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Skateboard Diplomacy: Skateistan educates and empowers students in Afghanistan

Translating a love of sports and a desire to make a difference in developing countries into a full-time career in exotic global locations may sound like a mere fantasy. But that’s exactly what Rory Burke, a graduate of Chapman University’s Master of Arts in International Studies program, has achieved as HR director for nonprofit Skateistan.

Burke, 33, was in the first cohort of Chapman’s two-year M.A. in International Studies program, graduating in 2011. He joined Skateistan as a volunteer in Cambodia that summer, before beginning his current position in 2013.

“Basically, we’re using skateboarding as … the tool to reach out to engage youth in a manner that’s friendly and easy for them to connect with,” Burke said. “On top of that, we offer different classes and educational facilities.”

Skateistan was founded by Australian Oliver Percovich as a grassroots project on the streets on Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2007. It now also has facilities in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and in Cambodia, and a new venture in South Africa.

Open to students ages 5 to 17, Skateistan combines skateboarding and educational activities to build trust, communication and understanding among different cultures, as well as provide empowerment to youth regardless of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

“An hour in the skatepark, an hour in the classroom,” said Burke, a lifelong skateboarder and a lacrosse coach at Chapman University from 2005 to 2011.

“We also have … a back-to-school program, which works with either out-of-school youth or youth that have never been in schools. We basically work with [Afghanistan’s] Ministry of Education to develop a curriculum, like a crash course, to get kids back and then re-enrolled in a public school.”

Recently returned from stints in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif and set to travel to South Africa later this year, Burke described his role as Skateistan’s HR director as both overseeing logistics such as visas and flights for the organization’s international staff and local hiring, contracts and performance reviews at its project sites.

“One of the coolest things … is that we’re able to have kids that are former [Skateistan] students now driving the program,” he said. “One of the guys, Noorzai [Ibrahimi], who started off as one of the first students in Kabul, is now our sports coordinator living in Mazar-i-Sharif.”

As well as his sports background (including playing at the World Lacrosse Championship in Australia in 2002), it was Chapman’s interdisciplinary M.A. in International Studies program that set Burke up for his current career, he said.

“I didn’t have a background in [international development] and I think without my master’s degree from Chapman, I probably wouldn’t have been the candidate that made it as far as I did in the interview and recruitment process for Skateistan.”

One of the crucial skills he took away from Chapman was the ability to debate — to be able to formulate ideas and then discuss them from numerous diverse points of view, Burke said.

“Whatever you’re working on [in international development] needs to make sense for the community and make sense for the people there,” he concluded, “rather than it being something that just makes sense to you.”

—Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer

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