Foreign languages come easy to some people, but I am not among that special group. I took German in high school and have retained some of it, but that wasn’t exactly helpful when accepting a job to play volleyball in Sweden. I took American Sign Language in college (keyword there is ‘American’). However, I think that sign language was actually the most valuable language course offered at Clemson that I could have taken before coming to live abroad. One of the first things you learn in sign language class is that facial expressions and body movements are just as important as the actual signs themselves. If you don’t make a certain face with a specific sign, it could mean something totally different than what you wanted to say.
I think it’s pretty amazing how many languages kids in different European countries can speak. Almost all of my teammates and coaches can speak English pretty well because they have to learn it in school at a young age. Many of my teammates are trilingual. Girls on my team can speak French, German, Swedish (obviously), Polish, and English. That’s quite a spread considering I can only speak one fluently.
I have traveled to many places around the world, including Africa this past summer. I have realized that one thing that has helped me through this experience of playing volleyball overseas is that smiling is the best universal language there is. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, a simple smile can help you more than you could ever imagine. A smile can show that you are approachable, that you care, that even if you don't know what's going on around you, you're still willing to try to figure something out.
One of the greatest examples I can use to help express this thought is when I help coach a group of about 15 girls every Monday night before I have practice. The girls are around 7 and 8 years old, and cannot speak English yet. I was overwhelmed at first. I wanted to help them with their volleyball skills so much, but I thought I was unable to do so. They kept asking me questions over and over again, and I kept saying “I’m sorry, I speak English.” They would just stare at me like I was from another planet. It was super frustrating because no matter how many weeks went by, they still didn’t understand that concept. That’s when I decided to change my mindset. I started showing them things by walking through the motions with them and by smiling all the time. And I really mean that. My cheeks would hurt after their practice because I was constantly encouraging them by smiling. Sure enough, I started loving coming to help coach them. It has been one of my favorite parts of this whole experience.
These girls are absolutely beautiful and have the sweetest hearts. Yesterday was my last day helping coach them, and I will never forget it. Practice went well, and then at the end, the main coach helped explain that it was going to be my last day with them. They all got really sad and asked if they could hug me before I left. So they got in a single-file line and hugged me one by one. I almost burst into tears. I will never forget these little ones who helped make my time here more special than I could have ever imagined. They taught me that even when I’m out of my comfort zone, I can still make a difference. I will always remember their beautiful faces and their pretty blonde hair. They have impacted me in such a special way and I am extremely thankful for them. When we put our hands in the middle to say a cheer, one of the girls asked if we could say “Alexa” instead of the normal cheer they usually do. They are so precious and I love them and miss them already.
I know that one of my main purposes in life is to help impact the lives of others for God, to make a difference for His good. I’m thankful that he has blessed me with the ability to coach so many different groups of students over the years, and I pray that I can continue with this gift when I go back to the United States. My time as a volleyball player may be coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean I cannot help share the love I have for this sport with others so they can travel the world and play volleyball like I have been able to.
A smile can help turn any day around. Don’t be afraid to communicate this simple act of love no matter where you are.
Side note: I think my English has gotten worse since I’ve been living in Sweden, but if anyone ever needs a charades, Pictionary, or taboo partner, I’m your girl! My teammates and I actually have a lot of fun with the language barrier. When they want to tell me about something and they don’t know the word for it, they start naming and describing things until I shout out the actual word they are looking for. It’s really entertaining.