Burnt River coach Tonia Humbert is flanked by last year's international volleyball team
Burnt River coach Tonia Humbert is flanked by last year's international volleyball team

In the northeastern part of Oregon, in a town aptly named “Unity,” Tonia Humbert brings a volleyball team together every year for Burnt River HS. The players don’t usually know one another beforehand and they don’t often win on the scoreboard, but the experience of wearing the Bulls jersey, for most, is unforgettable.

Declining enrollment in Unity, a town of fewer than 70; and at the high school, usually means that 40 percent or more of the school’s enrollment consists of foreign exchange students. They come to this part of Oregon to learn and work at the Burnt River Integrated Ag/Science Research Ranch. They are motivated students eager to participate in a quality natural resource and agriculture-based curriculum.

Sometimes, Humbert, who also is the school’s Athletic Director and track & field coach, doesn’t have any native Oregonians who come out for volleyball. The total coed population of the high school last year was 24, only 14 of whom were state residents. So she has to recruit from the exchange student population. There’s only so much time in the fall – most years -- to cobble a team together and hold a few practices before matches begin, so Humbert needs to work quickly and be persuasive.

“There is definitely a degree of initial resistance to some of the students in terms of sports participation,” she explained. “I encourage all of them to at least give it a chance. If they participate for a while and then definitely decide it’s not their thing, so be it. However, most of them begin to really enjoy participating and realize that it is a huge and rewarding part of a traditional high school experience. They end up treasuring the experience for years to come.”

Last fall, the Burnt River Bulls volleyball team had a total of six players. They were all exchange students, from Russia, China, Thailand, Mexico, Germany and Kyrgyzstan. Only one had ever played organized sports in her home country. Coaching was done in English but, given the various proficiencies with the language, Humbert could never take for granted that her players knew precisely what she was saying, especially if she used sports-related terms and phrases.

The team did not win a match. It was a first in Humbert’s coaching career. While it was tough for Humbert, an extremely competitive person by nature, to accept, “I can honestly tell you that it was one of the most enjoyable seasons that I had ever coached,” she said. 

“Years ago, when the dynamics of Burnt River athletics began to change, it required me to develop a very different perspective,” Humbert explained. “In terms of success, as a coach I now mainly focus on skill development, sportsmanship, and creating a love for the game. If I can accomplish those things successfully, we are winning.”

Despite the lack of objective success, Humbert said that Burnt River’s team never gave up and never let her give up on them.

“They came to practice mentally and physically prepared to do their best every day,” she explained. “We laughed together and had fun but never in way that took away from the objective of the sport. They knew that it was my expectation that they would improve skill-wise every day but they also reminded me that we could have a sense of humor about it. They taught me that those two worlds can coexist!”

Humbert was quick to stress that the exchange students do so much more for Burnt River than filling out uniforms. A few years back, she wrote a paper on multiculturalism that explained the impact the exchange students had on one another, the native student population and the surrounding community. Here it is, in pertinent part:

“As an educator, I am proud to say that my school consistently produces strong and capable students. These students are primed and ready to face a world full of challenges. In addition to mastery of current curriculum standards, they have been exposed to a high degree of multiculturalism. This is often not the case in rural school such as ours. We are unique in that our small district has hosted, on average, seven exchange students per year for the past decade. This does wonders to increase our level of multiculturalism in a small community in which, otherwise, it would be virtually non-existent.  The local students develop deep levels of friendship and respect with these visiting students. They learn to value and appreciate differences in cultural heritage.  Part of our open house each year consists of inviting the local community to watch multicultural presentations by the visiting students that highlight a variety of different cultures, religions, and the history of different races. Our school and community have embraced these students and they continue to this day to have close ties with our community. On a regular basis these students will return to the area, visiting from their home countries years after they have left. In a region of our state that may be considered ‘backwoods’ by some people’s estimate, our multiculturalism is rich and thriving. The culture and activities available at our school and within our community provide a positive experience for our visiting exchange students that through no set agenda, in effect, humanizes our country in the eyes of the world. It breaks down the stereotypes about our nation continually perpetuated in mass media and entertainment and shows them something closer to the reality of what American life is all about. The local students also benefit by becoming more in-tune to the current world events. When they hear news about issues in other nations, chances are that they may know someone living in that country. The personal connections they have to that area because of our visiting students make the current events become more relevant. As a result, they will become more educated and mindful of the world in which we share. At the end of the year every student, local and foreign alike has a deeper understanding of people as individuals.”