Nov. 17, 2016
By Megan Golden
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Several months ago, an Irish women’s lacrosse player stood waiting on the sidewalk with an elderly Spanish-speaking woman in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The pair hailed a cab to drive the woman home from her appointment at the medical clinic.
In Spanish, she asked the older woman where she lived, in an effort to provide the English-speaking driver with directions to the woman’s home.
“No sé,” the woman responded in Spanish, indicating she could not recall her home address.
After scrolling through the woman’s cell phone contacts and dialing up one of her close friends, she translated the woman’s address to the cab driver and sent the woman on her way home.
University of Notre Dame senior midfielder Emma Claire Fontenot developed a passion for the Spanish language as a high schooler in Eden Prairie, Minn. Innocently fulfilling her foreign language requirements, she recognized her success in the classroom and her growing desire to serve others in the community.
Fontenot (Eden Prairie, Minn./Eden Prairie High School) traveled to Spain with her high school class as part of an exchange program. The students toured the country together during the first week, and each student lived alone with a host family near Valencia for the second week.
“That really sparked my interest to continue speaking Spanish and seeing the potential I had to communicate and be completely immersed in their culture,” Fontenot said. “Just being able to use an entirely different language to be a part of their culture was really a unique feeling that I wanted to continue to be able to harness in the future.”
Little did she know, not only would she one day be translating conversations between a Spanish-speaking patient and a cab driver on the streets of Hilton Head Island, S.C., but also translating for medical doctors and dental surgeons to complete their work more efficiently.
This past summer, Fontenot volunteered as an interpreter at a medical and dental clinic, Volunteers in Medicine, in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, through Notre Dame’s Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP).
She spent three months volunteering, working closely with English-speaking volunteer doctors and dentists during the week. The clinic served the local, predominantly Spanish-speaking community, providing regular appointments to low-income families.
Fontenot worked closely with the dentists, who not only treated patients but also spent time training Fontenot using dental diagrams and skeletal structures. She had the opportunity to learn from four different doctors each day of the week.
“I was inspired by all of those doctors and dentists; they were all volunteers at the clinic I was at. Seeing that they fit in the time to do that was something I found really great,” Fontenot said. “Speaking Spanish opens up your clientele to a whole other population, especially in the United States. Not only in the southern United States but even in the upper northeast and where I’m from in Minnesota. There are huge Spanish populations. I am opening up those doors to be able to help as many people as possible.”
Fontenot shared numerous stories of patients receiving life-changing treatment, triggering tears and inspiring her to continue to work hard.
One particular patient arrived with chipped and discolored front teeth, and he left with a brand new smile to surprise his fiancée on their wedding day. Another patient had stains removed from her teeth and left the building with a confidence boost--and tears of joy.
“The difference that a dentist can make, whether taking away great pain that consumes a person’s mind and life, fixing a smile that allows someone’s confidence to transform, or giving dentures to someone who will then be able to find a job, is awe-inspiring,” she said. “This excites me, as I was able to first-hand experience how rewarding making such a difference for the patient is.
“With immediate results, and sometimes even tears of pure joy, there were so many thankful patients who expressed their gratitude immensely and walked out the door a new person. My memories of specific patients and cases will remain with me forevermore because the type of joy that they expressed was enlightening and very encouraging to me.”
A Spanish major and Pre-Med supplementary major at Notre Dame, Fontenot volunteered during the week, while simultaneously training for the women’s lacrosse team. She said she quickly learned that wall ball did not require the wall of Arlotta Stadium, and conditioning did not require a full-length turf field.
While her lacrosse schedule did not coordinate well with Notre Dame’s offered study abroad programs, the University’s staff helped her find a similar six-week program through Boston University. Fontenot was accepted into the program and traveled to Argentina in 2015.
“[Notre Dame head coach] Halfpenny and the athletic department help you pursue what you want to pursue and work with our schedules,” Fontenot said. “They are always finding ways to work around the setting you are in to continue pursuing excellence on the field in lacrosse.”
During the school year, Fontenot volunteers at St. Joseph Hospital, gaining experience in the medical field. Following her graduation in 2017, she plans to take the DAT, attend dental school and continue her education to pursue her career as an oral surgeon.
Her ability to manage a varsity sport, experience success in Spanish and volunteer in the community, she said, are a tribute to her coaches and professors at Notre Dame.
“The support they give you inspires you to put 100 percent into what you’re doing at that time,” she said. “When you’re at lacrosse, you’re putting in 100 percent there and leaving that and putting in 100 percent toward your academics. That’s inspiring and encouraging, compartmentalizing and treating lacrosse as a release and a way to free your mind. On the other side, it’s going back to your schoolwork and getting good grades in the classroom.
“The emphasis our coaches put on academics is unique to a place like Notre Dame. I don’t think every school has that opportunity to be as encouraging in both athletics and academics.”
Megan Golden, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since August of 2016. In her role, she coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women's lacrosse and cross country/track and field programs. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Golden is a 2014 graduate of Saint Mary's College and former Irish women’s basketball manager. Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, she worked in public relations with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.