CHARLESTON, S.C. - This summer, the College of Charleston women's soccer team enjoyed the remarkable opportunity to visit the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago to engage in exploration, team building, international fellowship, community outreach and, of course, the culturally-transcending game of soccer.
The once-in-a-lifetime trip sculpted the perspectives of the Cougars' 24-person travel party as they explored the country's diverse landscape and culture for 10 days and united as a team on a previously unknown level.
"This was an unbelievable trip for us," said head coach Christian Michner. "It was a chance for us to really get away and play some great games and do some things together as a group. The trip was way more than just soccer. We experienced so much down there."
The Cougars challenged their comfort zones as they explored a foreign landscape and met a culture they'd never been exposed to before. The team also worked at a wildlife refuge to protect and restore the wildlife habitats of the country.
"A lot of them had never spoken to an American before," said Cougar forward McCallie Jones. "I met someone on the boat who had never even spoken to someone outside of Trinidad and Tobago before, so it was cool bringing them that culture and being the first person for them to talk to."
"Everyone over there was so welcoming and genuinely excited to have us," said Toni Schneider, a senior defender on the 2012 Cougars. "All the people who met us from our hosts to our drivers were incredibly unique and amazing to be around. Seeing the sea turtles nest and working to improve the habitats of the nation's wildlife was also an impactful piece to take away from this experience."
Though the natives and their new visitors were initially foreign to each other, both parties quickly realized they were united by their love for the universal sport.
"Everyone's eyes lit up when we told them we played soccer," said rising senior Maryam Buazza. "They immediately wanted to come out and actually see us play which you don't get that often here in the U.S. with women's soccer. Over there, soccer is soccer and they just want to see you play. That was awesome to experience."
The team played seven games against the Trinidad and Tobago full national team, their U17 national team and several semi-professional city teams. The Cougar teammates quickly understood they were doing much more than kicking a ball around or comparing their talents on an international level, however.
The trip was an opportunity for these student-athletes to truly come to know each other away from the comforts of home and their other friends around the College community. This reliance on team and unity will remain with the players as they prepare for the 2012 fall season and beyond.
"This trip was a huge deal for us," said Jones, "especially with our chemistry, because some of the soccer there wasn't our best but as far as the team goes, we now all understand what we need to do together this season to accomplish our goals."
Perhaps the most lasting takeaway from the experience will be the bridging of two distinct cultures. Serving as ambassadors for their country and their College, the Cougars took themselves out of their element and away from their familiarity to see another part of the world and provide the Trinidadian and Tobagonian people with their first glimpses - at least for some - of a foreign culture.
"We knew going down there that we weren't just representing ourselves or our program," said Michner. "We were representing the College of Charleston and honestly, we were even representing America. A lot of the people's perceptions and what they will take away of Americans and, for us, for the College of Charleston is how we'd behave and hold ourselves accountable.
"It goes to show you how mature these young ladies are and the responsibility they have at such a young age. Even at 18 or 19 years old, they have a great sense of responsibility and a lot of the things they are doing will prepare them for life five years from now, 10 years from now or 40 years from now. They did a tremendous job so it makes it a real pleasure to coach these young ladies and coach at the College of Charleston."
Now back on American soil, the CofC women's soccer team is preparing for its 20th season of competition which begins on Saturday, Aug. 11 with an exhibition match against 2011 national semifinalist Wake Forest at Patriots Point.