challenge.
Former fellow Matt Doyle '10 GS founded the Brown chapter of Right to Play, an international organization which brings games and sports to developing countries. Doyle conducted his project with Right to Play in New York City.
In his research, he assessed how high school and college students have used sports as a "platform for social change," and suggested strategies on how to better involve students around projects in the sport-for-development movement, he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
"School administrations and teachers are failing to see the multiple benefits that go along with sport and play, simply classifying this activity as recreation and not as a means of substantive education," Doyle wrote.
To remedy this issue, attitudes need to change so that parents, educators and students can see "sport as a catalyst for development," he wrote.
Williamson also said that sport is more meaningful and powerful than is often acknowledged. "In academia, there is often a separate world from sports. Sports is a leisure … but it should be taken more seriously," she said. As a result, she said she believes that this fellowship will help to educate and bring awareness to people about the power of sports to make positive changes to society.
At the core, Heffernan said she believes that the community needs to have conversations about the role of athletics in academics.
"There is a real misconception about athletics," she said. "It is more than to represent the furry bear."