A Place to Call Home: Get to Know SWB's New Executive Director
(Top left) Jennifer with her paternal grandmother, sister, and brother. (Top right) Jennifer's maternal grandmother with her sister and brother. (Bottom left) Jennifer, making bunny ears behind her aunt and sister. (Bottom right) Jennifer with her mother, left, and her aunt, center.
Soccer Without Borders is thrilled to welcome Jennifer Tepper as our new Executive Director. Jennifer brings a wealth of professional and lived experience and a passion for SWB's mission to this role. In her own words, Jennifer shares her journey from newcomer to soccer player, dedicated advocate and nonprofit leader to her new role as SWB’s ED.
I came to Hyattsville, Maryland when I was 2 years old. There, my mother, who spoke no English, raised me in a home where Mandarin was the native tongue. My father had landed a job as a junior engineer in Hyattsville and was hoping to give his family a better and more stable life than the one he knew. By the time I was able to go to Kindergarten, we had moved to Beltsville, MD and I went to Calverton Elementary School, where I had my first exposure to ESOL classes.
I had a little sister by then and my mother, who did not know English at the time, would place us in front of Sesame Street and tell us to learn as much as we could from that show so that we could eventually learn how to read and write.
It was imperative that I, as the first born in the generation, succeed in this new world. Not only because my parents wanted what was good for me, but because it would indicate that all of the sacrifices they had made for me to be raised in this country were worth it.
My father was raised in constant, involuntary transience. His father and his mother escaped China when Mao Tse Tong took power and started a family in Taiwan. My grandparents worked their way from the bottom to the top. And my grandfather, due to his engineering prowess, quite literally became Taiwan’s best railroad engineer, building the Taiwanese railroad system that transports goods and people from East to West on the island.
While growing up, my father traveled all around. He had little stability and nowhere to truly call home. This was further exacerbated when he was 17, when his mother sent him and his three siblings to Boston’s Logan Airport on one-way tickets. She heard rumors that the education in Boston was better than any other place in the world and she didn’t want her children to miss out.
My father did not know English, he did not have any relatives in the United States, and he had very little money. He washed dishes and bussed tables to make ends meet. While there, he would eventually meet someone who told him he needed to sit for the SATs. Miraculously, despite not earning a single point in the English section, he and his sister both got a perfect score on the math portion of the exam! This was enough to get them into Lowell Tech, where they both followed in my grandfather's footsteps and got engineering degrees.
This is what led us to Hyattsville. My father brought my mother and myself on the promise of a more stable life–a place that we could truly, finally call home.
Everything was okay when I was little, life at home was full of fun and adventure. But as I got older, cultural differences began to appear. The expectations of my family diverged from the expectations of my school system. For example, the culture of American youth is filled with extracurricular activities and a focus on pursuing happiness and dreams. My culture at home was about doing my duty, about making my family proud, and about concentrating solely on academics. This, according to my family, was going to help me lead a prosperous life in the future. To them, studies were not about one’s interests and passions. Instead, they were solely about a career that would ensure financial stability for myself, my family, and our future generations.
I learned early on that as long as I could do well in school–get straight As and get rave reviews from my teachers–I could convince my parents to give me a bit of freedom to pursue hobbies that gave me joy. I could go on bike rides around the neighborhood and play with friends. Up until the age of 12, I never knew that there were actual organized activities like sports where I could gain friendships and build community. I learned that there were opportunities to be part of something special, something more than just a bunch of kids playing in the neighborhood.
I distinctly remember the moment where this realization came to me: I was a 12 year old student in my middle school gym class, learning about soccer for the first time. My PE teacher tried to teach me how to dribble with the outside of my foot, a technique that seemed so odd and felt so unnatural. With a bit of determination and a lot of overthinking, this unusual motion promptly led me to fall on my face.
At first I was embarrassed, but it didn’t take long for my shame to give way to my laughter. It was there where my competitive instinct came full force…and heck if I wasn’t going to master this new skill! It was this same drive that earned me a place on the White Oak Middle School soccer team. The team, coached by Mr. Wylie, was my very first. It was not only my first time as part of a team, it was the first time that I truly felt like I could be my whole, authentic self.
I was Jennifer. I was a player, a teammate, a friend, and a person others could depend on. I was not just someone studying to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a journalist (my parents really wanted me to be the next Connie Chung!) I was not just serving a role–playing a part. I was one part of a larger whole. I was connected with those who embraced me and saw all sides of me. As a teammate, I felt like I belonged.
Soccer provided me with a sense of being part of something bigger than myself, while simultaneously enabling me to be fully connected with my inner self. It allowed me to understand what I did well and what I needed to work on. It allowed me to know that as I improved, the whole team improved–how each micro-action will beget a micro-reaction, changing the culture of our team. These are the dynamics that can turn trailing at halftime to winning the game.
Further still, the game of soccer has the ability to transform a pitch full of scattered, individual women looking for a purpose, into a united group of believers–those who believe in the power of collective action, who believe in one another, and who believe in themselves. Soccer demonstrates how one can truly do whatever they put their hearts and minds to, both on and off the field.
I found that when I experienced all of this humanity in teamwork, leadership, strategy, emotional connections and joy amidst complete diversity, (my teammates were from El Salvador to Mexico to the United States and so many other cultures, coaches from Trinidad and Tobago, Africa, USA, England, just to name a few) I felt at peace. I was experiencing what peace looks like: humanity amidst diversity.
If there is one organization that embodies these values, if there is one organization whose mission emulates the chance to find and reach one’s potential, and if there is one organization that provides a consistent space where countless youth and coaches can find acceptance, family, community, potential, hope, and peace…then Soccer Without Borders is that organization. It is the summit of my adventures.
I am excited to now call SWB home. As I leave my shoes at the door, I will bring my most genuine (albeit crooked) smile to every meeting, every training session, and every learning moment. I will bring my personal experience of growing up as a newcomer, something which many of our youth can relate to. I will bring a myriad of professional knowledge and leadership to our community.