Unique Summers Lead to New Perspectives for Two Student-Athletes

by Justin Long, Co-Director of Sports Information

Two Amherst student-athletes stepped away from the basketball court—and outside of the United States—for some eye-opening experiences this summer.

Three months removed from helping the Amherst women’s basketball team post the best season in program history, Caroline Stedman ’12 and Awah-Lem Atanga McCormick ’12—known as “Lem”—each embarked on a six-week journey. Stedman’s passion for community service led her to Costa Rica, while Lem complemented her preparation for medical school by studying in Madagascar.

Knowing that worrying about medical school would likely consume the majority of her junior and senior years, Lem wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad before it was too late. From June 1 to July 15 she woke at 6 a.m. to the deafening sound of roosters and the sun rising over a small lake in the city of Ivandry. She spent most days at the University of Antananarivo, where she took a series of two-hour science and public health classes that focused on traditional medicine and healthcare systems of Madagascar.

Lem Atanga McCormick '12 (left) stands with a classmate
on the edge of a cliff in rural Madagascar.

Several times each week Lem and her fellow students would tour hospitals, pharmaceutical institutes and laboratories to get a sense of Madagascar’s healthcare. Some hospitals had no working elevators—pregnant women had to be carried up stairs to give birth. Clean, sterile needles and gloves were not always available. In one clinic, soap was limited and there was no running water. One hospital had water-circulation problems, creating a nauseating smell of sewer waste. “It’s almost impossible to treat patients with little to none of the appropriate resources,” Lem says, “yet they do what they can.”

Lem has extensively studied biology and chemistry at Amherst, but this summer she added a unique dimension to her education. “When I apply to and attend medical school, I know that this experience will have provided me with a better rounded view of medicine as a whole. There truly are many layers to a substantial, all-inclusive education, and it always extends beyond the classroom.”

When Stedman learned of the possibility to donate her time in Costa Rica, she knew she had found her perfect summer gig. Despite making her first international trip, she felt comfortable as soon as she arrived. For the first 10 days she worked as an English teacher for the organization Abriendo Mentes (Opening Minds) in the small town of Playa Potrero. With the town’s students receiving minimal education, many cannot pass the exit exams that are required to graduate from high school. Abriendo Mentes established after-school English classes to supplement the usual schooling.

Stedman taught one-hour classes to kids and adults every day from 1-6 p.m. She helped with subjects ranging from numbers, colors and emotions (for the younger groups) to household chores and responsibilities (for the middle school children). The young students were very receptive. “The enthusiasm that beamed from their faces every day was so strong that I never felt drained from teaching. To see the joy just from reciting numbers or reading a sentence in English was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”

Caroline Stedman '12 with two students at Abriendo Mentes.

For the final five weeks Stedman worked with Beyond el Campo in the town of Santa Cruz de León Cortés, a rural farming community located in the mountains of Costa Rica. She helped run a literacy camp that aims to help severely under-resourced high school students. “In many rural Costa Rican communities, having a book is a luxury,” Stedman says. “While these kids are 10-15 years old, for many of them it was the first book they had ever read.”

Stedman also helped open a public library for the town. She organized approximately 800 donated books and trained community volunteers to use a computer system so that the library could remain sustainable. “Never in my life have I seen a library filled with so much energy. It serves as a symbol of progress in the town.”

Lem and Stedman recall moments that shifted their perspectives. For Stedman, one came when she and her host father were delivering food and clothing to families in need. Arriving at one run-down home, they were greeted by a mother who was battling cancer, a grandmother who was extremely ill and four young children. The women could not work because of their illness, but they could not afford to pay for treatments because they did not have jobs. When Stedman and her host father arrived at the house with two big bags of food, one of the little boys said, in Spanish, “How delicious. We are going to eat today.”

“Those words and that one day, I will surely never forget,” Stedman says.

Lem recalls the few days spent in the rural town of Andasibe with lower-income families. Water for showers was heated in buckets over a coal stove. The outdoor showers had no protection from the constant rain. Holes in the ground behind houses served as bathrooms. “The families did what they could to make us feel at home,” she says. “Despite their meager living conditions, they did not complain or long for a better situation. They made the best of what they had.”

This winter, fans will recognize Stedman as the reigning NESCAC Player of the Year, and Lem as a recurring headache for opposing teams (not many six-footers can knock down three-pointers the way she can). Unfortunately for their competition, they might be even more dominant this year. “I am determined to take what I have learned to achieve even greater results in my academic and athletic endeavors,” Stedman says. “I will take nothing for granted based on my experience in Costa Rica.”