Penn grad students use soccer as tool for youth education

A couple years ago, about a dozen Penn Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows, all connected through their love of soccer, teamed up to form the West Philadelphia Football Collective (WPFC). The initiative provides an outlet to teach soccer—often called football outside of the United States—to students in the area’s public elementary schools.

It was an idea that formed quite naturally, explains Andrea Contigiani, a doctoral candidate in Wharton’s Management Department. The core group of students involved in WPFC include Contigiani, Alex Ponsen, Alessandro Carrer, Luiz Chamon, Alberto Ciancio, Jim Fouracre, Dario Nicetto, Marco Ruella, Roberto Saba, Santiago Segarra, and Simone Sidoli.

“We all became friends, playing in amateur soccer leagues in the city, and we decided we’d like to try to give back to the community in some form,” Contigiani says. “We thought, ‘We can use soccer to do that,’ and that’s how this all started.”

For the past two years, the Penn student group has hosted weekly after-school activities at Henry C. Lea and Comegys schools, teaching soccer—not only how to play, but also the history and culture of the sport—as well as team building and leadership development. The program also raised money through various efforts to purchase equipment—soccer balls, cones, and goals—that the WPFC donated to the schools.

“Because of the financial situation our public schools are in, a modest initiative like ours can make a big difference,” says Ponsen, a doctoral student in the Department of History, who grew up playing soccer in West Philadelphia. “We provide the kids with an outlet for physical exercise, introduce ideas and themes like team building, character development, and fair play, and also try to integrate elements of education about geography and cultural studies related to soccer around the world.”

The WPFC, which partners with the University’s Netter Center for Community PartnershipsUniversity-Assisted Community Schools Sports program, holds year-end picnics in May for the youth from both schools and their families at Kingsessing Recreation Center, too. There are friendly, non-competitive soccer games, meant to showcase all the students have learned throughout the school year, and plenty of food and fun for the community.

Due to the current political climate, the WPFC also hosted a particularly special event dedicated to refugee children and families from across the world who have resettled in the Philadelphia area. The event, which took place on Saturday, May 20, featured soccer clinics for children and a catered picnic, and was meant to “send a welcoming message to these people, many of whom have come from extremely difficult circumstances and are just getting acclimated to a new life here,” says Ponsen.

The event was supported by a slew of local partners, including the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the Office of the Provost, Penn Undergraduates for Refugee Empowerment, the Temple Refugee Outreach club, Your A.O.K. Foundation, and the Nationalities Service Center. A crowdfunding campaign using GoFundMe also raised more than $2,000 to go toward the event.

Ponsen and Contigiani agree that the first refugee event is only the beginning of a much larger project for the WPFC. Another similar event is planned for the fall.

And beyond hosting events for refugees in Philadelphia, Contigiani hopes the group is soon able to expand to other areas in the city.

“Philadelphia has other low-income, challenging areas,” he says. “If we could reach out to those areas in some dimension, too, it would make the program even more impactful.”

West Philadelphia Football Collective