Meet Don. Don Hardin is an adjunct instructor in the College of Applied Health Sciences Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Don has more than 30 years of NCAA volleyball coaching experience, both at the University of Louisville and the University of Illinois, where he was the head coach of the women's team. Additionally, Don is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and he also serves as a leadership coach and consultant at the Illinois Leadership Center. In 2016, Don received the Applied Health Institute's Teaching Excellence Award.
GET: How did you get connected to Global Education and Training?
As a volleyball coach, I hosted some Chinese teams here. I got used to hosting - I did this with teams from Holland, teams from Brazil, and we would go there, as well, on our international trips. I got to know the Chinese people, their coaches, the delegations.
With the Chinese graduate student here in our program [RST], we made this very special opportunity to use sport to bring our cultures together. And this got a lot of notoriety on our campus. It made all of the media back in China. I got a little bit of a small reputation to be someone that would help or reach out, especially with Chinese students. It’s good for them to know there are people here who care and can help them.
Then, after retiring, I helped with this special opportunity. That's how my name got out to GET [formerly known as the China Executive Leadership Programs, or CELP]. So, I started giving more of these tours and hosting more people from foreign countries who would come and visit us [at Illinois]. I would show them parts of campus, meet up with them, arrange for speakers on different topics. I came to know them, and this was very much up my alley.
On the importance of intercultural connection:
I’m a connector. I like to help people by connecting them with resources, and each other, in some cases. I lived abroad myself, for six years, during my early years. And people helped me, and I remember how much that meant to me at the time. I know how difficult it is, transitioning to another country. How simple things can seem complicated. Just having a friend to help connect you with things, can make it easier.
I identify with how they must be feeling. Plus, I love connecting our students, domestic students, with international students. It’s very important, as our governments’ ideologies and philosophies differ, that we get to know each other and understand that there is another level of kindness, care, and compassion that exists with all people. It’s important for the world.
GET: You worked with our Applied Health Sciences summer school program in 2018. Can you describe what it was like, working with our students?
This was a group of top graduate students who were very interested in leadership questions that would pertain to all things sport and recreation. What happens to athletes when they retire? Can they hold down other career paths or occupations? How does it fit within our university system? How do we recruit? What are the positives [of the system]? They are world leaders, and I was able to connect htem with all of our leaders in sport and recreation, and with some of our athletes.
On the similarities between U.S. and Chinese cultures:
I have an affection for Chinese students. Because I see our [respective] cultures as being more similar than anyone would imagine. Because they try many different things; they’re not rigid in their ways of doing things; they’re willing to consider different philosophies and ideas and do what works. They’re utilitarian.
You know, for example, with sport, they have a specific style of volleyball. Japanese volleyball has one specific style that it’s played. You could say the same thing of, perhaps, Brazilian volleyball. Or other top programs, if you go to different cultures. But, United States volleyball has been a blend of many different kinds. Chinese volleyball is a blend of many kinds. They will change to do what works best. Open to different ways of doing things.
And, I also have an affection for them because some of my former students, who became close relationships - we stay in touch, and I love helping them because I think...the quote I give them all the time is, "the future of the world depends upon the relationship between the United States and China." And we have so many leaders, from both countries, at this institution. It's a great opportunity to talk about a better world - for everyone.
Of all the universities in the world, Illinois provides a unique opportunity for the United States and Chinese relationships to develop in a positive way. There is a possibility for the future.
On being part of the global Illini Nation:
The University of Illinois is like an island in an ocean of cornfields. There is an incredible culture on this little island. The whole world comes here. Incredible music, dance, sports, theatre, arts, and education - in all of these different, fascinating areas.
Several students became so interested in some of the research being done here, and some of the questions being asked, that she came to school here [at Illinois]. And she was a master’s degree student in Kinesiology last year. We have had more than 2 or 3 students that come to visit and become so interested in the questions that they come back to school here. And some of them stay in touch with me afterwards and email me questions. Or just to say hello. It makes me feel good that I can help a little bit, you know? That I can show that what I’m doing is not earth-changing, it’s not a big thing, but they’re small things done with great compassion and care.
On how sport facilities at Illinois can invite deep conversations:
It’s different to learn about things when you’re visiting the venues and sites. When you see a place, a special place, and how it’s built - you get the feeling for things. If you visit a place and teach the history of that place, it’s very different than if you’re in a classroom, lecturing about history. If you can see it around you, and see it come to life, the questions have more meaning. So, I like to use the facilities as backdrops for stimulating ideas and questions. I’m not so much a lecturer, as I am a facilitator. I like to get people talking to each other.
I think sport and sport facilities are great icebreakers for other conversations of deeper meaning. Because people can come together around sport. When the ball is in the air, religion and politics don’t matter anymore. We can come together and have a healthy conversation. And then, maybe from that, develop some camaraderie and better understanding for each other.