The Collegian
Thursday, February 29, 2024

Spiders in Costa Rica: Expanding the Web beyond DEI

<p>Spiders pose for a photo in San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics.&nbsp;</p>

Spiders pose for a photo in San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics. 

When you ask, “What did you do over fall break,” the expectation isn’t hiking seven miles in indigenous Costa Rican land, visiting banana plantations and witnessing a solar eclipse, among other adventures – all packed into just four days. 

Over fall break in October, eight University of Richmond student-athletes embarked on a journey to Costa Rica to gain a comprehensive understanding and cultural awareness of sports' role in sustainable development and social justice.  This trip was made possible by a partnership between The Office of International Education’s EnCompass Program and the Department of Athletics’ Global Leadership Immersion program. 

Logan Anderson, a senior from the women’s soccer team, and DeLonnie Hunt, a senior from the men’s basketball team, reflected on their unique experiences in Costa Rica during UR’s fall break. They said the goal was to apply their gained insights to enhance the student-athlete experience through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives in Spider Athletics.

Spiders began the trip by visiting the Tecnológico de Costa Rica, a public university in Cartago, a city southeast of San José. The university is known for its focus on engineering, advanced research and sciences. TEC, the hosting venue for the 2022 FISU World Forum, includes various organizations, including the Program for Sports Management Technicians under the School of Culture and Sports, which partners with the National Olympic Committee. 

Spiders met with representatives from TEC and other student-athletes from various athletic teams and engaged in a conversation surrounding ecotourism strategies aimed at decreasing the environmental impacts at sporting events. Additionally, they used this time to learn how TEC uses sports as a facilitator of development, peace, and the promotion of tolerance and respect, as well as how Costa Rica has “goals in matters of health, education, and social inclusion”, according to the Costa Rica 2022 FISU World Forum

Spider student-athletes then met with Rosaura Méndez, the FISU Executive Committee member, and other TEC coaches to discuss the philosophy of integrating athletes into their institution as a means of fostering global societal integration. Students at TEC are mandated to be involved with sports in some way to earn their degree. This concept highlights the unique approach to integrating sports and education, aligning their philosophy of societal inclusion and holistic development.

Anderson shared her uncertainty about managing up to two varsity-level sports alongside the rigorous academic demands at a top-tier university in Costa Rica. She compared TEC’s program to the intensity that student-athletes face at UR while just handling a single varsity sport alone. 

Nevertheless, she applauded their work ethic, describing a brief encounter with one of the TEC soccer captains, who seemed content and with a positive outlook despite the lack of resources and program funding for athletes at TEC. TEC’s structure is quite different from the NCAA divisional structure here in the United States. 

On the last day of the program, the Spiders visited a local elementary school, organizing a clinic for visiting high school students. They played a 5x5 basketball game, and afterward, the Spider student-athletes delivered the principal and athletic coaches bags of donated soccer balls and basketballs. Expressing their gratitude, the administrators emphasized the positive effect these donations would have on enhancing the school's physical education programs.

“It was just so rewarding, and it shows that no matter the differences, sport can bring people together,” Anderson said, reminiscing about playing with the children. “No matter where you come from, or who you are, in one arena, you're all there for the same purpose because you support the team, either team. It was really special to be able to bond with them, across language barriers.”

Hunt emphasized the importance of integrating youth into learning new sports as a way to empower and develop their sense of identity, strength, and independence. He explained how youth who had not been exposed to athletics prior were eager to learn more.

When reflecting on one of his most memorable moments, Hunt shared a vivid moment from the third day of the trip, revolving around Afro-Costa Rican identities, culture and history. The Spider student-athletes took on a seven-hour hike within the Indigenous Territory of Kéköldi, home to one of the four Bribri communities located in the Talamanca-Caribe biological corridor

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Hunt described how they saw a broad spectrum of experiences beyond the economic conditions in the local school they visited. The land has rich reforested areas home to timber, medicinal fruit species, as well as cocoa and palm plantations.

Hunt said the community members were dedicated to preserving their indigenous heritage and their active participation in land conservation and reforestation efforts. During the hike, the tour guide briefly touched on the exclusivity of this experience due to the sensitivity surrounding different groups infringing upon their land and rainforests. 

After the challenging yet rewarding two-and-a-half-hour trek through the rainforest, the journey led the students to a beautiful waterfall. As it was once a ceremonial site for healing rituals, Anderson and Hunt explained how it now serves as a rejuvenating and well-deserved stop for the hikers during the excursion. The Spiders indulged in a traditional home cooked meal made by members of the community and then trekked two hours back to the home base.

 Both Anderson and Hunt described how eye-opening it was to see the socio-economic differences between the residents of Kéköldi and the lives of students at UR. 

“It makes you grateful for the little things,” Anderson said, referring to the challenges faced by the locals in securing fundamental public health necessities such as clean drinking water, running water, access to hot water, adequate clothing and footwear— as many were observed walking barefoot. 

Anderson mentioned that the Kéköldi locals, however, were happy and fulfilled, living with a strong emphasis on community, environmental stewardship and a lifestyle unique to their cultural values, distinct from prevailing norms in the U.S.

Hunt echoed Anderson’s perspective and said, “They seem very happy and satisfied. That was one thing that also made me appreciate it more – appreciate my life more. Someone can always have less, but if you appreciate it so much, you don't have that much to complain about.” 

He explained his gratitude for having shelter and adequate food to eat despite the challenges of balancing academics and athletics. 

“We are getting an education that many people would die for,” he added, reflecting on how going on the Indigenous hike and visiting the local schools reaffirmed the gratitude and appreciation for necessities that some may take for granted.

As the trip drew to a close, Anderson aimed to integrate lessons learned from Costa Rica into the advancing DEI initiatives within Spider Athletics. She hopes more international programs and additional conference trips will be offered in the near future, acknowledging scheduling constraints for athletes with practices and competitions. Anderson hopes to seek more pathways that accommodate student-athlete participation, ensuring equitable access among all UR students, she said.

This year's fall break immersion trip to Costa Rica was made possible through a partnership with OIE’s EnCompass Program, which targets students who are typically underrepresented abroad – particularly student-athletes and minority students. Students who are involved with the Student-Athlete Color Alliance were encouraged to apply due to the EnCompass program’s goals of getting more participation abroad. 

Contact sports writer Aylin Bruce at aylin.bruce@richmond.edu. 

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