Balancing act: UNSW's elite athletes encourage high school students to follow their path

UNSW, Westfields Sports High and Creating Chances last week collaborated to pilot a program designed to open dialogue and engagement with Year 12 students aiming to become elite athletes and complete university studies.
Megan Maurice | UNSW Newsroom

When Anyier Yuol learnt that she had received a football scholarship at UNSW, the first question she asked was, “Do I have to study?”

At the time, her entire focus was on playing football to the best of her ability and university study was the furthest thing from her mind.

However, thanks to encouragement from within her sport, Ms Yuol enrolled in the University Preparation Program (UPP) at UNSW and went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Anthropology and Development Studies, followed by a Master of International Development.

While her football career did not take her where she had originally hoped, Ms Yuol now combines her passion for sport and education in her role as Partnerships and Capacity Building Coordinator at Creating Chances, a social enterprise that provides programs promoting positive youth development through sport.

Her story had Year 12 students from Westfields Sports High School enthralled last week during a pilot program that resulted from a collaboration between the school, Creating Chances and UNSW.

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya to South Sudanese parents, Ms Yuol has taken every opportunity she could get to put herself into a position where she can make change.

“Living in a refugee camp built my resilience, my confidence and it made me the person I am today,” she said.

“I have spoken at the United Nations, I run small businesses and I work with young people in sport. If I had just focused on football and decided that was the only way to champion myself, I would not be standing here today.”

Ms Yuol told students that although their challenges may not mirror her own, they can still learn from her journey.

“I have overcome many barriers in ways that you might not understand,” she said.

“But you also overcome small barriers that you might be facing in school, at home and in your community. The question is, how can you transform that into something positive?”

Students also had the chance to hear from Australian Olympic Committee CEO Matt Carroll, himself a UNSW alumnus, who shared his own words of wisdom about preparing for life after sport.

“Your sporting career does come to an end,” he said.

“So as athletes you need to be able to look ahead, to beyond when you retire. What could you contribute to your sport after you retire? You could work in high performance, or sports science or take up a medical position within sport.”

A panel of current and former members of UNSW’s Elite Athlete Program spoke to the students about the practicalities of balancing sport and university studies.

Elite Athlete panel

Students had the opportunity to ask questions of a panel of current and former UNSW Elite Athlete Program members. Photo: UNSW Sport

UNSW Media graduates and Rebecca Beeson (GWS Giants AFLW player) and Taylah O’Neill (Olympic moguls skier) joined with Mechanical Engineering student Emma Bosco (aspiring Olympic moguls skier) to talk to the Year 12 students about life as a student-athlete.

“You have to build a relationship with the people who can help you,” said Ms Bosco.

“I also think it’s important to remember that you can only do as much as you can do. There’s no point getting flustered about how you’re not going to get 100% because then it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with everything.”

The program was a great success and students left feeling empowered about their choices and their ability to balance sport with study.

They were left with some parting advice from Ms Yuol, encouraging them to rise to the challenges in their lives.

“Take every opportunity that you get and know that as you grow up, responsibilities will come and you will face challenges,” she said.

“You will face many barriers, but how will you overcome them?

“You have to start from a position of confidence and make sure that when you finish up in sport, you can use your opportunities for yourself and for your community.”