Senior Sam Gotham doubled up on baseball and Spanish this summer, practicing and sharing his favorite sport with locals while getting foreign language credit as he spent June 2 to Aug. 6 in San Jose, Costa Rica.
“I played more baseball this summer than I would have if I had stayed at home – we had practice every day,” Gotham said.
His Spanish language skills and cultural knowledge improved from both formal and informal instruction while abroad, according to Gotham.
“When you end up there, the first thing that you realize is that you can read and write, but conversation is so much different from the classroom,” Gotham said.
During June, Gotham practiced Spanish for four hours per day at Veritas University before baseball practice.
“You learn the grammar but you learn how to use it in a conversation, so there’s a lot of free talking, not just filling out a worksheet,” Gotham said. “And they teach you the Costa Rican slang, which goes along with learning about the culture.”
Augustana baseball head coach Tim Huber sees value in service abroad, having been on a mission trip to Nicaragua last year.
“Sam was able to experience a different culture and also play baseball,” Huber said. “I hope to take our team down there in the coming years.”
According to Gotham, his most striking experience in Costa Rica was his home stay.
“They place such value on relationships,” Gotham said. “So many times I would come home and there would be random people in my house and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my cousin or cousin’s cousin.’
“They would just stay for dinner, hang out and then go home,” Gotham said. “Here we don’t even know our cousin’s cousin.”
His acquired ability to understand and communicate in Spanish make up the most memorable moments for Gotham.
“I remember one dinner when there were some guests over, my host parent’s grandma and cousin,” Gotham said. “Normally when my host parents would talk to me, they would slow down a little bit. But that dinner was just a straight-up conversation. It was in Spanish and I was able to keep up with it, so it was cool to be like, ‘You know what, I can do this.’”
Gotham learned more than conversational skills – he helped with weekly baseball camps for youth.
“By the end, I was able to instruct them about baseball in Spanish,” Gotham said. “It was fun to realize that they understand what you’re saying, like ‘move your hands.’”
According to Gotham, the Beyond Study Abroad program hosted about 30 athletes this summer. The Beyond website also offers programs for basketball, football, soccer, softball, cross country, track and field and volleyball.
While the program planned two sight-seeing trips for Gotham, he used some of his free time in July to go white water rafting with other baseball players.
Gotham learned about cultural differences, especially regarding directions.
“We just plug our address into our smart phone and go from there, but they don’t have addresses,” he said. “They say ‘it’s in this section of the neighborhood, this many blocks away and the house with the red shutters.’”
For Gotham, it was a positive change of perspective.
“I stopped and thought, maybe that isn’t necessarily the worst way to do it—and you can say the same thing baseball-wise,” Gotham said.
“Baseball’s the same thing down there…so you’re able to joke around,” Gotham said. “There’s just a sense of team. You can tell that they’re just there to have fun, too, but they still want to win.”
Gotham also traveled to Nicaragua to play with local kids at an academy started by former Major League Baseball pitcher Dennis Martinez, the first Nicaraguan to play in the majors. While it was fun, it was also a sobering experience, as many of the 15 to 17 year olds were, as Gotham puts it, “playing for their lives.”
“They know that if they don’t make it, they’re going right back home, and Nicaragua’s really poor,” Gotham said.
Senior teammate Paddy Carroll acknowledges Gotham’s personal growth and contribution to a community different from his own.
“His trip to Central America allowed him to use his athletic tools and his bilingual abilities to help children learn the game,” Carroll said. “It was a great thing that he did for that community.”
Gotham recalled a favorite moment from his home stay when he helped his host brother with English.
“If he would get a word right, he thought it was the coolest thing,” Gotham said. “That’s a pretty cool feeling.”