Saturday, June 11, 2005

Former U.S. College Basketball Stars Initiate "Cultural Envoy" Program

Program teaches foreign youth about American sportsmanship

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Two former U.S. college basketball stars are using the universal language of sports to connect with young people around the world through the U.S. Department of State's new Cultural Envoys Program.

The six-month pilot program is an offshoot of the Department's extremely successful CultureConnect Program, which enlists world-renowned personalities in such fields as music, literature, film, dance, and architecture to interact with youthful audiences worldwide.

Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia S. Harrison explains, "the Cultural Envoys program draws on the energy, skills, and enthusiasm of lesser-known Americans to further connect with young people overseas, affirming aspects of American culture, such as teamwork, volunteerism, and working to achieve goals."

"Through sports, the envoys are able to connect with young people at a level where they all have something in common, and that helps open a dialogue," says program coordinator Nicole Deaner.

As its first envoys, the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) chose Omari Faulkner and Courtland Freeman, 2004 graduates of Georgetown University in Washington, where they played four years of inter-collegiate, division one NCAA basketball. Faulkner, from Memphis, Tennessee, received several scholar-athlete awards and has mentored young people as academic adviser and coach for various basketball camps. Freeman, a native of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, also was honored as a scholar athlete and was the first student in Georgetown history to serve three seasons as co-captain of the basketball team.

Having just completed a tour of Albania, Bosnia, Romania and Turkey, where they interacted with some 1,400 young people aged 12-25, Faulkner and Freeman departed August 21 for a three-week visit to Central and South America, with stops in Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia and Brazil.

By the end of the 2004, they also will have traveled to South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Additional trips to South Asia and the Middle East will follow in January 2005. At each venue, the two conduct basketball clinics, attend student events and meet with sports and city officials.

"We are focusing not just on the large cities but on the smaller towns and cities that have had little or no contact with America or Americans," Deaner says. "The reception has been tremendous. The envoys were treated with warmth and enthusiasm everywhere they went."

In Gaziantep, Turkey, as many as 500 spectators crowded into clinics and demonstration games. At a Bucharest, Romania, clinic where 20 students were expected, Faulkner and Freeman were greeted by more than 100. The envoys quickly revised their plans and managed to accommodate 55 participants.

Although basketball is a thoroughly American game, "it is becoming a world sport," Freeman says. "There's a passion for basketball in every country we went to. The school might not necessarily have a team, but there are club teams. We also dealt with a lot of kids who don't play on a team but who love the game."

At clinics for boys and girls, "we teach them different drills, polish their fundamentals, show them trick shots, and let them play," Faulkner says. "Our overall goal is to let them have fun."

Behind the fun is a serious message that the teamwork and effort needed to succeed in basketball are important in society as well. "You have to be able to work with your teammate regardless of his personal background, to put aside your differences and come together," says Freeman.

"I tell them to work hard in anything they do," Faulkner adds. "It's a great opportunity to play a sport for your school or club, but I stress to them to put as much emphasis on schoolwork as on sports."

At age 22 and 23, Faulkner and Freeman are able to relate almost as peers to many of the older students they meet. "It's not just about basketball," Freeman says. "We talk about music, about what college is like. We tell them to feel free to ask us questions about anything they want. They're dealing with a lot of the same issues we deal with -- peer pressure and drugs and [the appeal of] criminal lifestyles. So we tell them to listen to their parents and teachers and coaches and stay away from that route."

As African-Americans, Faulkner and Freeman introduce young people in other countries to the diversity of U.S. society. "A lot of them think of an American as a white person with blond hair and blue eyes, so when they see African-Americans it gives them another impression of Americans," Faulkner says. "Many of them also have the view that the U.S. is perfect, and everything here is the best, the best basketball facilities, the best equipment. So, we let them know that in America we have our problems with discrimination and that there are kids in Memphis, Tennessee, who play basketball on dirt courts and kids in California who have to use a crate instead of a basket."

The envoys stress that "America is a very diverse country, but despite our different races, religions, and ethnicities, we still work together," Freeman notes. "We help them realize that Americans don't have everything handed to them. You have to pay your dues, work hard, study hard, do the right thing in order to succeed, and that holds true no matter what country you're in. [Their reaction] is like, wow, if they can do it, maybe I can do it as well."

Faulkner and Freeman agree that even this early in the project, the personal rewards of their work are countless. Faulkner says he is now seriously considering a career in government, perhaps in the area of international exchanges. Freeman adds that he has "grown a lot from going to different countries, learning about different cultures, seeing different struggles. I took a lot for granted, but I can't do that anymore, because my eyes have been opened."

Among their most memorable moments are the thanks they received everywhere they went, the sad faces as they were leaving a town, the cries of "I love you" and "PLEASE try to come again."

"You could tell it was a point in their lifetime that they would never forget, just to be around an American," Faulkner says. "Just knowing that we made footprints in their lives that they'll never forget is amazing."

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