By: Ryan T. Blystone, Inside USD
The 2014-15 men’s basketball season isn’t until November, but preparations for what’s hoped to be a strong year for the University of San Diego actually began last fall.
That’s when standout Torero guards Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson went to Coach Bill Grier to ask about the possibility of this year’s team taking an international summer trip. The trip request, which the NCAA allows teams to do once every four years, was intriguing. Grier knew it would require creative planning, financial resources and he wanted the destination to be more substantial than when his 2010-11 team went to Vancouver.
“That trip served its purpose, but from a cultural standpoint, it was still North America,” Grier said of the August 2010 trip. “Even though there’s a difference when you cross the border and it’s a different country, it’s not the same.”
It won’t be the same in August 2014.
After months of discussion and planning with university input, the team, coaches, staff and Theology and Religious Studies Professor Florence Gillman leave August 12 for an 11-day trip to Italy. It’s a life-changing trip for the participants — most have never been to Europe — but this also opens the door for more USD student-athletes to have a study abroad experience.
The team has spent the bulk of the summer taking a religion course, Early Christianity, with Gillman, on campus. The trip will complete the course. Players will continue the learning process via tours, by recording what they see by way of photos they take and keeping a journal. A final exam is set for Aug. 22.
“This is an awesome opportunity. It’s a blessing that this is happening and that it worked out the way it did,” Dee said. “We’re excited to play some basketball games, visit sites, see the history and learn about culture in a different part of the world.”
Said Grier: “I heard about the DePaul women’s (basketball) team getting college credit for retracing the steps of St. Vincent de Paul and it got me thinking. I talked with Shaney (Fink, senior associate director of athletics) and that’s when she got the idea of doing this through the study abroad program. That’s how the class evolved. For me, I look at it as they’re doing the work in class, but they also get to see what they’re studying. What an amazing experience for our guys.”
Study abroad is a USD fixture. The university has been ranked among the nation’s best for undergraduate study abroad participation percentage, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual data report, for the last five years. One way to maintain USD’s ranking is to reach underrepresented student populations.
“By providing our student-athletes the opportunity to participate in study abroad programs, we are expanding the reach of international education in a way that often gets overlooked on college campuses,” said Kira Espiritu, director of USD’s undergraduate study abroad program. “Usually, when people think of underrepresented populations, they think of first-generation college students or see it from a financial perspective. In this case, the underrepresented are an athletics team.”
This isn’t the first time a USD team has done a summer international trip. Women’s basketball traveled to Australia in 2007 and men’s soccer went to Ireland in 2012. Both trips were great for team bonding and a catalyst for success. Women’s basketball won the West Coast Conference Tournament title and played in the NCAA Tournament. Men’s soccer won the WCC title and reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
While basketball is the avenue to make the Italy trip possible — the program is getting a jump on the 2014-15 season with official practices now and the upcoming exhibitions — the bigger impact goes beyond the sport.
“Everyone’s been asking me ‘who are you playing?’ but to me it’s not really about the games,” Grier said. “Sure, it’s great that we get to play. The level of competition will be across the board. To me, though, it’s the 10 days of practice we get to jumpstart our season, the time our guys get to spend together, and the chance to be in a different country and experience what they’ll see there. The games are low on the priority list.”
Dee (pictured) said the summer course has been interesting and aligns with his interests. “Early Christianity, for me, is deeply rooted in my beliefs and faith so it’s been awesome learning how it all got started in the first century, that second century and we’re getting to Constantine making it the official religion of Rome.”
The course is fun for Gillman, too. “I’m looking forward to the trip with great enthusiasm. The students are well prepared and should experience our many excursions and cultural activities with a strong sense of knowing what they’re looking at.”
Gillman will also enhance her research. “I’m fascinated by ancient Rome and early Christianity as it developed there, so returning to the many sites I’ve studied for so long is a chance to see familiar situations anew and think about them ‘in place.’ During our free time, I’ll do specific historical and archaeological checking on the Palatine Hill for a book I’m writing on a Herodian princess mentioned in the New Testament book of Acts, Berenice.”
Likewise, planning the group’s trip schedule provides balance.
“One of my favorite things about working at USD is everyone’s willingness to be creative and collaborative,” Fink said. “I met with Kira and she was so enthusiastic about the concept. We immediately started knocking ideas around. We knew we wanted to go to Italy and upper-division theology was a remaining core course for most of the guys and it all fell in line.
“I love that this trip gives our student-athletes an opportunity to have a study abroad experience and for our coaches to see up close the USD classroom experience,” Fink continued. “The fact that the course is religious studies provides an environment for critical and stimulating discussion that’s going to bring the whole team closer and set the stage for our new guys on what it means to be a student at USD.”
Said Gillman: “I think one of the most special experiences we’ll have is the tour of ‘the Scavi.’ It’s the area some 60 feet underneath St. Peter’s Basilica where the archeology concerning the tomb of St. Peter has been carried out. It’s rare to get on this tour and we’re doing it.”
The USD group will visit Rome, Naples, Florence and Pompeii. The game in Naples is part of a full day. They’ll conduct a youth skills clinic on a Navy base there, followed by a game and a post-game barbecue with the military community.
That’s one of the 11 days of this trip, but it’s part of something that’ll be cherished forever by the participants.
“It speaks to how great this school is,” said Dee, who looks forward to visiting St. Peter’s Basilica to learn more about his favorite apostle, seeing the Colosseum and other historical sites. “I think of all the opportunities I’ve had at USD and all the memories I’ve made. Going to Italy is the icing on top. We’re going there as a team. The guys I love the most and spend the most time with, we’re doing something together that I’ll always remember. I’m very thankful to USD for making this happen.”
— Ryan T. Blystone