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Empowering Women Abroad

When Sarah Oxford decided to study abroad in Cameroon in 2004, she was looking forward to learning a new language and going to a part of the world that would be difficult to visit on her own. The experience delivered, and then some. What Ms. Oxford discovered was a multifaceted country with more than 250 ethnic groups and a diverse landscape of deserts, rolling hills, rainforests and volcanoes.

“It’s a captivating place,” says the member of Ponte Vedra Chapter, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “The cultures are very family- and community-focused, and I don’t remember a day passing where I didn’t roll with laughter or dance. I’d never seen a place more fascinating, nor had I ever felt more welcomed. But in all its beauty, Cameroon faces serious challenges, such as a poor health system, rampant corruption and bordering countries in conflict.”

Eager to do her part, Ms. Oxford returned to the Central African nation in 2007, this time as a volunteer with Breaking Ground (www.breaking-ground.org), a grassroots organization that provides funding and other resources to motivated Cameroonian communities with specific goals.

“What makes Breaking Ground distinctive is that each project is radically different, and our timescale depends on the community, not the donor,” she says. “The common thread among projects is that it is the community’s idea, and they must own it.”

In 2007, Ms. Oxford launched the group’s women’s entrepreneurial program. It has provided business skills training to 470 Cameroonian women, and 136 female entrepreneurs have received start-up or expansion funding. She also founded the Breaking Ground Football program, which empowers young girls through soccer.

“The overarching goal of a soccer program like this would be to break the poverty cycle, but that’s pretty far-fetched,” she says. “The participants in these programs typically have limited educational access, and probably nutritional and financial stress. These programs offer a support network, a chance to play in a safe environment, and other potential benefits such as educational scholarships, travel and meals.”

The soccer program also helped inspire Ms. Oxford’s area of focus for her graduate studies, first as a Rotary World Peace Fellow at the University of Bradford, in England, and now as she pursues her doctorate at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. Her dissertation will examine the impact of youth soccer programs on gender relations in developing nations.

“I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries, and one of the first things I do in each location is put on my cleats and play,” she says. “It helps me understand gender relations within that culture. In my experience, was I glorified? Shunned? Denied? Allowed to play, but never passed the ball? Invited to dinner by teammates? It’s eye-opening.” 

A diplomatic world traveler, Ms. Oxford is reluctant to name the favorite place she’s visited. “I’ve come to a point where I think everywhere is basically fantastic,” she says. “There is something that can be appreciated in all places. The only requirement is that I can get in a good laugh. Home is where someone laughs at my corny jokes.”

Or somewhere Ms. Oxford can enjoy the outdoors. Last year, she spent 150 days in her tent. “I’m an avid outdoorswoman,” she says. “I lean toward rock climbing, surfing and snowboarding, but I’m open to other ideas. As long as nature is involved and I’m reminded of how little and unimportant I am in the world, I’m keen.”

As for her DAR membership, she joined, in part, in a nod to her mother. “DAR is extremely important to my mom,” she explains. “Since I live abroad, I joined to show I’m on her team.”

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