My Move To Rural Uganda: Learning To Adapt By Using What Bates Soccer Taught Me

Four weeks after graduating, I moved to rural Uganda to work as the strategic coordinator and research coordinator for Omni Med, a small NGO that trains community health workers. What I knew was that it would be a very different culture and work environment than I was used to. Outside of that, I didn’t know exactly what to expect which made me nervous. I am now nine months into the job, and it has been very different from anything I have ever done. While there have definitely been challenges, I realize just how much four years on the Bates Women’s Soccer team prepared me for this adjustment. Let me share how my experience as a college athlete eased my transition to Uganda.

As a soccer player, it’s inevitable that you’ll be yelled at or criticized harshly by coaches or teammates in the middle of a game. Because it comes with the territory, you learn to have a thick skin, improve, and move on. In my first few soccer games as a freshman at Bates, I was overwhelmed, nervous, and made plenty of mistakes. Just as it was then being coached, taking feedback on the job now has been essential to improving. Being able to take constructive criticism and not take things personally has allowed me to focus on improving my work to better fulfill our organization’s mission. 

In Uganda, I’ve also received different requests and feedback from not only my supervisor and coworkers, but also from my US-based supervisor. Due to the time difference, it’s not always easy to consult him about these differences in the moment. I remember at the beginning of my time on the soccer team, there were many instances when my coach’s instructions didn’t always match up with what my captain or upperclassman told me on the field. In these moments I was forced to become skilled in organizing and coordinating the various pieces of feedback. I’ve often had to use my judgement and make quick decisions based on our previous interactions and input from colleagues. While this experience in Uganda has been new, efficiently synthesizing feedback is something that I vastly improved as an athlete and has been essential to my work. 

On the flip side of receiving lots of guidance and direction, there were many times in my athletic career when I did not get any instruction and had to be proactive. Since I played a fall sport, the summers were a true test of self-motivation. When NESCAC teams return to campus, they have less than one week of pre-season before their first game and the start of classes. Arriving out of shape for the season would likely mean our season wouldn’t have a great outcome. Learning self-discipline and setting personal goals in the absence of supervision helped me approach my departure for Uganda when I was still unsure about many aspects of the job. 

Without real guidance, I just tried to learn as much as possible about the organization, the position, and life in Uganda by consulting my supervisor and the person who previously held my position. I thought I had done my research, but upon arriving, I quickly learned that there was still a vast amount that I did not know. Instead of guessing or assuming what to do and waiting for more guidance, I sought as much advice as I could from my coworkers on the ground and took advantage of the resources available, carefully looking through and familiarizing myself with protocols, important documents, and past projects. I could have waited for direct instruction, but it was much more efficient and effective to get “in shape” and get myself started. 

Experience playing on a college sports team improved my ability to not only listen to many different people from various backgrounds but also communicate with them. I work with people who come from different cultures and have various lifestyles. Many are community health workers from rural villages, others are doctors, and some are recent college graduates like myself. We also periodically host volunteers that are mostly American students. This diversity in our work setting is enjoyable, but also presents challengs. For example, some people respond well to direct criticism and some do not. In these cases, it’s been essential for me to figure out how to balance various communication styles and preferences when trying to problem-solve. Like members of my soccer team, my coworkers have many different opinions on how things should be done, so I’ve been challenged to be adaptable without sacrificing my own viewpoints in the process. Being a college athlete gave me the experience and confidence to communicate and problem-solve effectively with many different people in all areas of my life after graduating.

While joining the workforce and navigating my new life at Omni Med has been difficult, Bates Soccer prepared me for this transition in more ways than I realized. For any student-athlete preparing for their own transition, I hope my transition shows you the innate qualities you can bring to your next team. Don’t be afraid to leverage the essential skills you have honed as an athlete in job interviews and applications because they truly make you a valuable employee and citizen in the real world.