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August 21, 2012

Culture Shock

By: Jimmy Robertson

Ten Virginia Tech student-athletes traveled to a poverty-stricken part of the Dominican Republic this summer to hone their leadership skills in a different culture

It was a sweltering, humid June day in one of the poorest sections of a relatively poor country, and both wrestler Devin Carter and volleyball player Cara Baarendse, two All-Americans at Virginia Tech in their respective sports, were enjoying a break from leading a camp, eating their lunch. Then, a few giggling, young children interrupted their solace.

In a matter of seconds, Baarendse and Carter found themselves engaged in a highly competitive game of ‘Duck, Duck, Goose.’ The kids laughed constantly throughout, and Carter, reserved as a person, found himself pulled out of his normal shell by smiles as bright as the ever-constant sun. By the end of the lunch break, he had developed a “secret handshake” with three of the kids, giving them the attention they craved and giving himself the warm feeling of making a difference.

Carter, Baarendse and eight other Virginia Tech student-athletes, including football players Derrick Hopkins and Zack McCray, volleyball player Liz Trinchere, women’s tennis player Carol Kahoun, women’s soccer player Katie DeTuro, men’s soccer player Nick Smirniotopoulos, women’s swimmer Meaghan Holloway and women’s track and field runner Madalyn Nuckols, all made a difference, spending 10 days in the Dominican Republic as part of a Virginia Tech-designed study abroad summer school course. The course, Self-Motivation and the Discovery of Leadership, focused on individual leadership skills and theories and was taught by Dr. Scott Geller, an Alumni Distinguished Professor at Tech and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the psychology department.

The course actually represented the latest step by the Virginia Tech athletics department to transcend the normal and break the stereotypes of both student-athletes and athletics departments in general. On a larger level, administrators at Tech want to reshape an athletics department into an entity that not only produces quality student-athletes on the field or the court who help win games – though that obviously remains a big part of the equation – but also one that produces leaders in society.

“We’re intentionally trying to foster leadership among our student-athletes,” said Danny White, who serves as the director of student-athlete affairs within the Tech athletics department and went on the trip to the Dominican. “We feel like things such as this study abroad experience in association with this course give them an opportunity to apply leadership. There is a great deal to learn about leadership, but it doesn’t happen if you don’t teach it and then give an opportunity to lead.”

White, Jon Jaudon, Tech’s associate AD for administration, Reyna Gilbert-Lowry, an assistant AD for student life, and Dr. Gary Bennett, the athletics department’s psychologist, have been spearheading this bold initiative. Jaudon went to the Dominican, too, to coordinate logistics, along with Katie Cross, an associate director in the Student-Athlete Academic Support Services office who also has been helping with the initiative.

The Tech athletics department started down this path when it instituted “Habitudes” last year. Habitudes is a curriculum designed by Dr. Tim Elmore, who founded Growing Leaders, a non-profit organization created to develop emerging leaders. His curriculum focuses on teaching leadership habits and attitudes through the power of an image, a conversation or an experience.

White, Jaudon, Gilbert-Lowry and Bennett taught the 10-week curriculum, which was a voluntary option for Tech’s athletics programs, and both student-athletes and coaches spoke highly of it.

“The curriculum focuses on character and values that serve as the foundation from which our students can display their skills,” White said.

Geller’s leadership course and the trip to the Dominican Republic represented the next step. The trip offered an opportunity to put psychology theories about leadership and self-motivation into practice, as the student-athletes would witness true poverty and work with young children who oftentimes are victims of that poverty.

In essence, this course was a perfect example of “service learning” – a method in which students learn formally in a classroom setting, but also get the practical experience of applying the knowledge within a community. Afterward, students reflect on their experiences. The goal is to motivate them to become engaged in making the world a better place.

“This was a new idea for us,” White said. “It’s an opportunity for them to learn how to lead and serve after being exposed to something they’d only read about in books.”

Experiencing the culture

The Tech contingent landed in the Dominican Republic on Friday, June 14, spending the first night at a resort in the popular tourist haven of Punta Cana. The next morning, they moved to The PUNTACANA Ecological Foundation, a facility that works in tandem with Virginia Tech on an array of projects – many related to the environment and sustainability.

Once settled there, they took a drive 15 minutes inland to the town of Veron. They had received a briefing from Ben Hulefeld, the logistical coordinator for the Caribbean Center for Education and Research, but nothing could have prepared them for what they saw.

“It’s like the two areas were separated by a wall,” McCray said. “On one side, you see the rich side of the island, with all the resorts, and then you see the most extreme poverty.”

The group toured the town’s “hospital,” much of which had been constructed by the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), a medical school that works in partnership with Tech. Roughly 200 patients visit this small clinic each day, with many of them being treated for HIV, as more than 88,000 Dominicans have tested positive for the virus. The emergency room consists of only a room and three tables. Expansion plans are in the works, with VCOM again leading the way.

Next came a visit to a public school. The situation wasn’t much better there. The classrooms consisted of anywhere from 30 to 70 kids, and classes only go through the eighth grade

“That’s all they get, unless they are fortunate enough to go to a university somewhere,” Trinchere said. “They have one or two classrooms per age group, and they all have to fit in one room. My mom is a teacher now, and if they have 25 kids, it’s like, ‘How am I going to handle this?’ These classrooms [in the Dominican Republic] will have, like, 40. It’s different there.”

On most days, the student-athletes went to their class during the evenings to discuss what they experienced. Shane McCarty, a graduate assistant for Dr. Geller, went on the trip and ran the class in the Dominican Republic. Any free time after that allowed them an opportunity to swim in the pool or lagoons nearby or just hang out.

The next day saw them visit the city of Higuey, the capital city of the province La Altagracia. They toured a church, and the females in the group were forced to cover up with colorful cloths so as not to expose bare legs. Again, this exposed them to a different culture.

After the church visit, Hulefeld led the group through a farmer’s market. Only this one didn’t fit the American perception.

Vendors sold fruit and vegetables, while others sold meat. There was dead meat everywhere, and the group saw guys chopping up cows and pigs in an area called “The Butcher’s Corner.”

The females felt uncomfortable, as the crowded aisles brought the group within close contact of Dominican males who made hissing sounds – the Dominican men’s way of trying to get the attention of females. The females among the Tech contingent made sure to stay close to the 300-pound Hopkins and the 250-pound McCray.

“That was probably the most shocking thing,” Trinchere said of the marketplace. “I was expecting a farmer’s market. A lot of the girls had trouble with that. It was a tight space, and the people were really forward. We were all walking pretty close to each other.

“It’s the culture. That was a test to the open mind. One thing I know – and a lot of the kids said the same thing – is that we wanted to keep an open mind and experience their culture. The market was the biggest test of that.”

Kids and camps

For the next two days, the group got involved and worked with a non-government organization called Deportes Para la Vida (sports for life). This organization uses sports as a means to teach health and life lessons to young children. In this case, a group of five men, led by a Peace Corps volunteer, used sports games to teach life lessons about AIDS and HIV and both drug and child abuse. More than 60 kids showed up for the camp, and the Tech student-athletes assisted both days.

The Tech contingent then held sports camps over the next three days. Every camp featured children from both the public schools in the area and an international school for the kids with wealthier parents. There couldn’t have been a bigger difference between the two groups for obvious reasons, and that forced Tech’s student-athletes to be creative in integrating the two groups of kids.

The course called for the 10 student-athletes to organize and run the camps – McCarty, White, Jaudon and Cross stayed on the sidelines, so to speak, to observe. On the first day, DeTuro, Smirniotopoulos and Holloway ran a soccer camp. The second day consisted of a volleyball camp coordinated by Trinchere, Baarendse and Carter. The last day, Hopkins, McCray and Nuckols ran a football camp. Kahoun organized the warm-ups for each of the sessions.

“It was exciting,” McCray said. “The first part of the week, they [the children] didn’t want to be there, and their parents were making them go. By the end of the week, they were bringing their friends. There were twice as many kids at the end of the week. It was nice – and inspiring.”

While running the camps, the student-athletes were able to draw upon lessons learned from the Habitudes curriculum, specifically, connecting with others. They relayed their experience to the images of chess and checkers – in checkers, all the pieces move the same way, but in chess, one moves each piece differently based upon its ability. So in the Domincan, they worked with two groups of children from different backgrounds, and they had to handle each group – and kid – differently to make the camps a success.

“At first, the international school kids were challenging because they were upper class and had a little bit more of an American attitude,” Trinchere said. “But then it worked out to be beneficial for us because they could translate because they had been taught some English at their school. Once they got past the ‘I’m too cool for this,’ stage, they were really able to help us communicate with everyone else. In the end, we found a role for them, and that was helpful.”

At the end of each camp, the Tech student-athletes used other concepts from their Habitudes classes to teach the young children about values, being a leader and life goals. The kids took to the concepts well, as most held lofty goals for themselves, such as being an astronaut or a policeman or the president.

“It was cool to integrate and be able to share some things that we had learned,” Smirniotopoulos said. “We were able to share some things that had helped us grow, and they seemed pretty responsive to the things we were telling them.”

The end of the third day of camps marked the end of the trip for the Tech contingent. Saying good-bye to so many children was the worst part of the trip for many. Following a day at the beach, the Tech group headed home – and more importantly to reflect on what they saw and learned.

Looking ahead

Days after landing in the U.S., Trinchere sat at her parents’ home in Salem, Va., slightly depressed. She felt sadness over leaving the Dominican Republic, anxiety over the fate of the children she played with and helped, and guilt that she didn’t do more.

“When I got home, my parents were like, ‘Did you have fun? You don’t seem happy,’” Trinchere said. “I told them that I feel a lot of different ways. Just leaving the kids and the DPV group was really hard. We knew they might not get a chance like this again. For us, it was an opportunity to do something fun with others. For them [the children], it might have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It wasn’t a big deal for us, but for them, it was.

“I was glad to be home, but at the same time, there wasn’t enough time. I feel like we could have done more.”

Smirniotopoulos echoed similar thoughts.

“You go from feeling sorrow at seeing so much poverty, and that transfers to guilt,” he said. “I don’t deserve all that I’ve been given, and why is it fair for kids to grow up in such poverty?

“But I could sit around and wish it were different, or I can use the opportunity that God has given me to do something about it. I knew the trip would have a powerful impact on me, but I didn’t know how powerful.”

The rest of the Tech student-athletes had similar responses – and it’s exactly what the Tech athletics department wanted when it worked with Geller to plan the course.

Of course, now, the big question for these student-athletes is this – what will you do?

“We see interrupted poverty all the time in America,” White said. “You can go to D.C. and see poverty for two blocks and then you see the homes of millionaires. But in Veron, you never see millionaires. It’s a place of uninterrupted poverty.

“So now the question is how are they [the student-athletes] going to lead and serve after being exposed to something that they had only read about?”

Only time will tell. But their reflections of the trip and the course lead one to believe the future is about to become a better place.

“I thought it was so unfair that I flew back into that comfort and luxury while I knew about all the poverty, misery and injustice going on in our world,” Kahoun said. “And talking about it with outsiders wasn’t satisfying at all because they just didn’t understand my attachment and the emotions I went through in those few days. Everything was so overwhelming.

“It has definitely impacted me a lot – and in many ways, too. I was inspired by the kids, I was struck by grief, I was filled with hope for a better future – I was simply blown away. People were right saying that this experience would change my life. I feel more competent to step up and be a leader in order to make this world a better place.”

The department administrators have made a big investment into developing future leaders and plan on continuing to do so. They hope to see 15 student-athletes go to the Dominican Republic each year for the next four years. Sixty student-athletes could come away feeling the way these original 10 felt.

Seventy student-athletes, in all, hoping to make the world a better place. Seventy student-athletes finding the leader within themselves.

For Tech, that’s something truly worth more than any victory on a field or on a court.

(For more insight on the trip, please read