KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee Athletics Department selected 40 student leaders to serve people across the world in a "once in a lifetime" trip. This year's International Service Immersion Experience brought those students to Rwanda for 10 days to help them create social change through sports.
The program does not accept just any student-athlete. They have to be nominated by their coaches and peers to be considered. They also must excel in the sport, the classroom, and the community.
"After that, we go through the interview process with that staff. And then we are entered in through the program," said Morgahn Fingall, a member of VOLeaders 7.0 and a player on the women's volleyball team.
The program has been going on for around 7 years and grows each season.
The VOLeaders Academy takes students through a year-long program where they learn how to be strong leaders, make an impact, and encourage the best in others.
Lucy Marret was another Vols athlete in the academy this year. She is a member of UT's rowing team. She said the atmosphere of VOLeaders helped people from all different sports connect and find community.
"It's been a really great year of us taking classes together and really building a community together," Marret said. "It's been a program that's challenged me in a lot of ways. But it's been one of the most rewarding parts of being a student-athlete at Tennessee."
Once the students complete a year of classes for VOLeaders, they get a chance to harness those skills on a service trip. The trip, which took place in Rwanda this year, encourages athletes to lead children in social change through sports.
"We had the opportunity to actually show kids how to use a swing, how to play with a ball, and how you get to play just for the sake of playing and not for work or to help your parents," Marrett said.
Josiah-Jordan James, a member of VOLeaders 7.0 and the UT's Men's Basketball team, said teaching children sports was one of his favorite moments in Rwanda.
"We got to do a bunch of basketball activities," James said. "Being a basketball player, it really excited me and I have I probably had the most fun there."
In addition to activities that fostered social change through sports, the students experienced an African safari and gorilla trekking.
"One of the biggest things that all of us felt while we're in Rwanda was a strong sense of community and gratitude for the people that are around us," Fingall said.
She hopes to bring that back to the volleyball team and to campus in the upcoming school year. Marret said she felt the same.
"I think so often in sports, we forget that at the end of the day. It is just a game," she said. "As much as we want to win a race, what's most important is the impact that we're having on each other and the relationships that we're building,"
She wants to foster that bond on the rowing team this season. James said he felt an overwhelming sense of love, community and connectedness.
"I think one thing that I'm trying to implement back here is just being able to have a closer sense of community. We should be asking people, talking to people, and making sure we're checking on people. We need to turn off technology, games, TVs and talk to the people around us," James said.
VOLeaders 7.0 have already graduated from the program. However, a new class of student-athletes has been selected for the 2022 - 2023 program. Anyone interested in the program can read that list of athletes here.