The Goshen College softball team shakes hands with kids after a practice session in the Dominican Republic.

GC women athletes serve, learn and compete in the Dominican Republic

By Siana Emery

This May term, 18 Goshen College student-athletes from the women’s basketball and softball teams, along with two coaches and two professors, traveled to the Dominican Republic for the second-ever Study and Sports Abroad course.

The course was designed by Doug Schirch, professor of chemistry, and Maria Sanchez Schirch, former assistant professor of Spanish, to provide a study-abroad experience for student-athletes, whose schedules often don’t allow for the college’s traditional semester-long Study-Service Term (SST). Throughout the three-week span of the class, students lived with host families in Santo Domingo, taking language courses, experiencing informative lectures and field trips and competing against local teams.

The goal is to offer this program every year, alternating between women’s and men’s teams. In 2016, the GC baseball team traveled to Nicaragua as the pilot group for the course. The group from this year’s class was originally scheduled to go to Nicaragua in May 2018, but the class was cancelled last minute due to political unrest in the country. In the Dominican Republic, Sanchez Schirch found new families, Spanish teachers, lecturers and local teams, allowing the class to be rescheduled for this year. As in 2016, the Schirchs were the faculty leaders for the course.

The Goshen College women’s basketball team participates in a pre-game greeting in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s another alternative that provides students with an opportunity to do this when they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Stephanie Miller, head coach of the women’s basketball team. “A lot of the athletes really struggle with the SST program just in terms of timing. This was a choice for them.”

As with SST, immersion is a key factor to the program’s curriculum. While in the Dominican Republic, students spent three hours each morning in Spanish language classes. Afternoons were spent either in lectures or on field trips, covering topics such as agriculture, history and economy. Students were able to visit places such as the colonial center of Santo Domingo, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Classes, lunch and lectures were held at Colegio Evangelico Oriental, a Mennonite school, which also helped provide the host families for students.

Students were expected to speak Spanish while interacting with host families and Spanish was used during games.

“This is something that gives them the understanding of what it means to be immersed,” said Miller. “And I think they value that. I know I value that. You’re really absorbing a lot in a short period of time because you’re seeing it and experiencing it. Anytime you do experiential learning I think it’s a deeper level of learning.”

Emily Brandeberry, a member of the women’s basketball team, echoes this sentiment, noting that full immersion into a new culture is the most ideal way to fully appreciate it and learn. She notes that not only has her Spanish comprehension vastly improved, but she has created remarkable memories.

“I am so glad that God has directed me to meet so many amazing people in my life, and I am now fortunate that I have another family 1,700 miles from my home that will always be thinking of me,” she said.

Cassandra Espinoza at bat during a softball game in Santo Domingo.

In addition to classes, each team competed in five matchups in the Dominican Republic, playing against a combination of university teams and community club teams. Both the softball and basketball teams concluded the trip with a 4-1 record.

Juliaclare Plezbert, head softball coach, noted that while the opposing teams didn’t have the same quality facilities as we’re used to in the United States, she was amazed by their hospitality, pointing to a time when a team brought the Goshen players coconuts to drink from in the dugout.

“Their passion for the sport, and their excitement for us to come play them, it just made it a really cool experience and made you appreciate all the opportunities that we get in the states,” said Plezbert.

Following a game against a team representing the Universidad Abierto Para Adultos, a university in the coastal town of Nagua, both teams used the class blog to comment on the passion of the Dominican players. Plezbert said, “Although they don’t offer scholarships for their sports teams, their teams played with heart, determination and grace.”

Both teams also participated in a service project at the Jerico Christian School, located outside of Santo Domingo, where they spent a day painting a basketball court. A separate organization had funded the pouring of a concrete slab and the Goshen College students transformed it into a usable space for the students of the school.

Brandeberry said that this service project was one of her best memories of the trip.

“Our reward was seeing the kids gathered on the perimeter of the court in anticipation, waiting to see the finished product,” said Brandeberry.

GC women’s basketball and softball athletes paint a basketball court at Jerico Christian School, outside of Santo Domingo.

Plezbert explains that being immersed in a completely different culture allowed her to gain a perspective on her own life, and she believes the students had a similar experience. She noted that she was particularly impacted by seeing a different mindset of what is important in life.

“It’s family, having a roof over your head and community,” she said. She said it made her realize that even though we have so much more here, we are not any happier.

Despite the trip being only three weeks, as opposed to the full three-months of the traditional SST program, students and coaches alike agree that the experience had a deep impact, and that it provided students who wouldn’t otherwise go abroad with the growth that accompanies stepping out of your comfort zone.

“Probably the biggest takeaway is experiencing things that are just uncomfortable,” said Miller. “I think they’re memorable, I think they’re good. We’d be lying if we said it was all good and everything was great -  it was rough sometimes. I think this is highly important from the aspect that every kid needs to understand that failures and difficulties are what lead to successes and growth. I think what everybody is afraid of is the unknown. And that is exactly what everyone needs. It’s the very thing that we’re afraid of that actually ends up being the most rewarding.”