To follow your passion in life, there’s what Dr. Sarah Hillyer calls the “innovation equation,” P4: Passion+Platform+Purpose+Perseverance = Better world.
After just graduating with her undergrad in sports management, she decided to take a year away from home to discover her passion.
Her travels took her all over the world doing volunteer work. Through this, she helped coach various sports teams in other countries. She ended up helping teach girls basketball in Iraq. This experience was the jump-start for everything she does today. This is where she found her passion.
At this time, Iraq was still a war-torn country. Women were oppressed. U.S. soldiers occupied the cities. Regimes were falling. Dr. Hillyer began to wonder if there was a way to use sports as a diplomacy method to get into countries like Iran to empower women. However, this was a limited concept at the time with little to no research and she had no platform to fund it.
At 36-years-old, Dr. Hillyer went back to school; except this time she was driven with a purpose.
“I think often going straight through school, you don’t really know the purpose that it serves and we take education for granted,
she said. “So, having the opportunity to go back and knowing I’m coming back for a very important purpose.”
Four years later, she graduated with her Ph.D. in Sports Sociology. Her goal in this was to learn how to do the research that didn’t exist yet to go back to the non-profit side. In 2007, she got the opportunity to go back to Iran to teach a girls basketball team. Legendary Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit became involved and donated various equipment needs for Hillyer to take with. The Iranian girls were so inspired and thankful that they wanted to meet “Coach Pat” to thank her.
Hillyer presented her desire to bring 13 of the girls to America to the US Department. of State. After originally being turned down, she got her wish. In 2008-2009, the Department sponsored 13 girls and two coaches to come to Summit’s summer basketball camp for three weeks.
In 2012, the Department officially launched the Global Sports Mentoring Program and partnered with the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sports, Peace, and Society (CSPS). Hillyer is the founder and director of the center. Today, CSPS hosts 161 delegates in 75 countries and impacting the lives of over 225,000 women and children. In 2018, CSPS received the Stuart Scott ENSPIRE award. This award is presented to those who have “used an innovative approach to helping the disadvantaged through the power of sports.”
“I was here when she came in as a doctoral student. It’s been beautiful to watch the evolution. I remember when she presented at the faculty research seminar and present this bout the idea of sports for peace,” Dr. Steven Waller, a UTK professor in Recreation and Sport Management said. “One of the things I like to stress is not to teach students to think outside the box, because I believe there is no box, but to pursue those things that keep you up at night.”