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Doctoral student envisions using sport to help disadvantaged youth in Africa

For Zenzi Huysmans, her education is much more than attending class and completing internships. 

Huysmans, who was born in the Kingdom of eSwatini in southern Africa, earned a dual degree in psychology and biological anthropology from Duke University.

From there, her graduate education took her to Morgantown, where she received her Master of Science in Sport and Exercise Psychology and Master of Arts in Community Mental Health Counseling.

“She is an outstanding scholar and practitioner,” said Sam Zizzi, Dr Pat Fehl Endowed Professor.  “From the moment I met her in 2014, I have been impressed with her work ethic, her compassion and her grace.”

Huysmans’ goal is to give back to her home country. Earning a grant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) will help support her vision.

“Thanks to the Gualberto Cremades International Research Grant, I will be able to buy a bunch of different sport equipment ranging from soccer balls, basketballs and frisbees to a volleyball net, cones and pinnies, and ball pumps,” Huysmans said. “I will also use part of the funds to buy fruits and treats for the kids who come from highly impoverished backgrounds.”

The Gualberto Cremades International Research Grant is awarded to international students pursuing research to help sport psychology research at the global level. The maximum amount is $1,000.

“The Gualberto Cremades Grant was the perfect fit for my project as this grant is grounded in the spirit of doing meaningful work across communities around the world,” Huysmans said.

Huysmans, who will graduate from the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology doctoral program in May 2019, is in her fourth year as an AASP member. She plans to implement strategies she has learned in the classroom within her work with eSwatini.

“Swaziland has a very special place in my heart so my dream job would really see me returning there to contribute to the positive development of Swazi youth,” Huysmans said. 

“My dream job would be to run a community-based youth sport program that integrates grassroots sport-specific development with positive sporting experiences and life skills education for Swazi youth. Perhaps I can also find a niche working part-time in a consultant capacity in the competitive sporting sphere in Swaziland,” she added. 

Throughout her doctoral studies, Huysmans has focused on youth sport and growth through sport. Her dissertation involves applying youth sport practice to impact positive childhood development.

“Over 50 percent of the Swazi population is under the age of 20 years old and this sub-group of the population is facing immense challenges to making quality futures for themselves,” Huysmans said. “I want to determine whether sport-based initiatives are an effective tool to support healthy development for young Swazis. I will be working with a group of orphans and vulnerable children at a community-based children's organization in Swaziland.”

Huysmans hopes to influence Swazi youth, especially those who are struggling.

“She is concerned about making an impact at home where the need is greatest,” Zizzi said. “Her focus is on using her training to do that, and I am confident she will. WVU is lucky to have her, and I have learned so much from her.” 

Huysmans says sport and exercise psychology faculty have motivated her to succeed.  

“I genuinely feel that I've connected in some way with every SEP faculty member,” Huysmans said. “We're lucky here to have a warm, engaging, and compassionate group of faculty members.”

Although the United States has provided the tools to reach her goal, Huysmans is looking forward to returning to Africa to apply her knowledge and experience. 

“I've been away from home for a while now and it’s been my sense of purpose to one day contribute meaningfully at home in Swaziland,” Huysmans said. “That has kept me going.”

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