Deniz Cengiz of Turkey spent a month at the United States Olympic Committee as part of the U.S. Department of State's Global Sports Mentoring Program.
Following a month collaborating with United States Olympic Committee mentor Alicia McConnell in Colorado, Deniz Cengiz will return to Istanbul this month with a well-designed plan to expand her work helping women athletes.
Cengiz, development officer for disadvantaged youth and persons with disabilities for the Turkish Football Federation, is the third female athlete to work with a USOC mentor during the three-year-old U.S. Department of State’s Global Sports Mentoring program, which is part of the larger Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative. She spent her time in Colorado with mentor McConnell, the USOC’s director of training sites and community partnerships.
The initiative — which was launched in 2012, on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and ESPN President John Skipper — identifies emerging female leaders around the world and matches them with top female sports executives in the United States as mentors. The goal is to help the women develop their organizational skills so that they can return to their home countries with strategic action plans that will further the work they’ve already started with female athletes. Participants are selected by U.S. embassies and must show a proficiency in English.
Cengiz, one of 17 candidates selected be the State Department, launched the Youth Prisoners Football Training Program for participants 18 and under in 12 juvenile detention centers throughout Turkey. She also oversees the United Football Project, which matches more than 800 deaf and hearing children annually for training.
“It’s my passion to develop communities and people through sports,” said Cengiz, noting that the program offered her a “unique opportunity” to improve those skills.
McConnell said the U.S. Embassy “works closely with community organizations in Istanbul and chose Cengiz because of how involved she was and because of the difference she was making with the Turkish Football Federation.”
“I could easily see what was missing in my country, so when I get back I can have a chance to change that,” Cengiz said. “This is my project when I get back to Turkey.”
She praised the important role of the “great sports culture” in the United States.
“This is the thing we need to change in Turkey, because I believe sports are a great tool to develop our communities,” Cengiz said. She also noted that the established community service tradition in the United States is missing in her home country: “I met people from different communities, parks and teams, and I could see how important community service is.”
Cengiz also pointed out one other major difference in sports organizing between the two countries.
“In Turkey everything is centralized,” she said. “For example, if I want to do something with my local community I have to ask through the government. But here everything is localized. I could see the difference — that it’s very important to be flexible, to move faster, and to address the needs of the community. Because every community has different needs, and the local people can understand (them) better. These were the best things I learned here.”
After determining the strategic business plan, a “big part” of the first week in the program “is getting to know each other,” McConnell said. “Because what’s most important is not what I think she should be doing. It’s what she thinks is most important for her and her country and what she can achieve.”
As the weeks progressed, Cengiz attended social events and “had a chance to go to a tailgate to see some of the sites around Colorado,” said McConnell, who was aided by Megan Psyllos, USOC intern for training sites and community partnerships, in helping Cengiz with social and cultural events around Colorado Springs. During the third and final week of Cengiz’s visit, she and McConnell finalized the action plan, “looking toward the future, how we can interact, and how the USOC can continue to be an asset and resource to Deniz.”
The USOC will remain in touch with Cengiz, as it has done with the two previous USOC mentees, McConnell said. They were Hermine E'Gairma of Rwanda and Majidag Nantanda of Uganda. After returning to Rwanda, E’Gairma, a basketball player and coach, visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt to officiate games and train other women how to coach basketball, said McConnell. A soccer player, Nantanda has also traveled to other countries and has helped to grow participation in girls’ soccer throughout Uganda, she said.
McConnell believes the United States should “continue to engage” in global programs where U.S. individuals and “people from around the world” interact. At least one benefit is greater understanding.
“We often misinterpret what being American means or what being Turkish means,” she said. “This program takes away the assumptions and stereotypes, and we learn more about the cultures and individuals.”
John Conroy is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work spans topics in technology, business, current events, sports and music. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.