William & Mary

From Solar Lights to Soccer

One Alum's Path to Creating Change on a Monrovian Pitch

  •  Smith conducting his 2013 honors thesis research in Monrovia.  Will Smith
  •  Football practice at Monrovia Football Academy.  Jim Tuttle
  •  Classroom at MFA.  Jim Tuttle
  •  Football practice at Monrovia Football Academy.  Jim Tuttle
  •  L to R: Musa Sheriff, Head of Academic Operations at MFA; Will Smith; and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Will Smith
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by Rachel Sims

When Will Smith ’14 first took his seat in Professor Roessler’s Politics in Africa class, he couldn’t have told you it was about to change the trajectory of his life. It was the fall semester of the soccer captain’s junior year at William & Mary, and the class spent a week looking at the small African nation of Liberia.

“I was moved by the fact that I knew so little about this country whose history is so complexly intertwined with our own,” says Smith. “So, I approached [Professor Roessler] and expressed my interest in Liberia.”

Roessler suggested that his student map all the foreign investment projects in the country. This initial research led Smith to an interest in Liberia’s energy sector. He contacted a local NGO — the Liberia Energy Network (LEN) — and worked with Professor Roessler to develop a research project that would examine the impact of LEN’s solar lights on Liberian fishermen. Through an application for an Honor’s Fellowship from the Charles Center, the Government major found himself preparing for a trip to Liberia just a few months later.

This initial step would trigger more opportunities for Smith — from William & Mary to Liberia to Oxford — and into to his current position as President and Director of the Monrovia Football Academy (MFA).

Soccer Roots

For Smith, the youngest of four boys, soccer had always been a favorite activity. He began to seriously focus on the sport in high school, and went on to play at William & Mary all four years. The team won a CAA championship his freshman year, and reached the NCAA tournament his freshman and senior years. The two-year captain was named Scholar All-American and CAA Defensive Player of the Year his final year at William & Mary.

One of Smith’s mentors and former head coach, Al Albert, suggested Smith and several other Tribe athletes begin coaching youth with the Virginia Legacy Soccer Club during his freshman year. It was a welcome break from his own intense training schedule, and the experience gave him a new perspective on the impact of the sport.

“The core values of the sport – teamwork, respect, discipline, freedom of expression, and unity – were drilled into my conscience without me really noticing it. That’s powerful. It instilled in me a belief that (much like the arts) sport can speak to us in a way that our teachers and parents cannot.”

Liberia & Beyond

During the summer of 2013, Smith traveled to Liberia to conduct his honors thesis research, alongside an internship with the State Department. As part of his research, he and a LEN colleague traveled to various fishing communities to examine the impact of the Liberia Energy Network’s solar lights on local fishermen.

As it happens, Smith’s colleague was also a semi-professional Liberian soccer player, and their combined interest for the sport quickly helped Smith connect with other players through pickup games in Monrovia. Former national team player Sekou “Georgie” Manubah invited Smith to play with their team alongside George Weah, the only African ever named the FIFA World Player of the Year. Smith, a fan of Weah since childhood, was ecstatic.   

Smith continued training with the former national team, and later that summer, Weah—in his role as Liberia’s Peace Ambassador—organized an ‘all-star’s’ Liberian Peace and Reconciliation Match with some of Africa’s legendary players. Smith was invited to play in the match. 

He reflects on that incredible experience as one that gave him a glimpse into the transformative potential of soccer in Liberia. 

“I saw how people from a variety of backgrounds, political affiliations, and demographics came together to celebrate 10 years of peace in the country, united by their love for football. At the same time, I recognized that [it] was not going to produce the lasting change Liberia needs as it continues to recover and progress. So my mind started churning.”

He returned to William & Mary for his senior year, carrying with him three themes from his time abroad: the power of soccer; the knowledge that the Liberian education system was failing; and the observation that he never saw Liberian girls playing soccer. Curious to learn more, Smith read Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia that fall, and decided to continue his studies.

In October 2014, Smith arrived in Oxford to study under Steinberg, just as the Ebola crisis rippled across world news. In conversation with friends in Liberia, Smith and Manubah began to brainstorm ideas that would aid in rebuilding Liberia after the crisis. The idea for the first soccer academy in Liberia’s history was born.

“It would address three of the country’s most pressing issues – a failing education system, gender inequality, and a lack of opportunities for young footballers. Most importantly, it would use football as a positive-incentive mechanism to break down gender barriers and improve academic performance.”

Monrovia Football Academy

Monrovia Football Academy opened its doors in October 2015, providing “quality education, professional football coaching, good nutrition, and life skills” to 27 students, ages 9-11. In 2016, the Academy has expanded to 51 students and three academic grades (3rd, 4th, and 5th). Students spend the morning learning soccer concepts and the second half of the day in the Academy school.

The goal? “An Academy whose graduates produce transformational change in Liberia,” Smith hopes.

Outside of Smith, everyone on staff is Liberian. “Many [young organizations] have overlooked the complexity of the context in which they’re operating – especially given the history between the United States and Liberia. We believe it is imperative that Monrovia Football Academy is viewed as a Liberian organization, one of which Liberians can be proud. A major part of that is ensuring that the people delivering the programs are Liberian.”

It hasn’t always been easy. MFA encountered skepticism during their first year, as this was the first venture of its kind in the country. But their reputation is building due to their effective programming, as evidenced by a visit from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf near the end of the school year in June.

“I think we all felt a sense of pride that day. It also served as a reminder that we are moving in the right direction, but we must keep doing our best to make this fully sustainable.”

Smith hopes MFA will eventually be able to build their own facilities, with the goal to expand to 300 students with a 50:50 gender equity ratio. He has also been working on partnerships with schools and soccer clubs around the world to create new opportunities for the students in the future. “Who knows, you might see an MFA graduate at William & Mary in a few years!”

Smith credits the success of the program to the family, friends, advisors, and wider international community that has rallied around the idea. “In 16 months we have built a donor base of nearly 300 people, and it continues to grow at a steady rate. That is a testament to the philanthropic spirit of our communities, and also to the power of the MFA concept.”

International non-profit leadership has allowed Smith to see the world from different perspectives, he explains. “It has also given me a greater appreciation for cultural differences and the way our traditions and beliefs impact our ways of life. Around the world, we are bound by a common humanity.”

And for a growing group of students in Monrovia, soccer is strengthening that bond.

For more information on MFA, visit http://www.monroviafa.com.