Academics, service-learning put Dominican Republic experience in perspective

During Elon University’s Thanksgiving break, members of the baseball team traveled to the Dominican Republic to study the Caribbean nation’s culture, economy and affinity for baseball as part of the “Globalization in Contemporary Sport” class.

During its global experience course in the Dominican Republic, the Elon University baseball team visited the Kansas City Royals academy, where the Elon players and Latin players were paired for several team-building activities, including a photo scavenger hunt. 
​Nick Zammarelli ’17, an Elon University baseball player and one-time draft pick of the Boston Red Sox, learned firsthand that affection for America’s pastime extends far beyond our nation’s borders.

As one of 34 student-athletes participating in the Phoenix baseball team’s global experience in the Dominican Republic, the sport and event management major and his teammates traveled over Thanksgiving break to study the Caribbean nation’s culture, economy and interest in baseball.

What he also encountered were enthusiastic baseball players – just like him, only a few years younger – overcoming immense obstacles to pursue their big league dreams. Their dire circumstances included haphazard living conditions, little access to educational opportunities, and modest baseball equipment – if any at all.

“I have so much respect for these players because of what they are going through and because of their love for baseball,” Zammarelli said. “For them, baseball is a way to potentially support their family, which is why it is more than a game to them.”

During the weeklong excursion, the Elon baseball players and coaches visited cultural and tourism sites in the Dominican Republic, toured Major League Baseball team academies, and hit the diamond themselves, hosting youth clinics and playing scrimmages against local competition.

The global experience also included a classroom component titled “Globalization in Contemporary Sport,” led by Mark Cryan, assistant professor of sport and event management. Leading up to and during the class in the Dominican Republic, students in the two-credit course studied topics relating to economic, political, societal and cultural effects of sport in a global age.

According to Cryan, the class met once a week after fall break and involved reading and writing assignments delving into topics ranging from Dominican Winter League baseball to the global commodity chain. Once on the island, the student-athletes wrote reflective papers detailing what they observed.

Nick Zammarelli ’17 assists a boy during a youth clinic in the Dominican Republic. 
Back stateside, the class reconvened to discuss the students’ summary reflective papers and final position papers, highlighting issues they saw and what solutions might exist. Position paper topics debated if MLB should improve academy conditions and/or offer education programming, and should the Dominican government allow kids to sign contracts at the age of 16.

“What we really want students to get out of study abroad is to understand the rest of the world, and we want them to see how the rest of the world lives,” Cryan said. “By interacting and visiting with local people, getting to know them, the experience makes a huge impact.”

For Zammarelli, the coursework provided a solid foundation for his experience abroad, preparing him for the culture, people and meager living conditions he encountered. But he added that the country’s poverty “doesn’t really hit you until you see it with your own eyes.”

This was never truer then when the baseball team conducted its service-learning project at a baseball academy outside Boca Chica.

The players painted the interior and exterior of an academy bunkhouse, home to a dozen teenage baseball players. Zammarelli described it as a “shack-like building that had no running water, no lights, and had holes all over the walls.” The Dominican teenagers didn’t have uniforms, wore ripped cleats or just plain sneakers, and had few pieces of equipment. In fact, in the afternoon the Elon students and Dominican teenagers played an impromptu baseball game using just a plastic ball and an old aluminum bat.

As part of the experience, the Elon student-athletes worked closely with the Latin players to improve their English language skills. Photo courtesy of @ElonBaseball on Twitter
​“It honestly broke my heart when we got off the bus and walked inside the place where they were living. I could not imagine living like these strong young men do,” Zammarelli said. “That day will always be in the back of my mind and will be a constant reminder about how blessed I am and I know the rest of the team feels the same way.”

Add Cryan, “Our Elon students were really impacted by seeing the conditions these young baseball players live in. They are willing to endure so much to pursue their goal of playing in the big leagues.”

With a few weeks to reflect on the global experience, Cryan and Zammarelli both said they grew from the opportunity to see and study the world beyond Elon’s campus.   

​“What I enjoy about teaching the course is the chance to get to spend time with our students as they learn about new parts of the world,” the professor said. “It strengthens them and it strengthens my teaching as well. You bring back new and fresh ideas to the classroom. It opens up the world for our students, and it opens up the world for those who teach the courses.” 

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