For Ashleigh Huffman, assistant director of UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, every day on the job is spent, in some way, traveling around the world.
Since 2012, the center has served as the cooperative agreement partner on the US Department of State’s Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), an initiative that has welcomed 130 leaders from 67 countries to the US for five-week exchange programs. Huffman and her team take a hands-on approach to these exchanges, which focus on the themes of women’s empowerment and disability inclusion, and maintain relationships with the international participants long after the programs end.
On this occasion, however, Huffman wasn’t welcoming new leaders to the US. Instead, she received an invitation from the State Department to spend a week leading clinics and workshops in Brazil.
“It was an honor to serve the US Department of State as a sports envoy to Brazil,” Huffman said after returning home. “This was my fifth time in the country, and honestly, it has become a second home.”
Like the GSMP, the envoy program is run out of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Envoys are former college athletes, professional athletes, and coaches who are sent overseas to lead clinics and workshops for youth. Huffman, who played college basketball at Eastern Kentucky University, traveled to Brazil alongside fellow sports envoys Jeremy Guthrie, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, and Lorrie Fair, a member of the US Women’s National Soccer Team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup and earned a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics.
In Brazil, Huffman led basketball clinics for hundreds of boys and girls. She also spoke at a women’s empowerment event, organized by the US Consulate in São Paulo, with more than 150 individuals in attendance. Many of the clinics were organized to support participants in the Estrelas (Shooting Stars) program, a collaboration between the consulate and the Social Service of Commerce. The program combines sports, English language instruction, and leadership training for public school students between the ages of 13 and 15 in underprivileged neighborhoods of the city.
In 2014, members of the Estrelas program traveled to Knoxville on a government exchange program. A year later Huffman and the center reconnected with them in São Paulo on a trip to support the work of four GSMP alumnae pushing for gender equality in the Brazilian sports system.
“The youth we worked with were so eager to learn, hanging on every instruction and asking for continuous evaluation and feedback on the basketball court and in the classroom,” Huffman said. “I consider it a tremendous privilege to learn from them and with them, to listen to their dreams, and to share my passion for sport and education. If I can be their proof that dreams can become reality, then I am humbled to serve in that role.”
At the university, Huffman serves as lead faculty for the VOLeaders Academy, a leadership development program for student-athletes formed in partnership with UT’s Athletics Department and the Center for Leadership and Service. In July, she will lead program participants on a study abroad trip to Ecuador, where they will offer sports projects for people with disabilities in rural communities affected by the country’s major 2016 earthquake.