Seven minutes left to play, and our bitter rivalry was still unsettled. The undergraduates had managed to put three past the graduates’ goalkeeper, but our opponents had been, to that point, equal to the task. And then a long cross from right field sent the ball straight to my feet. Only two defenders and the goalkeeper separated my team from glory.

This was no Olympic game, nor even a college one, but a gathering on the freshman quad of some of the best and brightest students in the nation under the banner of the United States Student Achievers Program (USAP).

Every year, USAP students and partners, as well as academic advisors and college officials, gather to celebrate program achievements and discuss strategies for community development initiatives. A soccer game at the end is a conference tradition.

This year, the USAP Forum brought more than 50 participants to the Amherst campus, who were accommodated at Smith College, under the theme “Building the USAP Network, Empowering Communities.” Four current Amherst students, including me, and two alumni were among the attendees. 

USAP is a nonprofit organization that helps talented high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds secure admission at elite colleges and universities across the United States. Launched in Zimbabwe in 1999, USAP is now operational across four continents and includes countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia.

Students in the program go through a yearlong process of admission-test preparation, college application workshops and mentorship. They aspire to broaden their horizons and share ideas and perspectives with a diverse array of people.

“We need to focus on the things that matter,” said founder Rebecca Zeigler Mano in her keynote remarks. “Be driven to act on the things that keep you up at night, both on your campuses and in your communities back home,” she added, addressing the group selected for, among other things, the students' demonstrated leadership potential and ethos of giving back.

Afternoon workshops included discussions on education; nonprofits and social change; and science, engineering and technology. In these workshops, we engaged in conversations about how we continue to be involved in various initiatives, and considered ways in which we can improve our effectiveness.

Some students discussed how they could use social media to either start or get involved in social change on campus and in politics at home. I discussed my involvement with the recently launched Amherst College Bike Share Program, and talked about how the program could possibly come up with ways to utilize abandoned bikes, a prospect I am excited to implement this fall.

After a day filled with workshops, it was fun to join with fellow students on the field for the final soccer game. As the ball landed at my feet, I weaved past the first defender, and struck just as another moved to block, sending the ball into the net. Even as our side celebrated, though, the game wasn’t over.

While we were distracted, the graduates launched a surprise attack. Before my team could reorganize our defense, our opponents had scored a tying goal, which ultimately marked the end of the game. 

Despite the friendly competition, everyone walked away a winner. As I’ve found from my own experience, the conversations started at the USAP conference often serve as an important inspiration for USAP students to champion community development efforts, both on our college campuses and in our communities back home.