How Sports Can Drive Social Change

NYU Abu Dhabi welcomed athletes from around the world at the Special Olympics regional competition in 2018.

"Sports empower because they connect us as human beings”

Given that my father was a professional mountaineer for many years and my sister and I attended the same school that our father did in Venezuela, we were involved in our school’s excursionist group since primary school. Although we never practiced sports professionally, our parents always encouraged us to be active. Apart from physical education classes in school, at different points in my life, I played basketball, tennis, did mountaineering, and kayaking, and now I’m captain of the women’s volleyball team at NYU Abu Dhabi.

One of the things I wanted to do during my university experience was to be part of a sports team, and it has been such an inspiring journey. I feel a strong sense of community in the athletics family, and it’s also a great way for me to remain healthy, engaged, and energized. But to me, sports also represent an important space to create social change. Let me explain.

Volleyball captain Sara Pan Algarra jumps to spike a ball during a match at NYU Abu Dhabi.

In 2014, I won a scholarship to study at the United World College of India. While living in India for two years, I was part of an initiative called Kriya — the largest community outdoor education project in my school. The program aimed to empower women from local villages. A select group would train for a year and then finish the program with the agency to overcome large obstacles such as expeditions, since, they would participate in an expedition to Ladakh.

In my junior year of high school, Kriya went one step further and grew with  another initiative called Ekta-Kriya — a similar program that I co-created for eight kids from a nearby, vulnerable tribal community. The year after we established Ekta-Kriya, the project expanded to 14 children who would learn cycling and swimming, Frisbee and football, while building skills like  reflection, introspection, and self-confidence.

The relationships I built in Ekta-Kriya taught me something special about  sports: a sense of humanity. Sports empower because they connect us as human beings.


By playing and reflecting together in a safe space, we empower each other as females, creating a network of support that overcomes barriers of socialization.

Sara Pan Algarra, captain of the NYUAD women's volleyball team

As a university student in the UAE, through NYUAD and our student initiative called Advocacy, I started visiting female migrant workers from the Philippines, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. They welcomed me and other NYUAD volunteers into their lives and in conversations shared an interest in playing volleyball with us.

This was the beginning of “Bedaya” (بداية) — an NYUAD program that promotes connections between female migrant workers and university students through sports education, team building, self and group reflection, and mindfulness. By playing and reflecting together in a safe space, we empower each other as females, creating a network of support that overcomes barriers of socialization.

The idea of deeply connecting with humanity through sports takes me back to the hugs our volleyball coach and the entire team give to each other whether we win or lose, the friendships I’ve made on the team and with other athletes at NYUAD, and the moments with the women I’ve met at Bedaya in Abu Dhabi. Sports encourage. Sports create possibilities. Sports build friendships and love.