Study Abroad Class Gives Basketball Trip an Academic Focus

Sept. 11, 2023

On a whirlwind trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the Wildcats basketball team combined games and practices with visits to ancient archaeological sites and cultural experiences.

As the professor on the journey, it was up to Rob Stephan to provide the study part of the study abroad trip, focusing on the historical and cultural context to enrich the first-hand travel experiences.

“When you talk about different cultures and religions coming together and intersecting in fascinating ways that have made such a lasting impact on the world, I’m not sure I could come up with a better place anywhere in the world to explore the concepts,” he said.

An Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, Stephan prepared lectures and readings ahead of time for the students, and outlined what would be required for the final project, encouraging them to dive in early.

“In my experience traveling, if you know a little bit about what you’re doing to see, it makes that place far, far more interesting,” he said.

Since 2019, the College of Humanities has partnered with Study Abroad and Arizona Athletics on summer trips that blend NCAA-sanctioned international competition with educational and cultural components. Past trips have included Japan (Women’s Tennis), Germany (Women’s Volleyball), and Spain/Italy (Women’s Basketball). This year, the men’s basketball team spent six days in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and four days in Abu Dhabi.

Stephan said he typically teaches student athletes in his general education Classical Mythology course, which is similar in terms of introduce people, who have very little background, to the history and culture of an area halfway across the world from thousands of years ago.

The course for the trip, Public and Applied Humanities 371: Intercultural Competence: Culture, Identity, Adaptation, and Intercultural Relations, was designed to help students develop their cross-cultural understanding, empathy and collaboration in a global context.

“The intercultural competence aspect is essentially getting students to learn how to engage with different cultures in a meaningful way,” Stephan said. “The way I built the course starts with an introduction to those concepts and it migrates from there to looking at how different cultures in the Holy Land have intersected and built upon each other and collaborated and been in conflict over the course of the last 3,000 years. That way, we can explore what’s going on today, but also how cultures over the course of several millennia have been engaging.”

All the student athletes were enrolled in the course, but the two student managers decided to enroll as well. Being part study abroad, part team building and part basketball exhibition, the 10-day trip was scheduled practically down to the minute, starting from the moment the team hit the ground with a visit to City of David, one of the oldest archaeological sites in Jerusalem.

“Within about two hours of being on the ground, landing at Tel Aviv airport, we were getting a tour at an archaeological site. The students had been traveling for 24 hours and it was hot and they’re hungry and even after all that, they were asking really good questions,” Stephan said. “Rarely have I been so impressed with a group of students. From day one, I found them very engaged in what they were doing.”

The study abroad itinerary also included stops at the Dome of the Rock, one of the oldest Islamic structures in the world; the Western Wall, the last remaining fragment of a 2,000-year-old Jewish temple complex; and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, dating back more than 1,600 years, and the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection according to Christian tradition.

“I’m learning a lot,” said senior Keshad Johnson. “It’s just an eye-opening experience all in all, seeing where Jesus was born, where he was crucified, where he was arrested and everything like that, that’s crazy. It’s something that brings all cultures and all races together.”

As an archaeologist, Stephan has conducted field work in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, and traveled personally to Turkey and Egypt, but on this trip, he got to visit some important sites for the first time.

“I’ve filled in the map all the way around Israel, but I’d never been there before,” Stephan said. “As an archaeologist, just for my own edification, getting to go there was a thrill.”

In addition to preparing lectures ahead of time and getting to discuss the sites with students as they visited, Stephan also participated in team meetings, which were split between basketball and academics.

“They’d watch film for 15 minutes, breaking down their next game, and then Coach Lloyd would say ‘Professor Rob, come up and let’s talk about what we saw and why it was important,’” Stephan said. “I was impressed at the amount of time they spent at historical, cultural and archaeological sites on the trip. It was intensive on the cultural front, in a really good way. It was very interesting to see the different responses to being there. Some players had traveled internationally for basketball pretty regularly already, but that wasn’t the case for everybody.”

This year’s roster features eight players born outside the United States, representing England, Estonia, Lithuania, Mali, Serbia, Spain and Sweden.

“Going around to those sites and reflecting on them together, the trip was as much team building as it was the mechanics of basketball,” Stephan said. “Having those bonds and building that team is very important for the basketball aspect, so it was cool seeing the cultural aspects of the trip contribute to that as they learned and reflected about what they’d seen and how it impacted their own lives.”

While the players were on the court, Stephan got the opportunity to enjoy the games as more than just another fan.

“To get to watch the students in my course go be so successful at this other thing was profoundly rewarding,” he said.

The course is ongoing, with students now working on their final projects. The capstone assignment is to select which of the sites they visited was most personally impactful, for whatever reason, for a deep research dive. Each student will build a website about that site, presenting the historical and cultural background, including how different groups have interacted with that site over time. Lastly, they’ll reflect on their own experiences, including what it was like to visit and why was it meaningful, presenting their own photos and video.

“The hope is that the deep dive into the specific sites makes everything sink in, but also that they create something and have their own lasting artifact to remember the significance of the trip,” Stephan said.

See original story by the College of Humanities