Hundreds of college and university teams take foreign trips in the summer, so the basketball part wasn't unique. What Drake is trying to do is complement such trips with a learning experience that, as Sandy says, can stretch athletes beyond what they thought were their limits.
"The value of our program is to be authentic, and I think you're the most authentic when you're completely out of your comfort zone, which we all were," Coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "So you can't help but grow closer if you can appreciate that and respect that from each other."
Drake began expanding its foreign trips when the football team went to East Africa in 2011. Players put on clinics, worked in community service, played a team from Mexico in the first American football game on the African continent and then climbed through vegetation, rock fields and snow to the top of 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.
Talk about an experience that stretches you.
Sandy accompanied the team on that trip, calling it a "very emotionally challenging time." One day, as some players worked at an orphanage, a baby was left at the doorstep. One of the players scooped up the child and Sandy will never forget the sight.
"There he was," she said, "tears running down from his eyes, holding this infant that was literally left on the doorstep."
In 2015, the men's and women's soccer teams played several matches and took a January term class in Guadalajara, Mexico. Jeff and Matthew Mitchell, associate professor of international business and strategy at Drake, taught that class as team members studied alongside local students and also heard from Mexican professors.
Other trips for Drake teams combining overseas competition with class work are being planned.
"It is our goal that all of our sports have this kind of experience," Sandy said.
In the class for the basketball team, Jeff covered areas such as economics, politics, social issues, national security and culture. The players also learned some basic Italian so they could get by in a restaurant or shop. He taught at the Shivers Basketball Practice Facility, making it convenient for the team to go to class immediately after their morning workouts. Players spent the afternoons and evenings relaxing and studying. Jeff gave an exam every Monday.
"I know they were studying for me at night because that's when the questions came through the email," he said.
It was an unfamiliar subject for most of the players and a challenge for Jeff, too, in tailoring the class to this particular group. He had students from all four years, which is rare in a college class, only one has a business-related major and it's unusual for Jeff to have a class without international students.
"I didn't change the content as much as I changed how I delivered the content," he said. "I used basketball as a context once or twice to teach some of the principles because I knew the students would be able to grab hold of that. So not so much the core content changed as the context in which we delivered it."
The last week of class, the players paired off to make presentations on topics that included the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and formation of the modern Italian state and contemporary politics in the country. One pair profiled the places they would visit on the trip and what they could expect at each one.
Then, for the last hour or so of class, Jeff arranged for the use of a kitchen and the players cooked an Italian meal, using recipes for three dishes he picked up from his former father-in-law, who was from Italy. They made peperonata, a sweet pepper-based salad; penne primavera with chicken and rosemary butter cookies.
"I got the ingredients and we all went," he said. "They were chopping and cooking and sautéing. We made a big Italian lunch. That was kind of our send-off for the class."
Once in Italy, Jeff noticed that along with Larry Zimpleman, the fans and family group accompanying the team included Robyn Wilkinson, vice president of compensation for Catholic Health Initiatives, and Jill Hittner, the chief financial officer for Principal Global Investors and the mother of Becca Hittner, a freshman on the team.
Seeing an opportunity to complement what he taught as they traveled, Jeff asked them to speak to the team.
"Sometimes students think professors just went to school all the time," he said. "When professionals tell them the same thing I tell them, it adds a little more weight to the message."
What resulted were discussions not only on communication and leadership, but dealing with high stress situations and conflict, what it's like to be a woman in the business world, recognizing and coping with cultural differences among groups, globalization and investments. Jill talked about the services that Principal provides to give the players a better understanding of one of Des Moines' most prominent companies.
"What kind of hit us is that Jennie and our coaches are really setting us up to be successful, not only in basketball, but in life after basketball," Lizzy said. "And that when we graduate, really having a plan of what we want to do and how we can be successful in that."
Along those lines, the trip inspired Lizzy and Caitlin to look seriously at playing professionally in Europe after this, their final season with the Bulldogs.
"We both kind of thought about it before, but it was really cool to be there and see it, teams that we could possibly play against or on, areas that we could be in," Lizzy said. "We felt really comfortable over there. I think it gave us both really good insights to that."
Robyn's talk on handling conflict hit home with Paige.
"The thing I really took away was, take three deep breaths before you respond," she said. "It was good to get that perspective because anytime you're on a team, there's going to be conflict, there's going to be high stress situations. So how can you deal with those effectively to get a better outcome."
Robyn Wilkinson addresses the team during their final class in Italy.
Larry, a longtime fan of the women's basketball program, saw the trip as a showcase of what it means to be a Drake athlete.
"It's not that Drake is sending these athletes there so they can just sort of have a good time and stay up late every night," he said. "It's actually meant to be a meaningful academic as well as a personal experience. I think that says a lot about how Drake wants to run an athletic program."
Larry and his wife Kathi have known Jennie's parents, Terry and Joyce Lillis, since they were kids growing up in Williamsburg in eastern Iowa. He was thrilled when Jennie got the Drake job in 2012.
"Having seen Jennie for so many years, I don't know that I've seen a more natural leader or a person who has stronger natural leadership skills than Jennie does," he said. "Sometimes people are just innately wired in a way that that's just who they are. That's Jennie.
"In some respects, from the standpoint of the players, it makes a little bit more of a challenge because not everybody is as comfortable or natural in a leadership position as somebody like Jennie is. Those are some of the things we talked about as well."
The players received three hours credit for the class. And they earned it.
"It was not a slough class," Jeff said.