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Sarah Hillyer: Eva Mag’s Woman of the Year

March 15, 2009

Miriam Williamson

Sarah Hillyer was honored in Eva Mag's January edition as Woman of the Year. Photo submitted by Sarah Hillyer

Sarah Hillyer was honored in Eva Mag's January edition as Woman of the Year. Photo submitted by Sarah Hillyer

Knoxville is full of women making a difference and changing lives. This year, EvaMag’s woman of the year has taken this idea and crossed new boundaries. Sarah Hillyer is working to help women on two fronts: both abroad and at home.

Hillyer used her love for sports and desire to help women across the world to create Sport 4 Peace. With Sport 4 Peace, an organization that works to improve the quality and availability of opportunities for sports for females around the world, Hillyer has traveled to many countries, including Iran, Turkey, Israel, China and more. She has helped empower girls and women by creating new opportunities to play sports.

Now, Hillyer is using her experiences to make a huge difference in the world, both abroad and here in Knoxville.

“Sarah is a phenomenal person,” says Ashleigh Huffman, Hillyer’s roommate, classmate and workmate. “She is one of the most selfless people I’ev ever met. She puts herself aside and sees the greater need to reach places that have never been reached.”

In the countries Hillyer visits, women don’t have the same opportunities to play sports as women in the U.S. Sometimes it is a lack of equipment, while other times it is cultural hindrances that prevent them from having these oportunities.

While there, Hillyer learns about the lives of these women and provides them with the opportunity to learn a new sport, play a new sport, learn about new cultures and enjoy the benefits that come from competition and teamwork. During all of this, she remains sensitive to their needs and cultural expectations.

“Sarah’s work is changing the lives of these women,” says Dulcie Teccolo, director of student services for the college of education, health and human sciences. “Lot’s of us are well-intentioned, but Sarah understands the importance of immersing herself in another culture. Where some of us might barge in and say, ‘Here’s what we want to do for you,’ Sarah listens and tries to understand them.”

Sports have always been an important part of Hillyer’s life. Throughout she has been very involved with sports, with most of her focus on basketball and softball.

She graduated from Liberty University with her bachelor’s degree in Sports Administration, then went to Murray State University for her master’s in Sport Psychology. Now, she is attending the University of Teneessee and working towards earning her doctorate in Sport Sociology.

The combination of these elements – compassion, athletics and academics – has led Hillyer to create benefits that extend beyond the women abroad. Hillyer brings her experiences and the things she has learned and observed back to the U.S. to make a difference – by raising awareness, researching ideas related to things she has experienced and creating opportunities for others to learn from her work.

“She’s the whole package deal,” Teccolo said. “She’s a very brilliant scholar. She also is very philanthropic and involved with outreach projects, and her research is both timely and cutting edge. We don’t know many people who are looking at Muslim women and the role that their participation in sports has to do with peace initiatives.”

Hillyer has used sports to empower women and bring together cultures. In 2006, Sport 4 Peace hosted a “Sport For Life Peace Camp” in Israel for Palestinian and Israeli girls. It was the first overnight sports camp available for these girls that aimed to promote understanding and friendship across cultures.

“The most interesting part of her work for me,” says Lars Dzikus, assistant professor in the department of exercise, sport and leisure, “is she’s taking her research and using it in the classroom. She’s has brought back her wealth of experdience, pictures and videos and shared with students.”

As a doctorate student, Hillyer has introduced a new special topics class for undergraduate students. “Women in Sports: A Global Perspective” is a course that incorporates what she has learned with study of issues regarding race, gender, sexuality, religion and politics associated with sports.

“It fits right into the spirit of broadening horizons for students,” Dzikus says. “Ideally we would take all of our students abroad and have them experience it themselves. But through Sarah and people like her we can bring the world into the classroom and to other students. She goes out and does her field work and brings that experience home to our students. She not only impacts the lives of the women overseas but also the students here in Tennessee.”

This class is part of UT’s Ready for the World initiative, which aims to prepare undergraduate students for life in a global society.

“Her work certainly increases our awareness and sensitivity of global issues,” says Teccolo. “She’s a role model for other women because she combines scholarship with service-based learning or outreach.”