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At Volunteer Summit, All Talk and Now Action

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March 7, 2006

Students from around the world came together in February at Northwestern to discuss their proposed volunteer projects at the first International Youth Volunteerism Summit (IYVS).

Northwestern hosted the event and provided financial and logistical support.

Chosen on the basis of their proposals, the visiting students proposed projects ranging from tsunami relief in Thailand to easing the burden of HIV/AIDS in Africa to building playgrounds in Senegal.

Seventy-five students, including five from Northwestern, were selected from more than 500 applicants, from more than 30 schools including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke and Georgetown universities, and from more than 20 countries, including Morocco, Singapore, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Guatemala and Romania.

Following is an interview with Nicole Matuska, a Medill senior whose project proposal was to create and develop youth soccer leagues for girls in Morocco.

Why did you decide to get involved with IYVS?

I first heard of IYVS during Christmas break from friends working on projects, and I applied then. The whole idea intrigued me, of meeting students my age who were working on ways to improve or help the world. At that point, I had already begun thinking about a career abroad, either volunteering somewhere or working for an NGO [non-governmental organization].

The conference sounded like a great place to learn about all the opportunities available, and its down-to-earth tone was a draw. The speakers and panelists would be approachable figures in the NGO and international-volunteer world and not prestigious high-level ambassadors or academics. While applying, my vision was that everyone at the conference would really want to learn and listen and get feedback, and it was exactly like that. No one talked just to hear themselves talk.

What inspired your project proposal?

My project proposal came out of my study abroad in Morocco during the fall of 2004. I ended up doing a research project on a women’s soccer team in the capital city of Rabat. I was able to play with the team for four weeks and got to know most of the women pretty well. I realized that soccer provided those women with an important tool for interacting with Moroccan society as well as an important outlet for expression.

When I came back to the United States, it took me a while to process everything. Later, it came to me that perhaps there could be a way to foster female interaction and empowerment through soccer, particularly for younger girls in rural areas. Sports in general are a great medium of education, and I began thinking about ways to incorporate soccer with education, about making the sport available for more women to play. Creating a more structured and permanent soccer league for teenage girls in the country is what I eventually proposed.

Did your experience at IYVS help evolve your project?

IYVS forced me to think critically about my idea and what I wanted to achieve. I realized that my idea was created in a vacuum. Exposing the project to others was great, because I got feedback and criticism as well as new ideas and approaches.

Participants threw out ideas about how to fundraise and work with other organizations so I wouldn’t have to go at it alone. My abstract project evolved into a more concrete idea. Probably the best advice was to work with a Moroccan organization that knows the realities of women’s sports on the ground.

What was the best part of the summit?

If I had to make a choice, I would say it was the domain groups. We were organized according to the theme of our proposals into domain groups and met twice a day to discuss the workshops we just attended and the challenges of implementing or furthering our specific ideas.

My group included extraordinary people. Everyone was extremely interested in one another, and that was so refreshing. I can’t remember the last time I have been in such a collaborative environment.

What’s next for your project?

My next step is to go to Morocco. I am contacting organizations that might be interested in guiding me, but before the project materializes, I need to get over there and understand a little bit more of the realities on the ground.

I also have plans to visit there in September to shoot a documentary film about the women’s soccer team. I have been applying like crazy for grants and scholarships. I just applied for a Fulbright grant. One of the best outcomes is that the conference gave me the courage to just throw myself into my project. We’ll see if it works out.