GOSHEN — Stephanie Miller has been asked a lot lately if she had fun on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic. Her answer has surprised many.
“Not really. Like, sometimes we had fun. But like everyone is expecting it to be a vacation … no,” Miller said.
Miller is right: she wasn’t on a vacation. Instead, she was with 21 other Goshen College athletes, coaches and teachers on a three-week service trip to the country. They arrived in the Dominican Republic on May 8 and came back to Goshen at the end of the month.
The trip was part of the Study-Service Term (SST) program offered by Goshen College. SST is “a semester-long program that sends students … to developing countries. We emphasize service to a local community — and total cultural immersion,” according to the school’s website. Nearly 80 percent of the students enrolled at Goshen College do an SST program while attending school.
Since athletic seasons cross over semesters, however, athletes don’t get a chance to enroll in an SST program. That changed in 2016, however, when Goshen College developed a three-week program that teams could go on during the May term. The Maple Leafs baseball team were the first to use this new program, going to Nicaragua that year. The trip was a success, opening the door for future athletic teams to make the trip.
Miller, the women’s basketball coach at Goshen College, went to the Dominic Republic with nine of her athletes. The Maple Leafs softball program joined the basketball team, as coach Juliaclare Plezbert and nine of her players made the trip as well. Also accompanying the teams were two Goshen College professors, Doug Schirch and Maria Sanchez-Schirch.
The teams were originally scheduled to go to Nicaragua in 2018, but political tension in the country postponed the trip to 2019. With tensions still high, the trip destination was changed from Nicaragua to the Dominican Republic.
The two teams had an unpleasant introduction to the country upon arriving.
“We ended up taking a bus that was too small. Everybody was smashed together. There was no air conditioning, it was 95 degrees,” Miller said. “We all thought, ‘What have we gotten ourselves in to?’ We had to travel an hour from the airport on that bus … the conditions were rough.”
As the SST description on the Goshen College website states, the players were immersed into the culture of the Dominican Republic. They lived in a poverty-filled part of Santo Domingo, staying with host families that volunteered to house the athletes.
“Being so far away from home, the language barriers, adapting to a different lifestyle there. It was definitely mentally, physically and emotionally struggling,” women’s basketball player Graysen Cockerham said.
While there, both teams learned the culture of the Dominican Republic. They also worked on various service projects, including installing a basketball court at a local school.
“Standing on that basketball court after all day, serving this community … the excitement the kids had watching us, and the connectivity between my players and the softball players — you didn’t feel it until it was the end,” Miller said. “You just were hot, sweaty, tired and not awesome — until it was awesome.”
“That was definitely one of my favorite things we got to experience while down there because you could see the children peeking out the windows and through the fences to see what was going on. That was very fulfilling,” Cockerham added.
Being able to see her team bond over the three weeks was rewarding for Plezbert, who just finished her first season as the Maple Leafs softball coach.
“There were definitely challenging times but it was great seeing my girls uncomfortable and growing right in front of my eyes,” Plezbert said. “We found out more about who we are as individuals, we got to learn about another culture and we got to make strong bonds with amazing people.”
The teams also played against local university teams from the Dominican Republic. This was another eye-opening experience for Miller.
“There was something very profound about the sport being a language of its own. We spoke English, they spoke Spanish, but we were able to roll the basketballs out and understand the common language of sport,” Miller said. “There was something really neat about that where we didn’t need words.”
Plezbert echoed Miller’s sentiments.
“Playing softball was an entire experience of its own. The university's hospitality made it feel like we were celebrities. The teams were passionate and you could tell they truly loved the game of softball,” Plezbert said.
While it may not have been the vacation everyone thought they were going on, the trip ended up being more important than just spending three weeks on the beach.
“It was definitely a humbling experience,” Cockerham said. “And I think, for the most part, it changed our outlook on life and the privileges we have in the United States that we aren’t even aware of when you’re living in it.”
“Was it fun? Not at the beginning. But when you see what you did, that was fun,” Miller added. “Ultimately, the way I would describe the trip was that it was a lot of hard work, a little fun, but mostly an eye-opening and meaningful experience.”
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN