She realizes it caused a few chuckles — a foreign student leading a voter registration drive — but for Oklahoma State University soccer midfielder Yolanda Odenyo it seemed totally natural.
“OSU has a very small portion of minority or Black students,” she notes. “A large portion of the Black student population at OSU is [composed of] athletes. We wanted to make sure they aren’t just involved in terms of talking about the election, but also exercising their right to vote. I was brought up realizing that not everyone in the world has a right to vote.”
Odenyo grew up in Sweden the daughter of a Swedish mother and Kenyan father. Each year, she would spend her summer months in either Kenya or Zaire. She believes her extensive travels gave her a global perspective and a strong appreciation for human rights and responsibilities. Her drive to excel on and off the soccer field has led to her selection as the Diverse 2009 Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year.
Although the elite levels of soccer are more passionately played in Europe and West Africa than in the United States, Odenyo knew she wanted to go to college in the United States. She originally set her sights on attending the University of North Carolina, but ran into issues with NCAA compliance.
In Sweden, young soccer players don’t play on school teams, they play on club teams. Although Odenyo never received a penny, she was deemed a professional because others at her club were paid. OSU wanted her to play for the school, so they saw to it she was reinstated. To show her appreciation and loyalty, she’s given four years of outstanding play on the field — even playing to the finish in this, her senior season, despite suffering a back injury. She led the Big 12 Conference in goals (16) and points (37) — an OSU Cowgirl Soccer single season record. Odenyo was named the OSU student-athlete of the year.
She says being a student-athlete makes the transition to a new country easier than it might be for the average foreign student.
“No matter how much you get along or don’t get along with your teammates and coaches, you have people who are constantly looking out for you and making sure you have what you need to succeed,” she says. When Odenyo went to Kenya a couple of years ago, she asked all her teammates to give her their extra socks, cleats, shorts and Tshirts. “I took them home with me to give to some of the kids around where my father is from,” she explains.
“When I came back, I had pictures for my teammates so they could see what they contributed. I’m an ambassador for where I come from. If I don’t take the responsibility to spread that knowledge, then I have no right to walk around being angry about people being ignorant about what goes on in the rest of the world.”
She put on a fundraiser at OSU to create a scholarship fund for high school girls in Kenya. Odenyo has also served on the studentathlete advisory committee and tutored other student-athletes for the academic services office at OSU.
She’s also been active in doing outreach work with her church, which started as an on-campus ministry run by the football strength coach and has now evolved into an off-campus church. Odenyo has taught life skills at a juvenile detention center in Oklahoma City.
A child and family services major, Odenyo completed her undergraduate coursework last December and spent this semester doing an internship. Prior to her injury, her plan was to return to Sweden to play pro soccer, but now she is scheduled to start a master’s program at OSU in June in international studies with a focus on human development.
She’ll also be a volunteer coach with the soccer team this coming fall, giving her a feel for whether she’d like to pursue a career in coaching.
“Soccer will always be a part of my life,” Odenyo says. “If I can’t play, then I’ll do something else. It’s a platform of influence for me that I will use.”
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