During the summer of 2014, five Princeton student-athletes were selected to travel to the Phung Hiep District of the Hau Giang Province in southern Vietnam to volunteer for Coach for College, a global initiative aimed at promoting higher education through sports. These student-athletes taught academics, sports and life skills over the course of three weeks to disadvantaged youth at the Hoa An Secondary School. The Princeton Varsity Club provided funding for the majority of the necessary expenses associated with the charitable service trip, with the remainder of the funds being raised by the individual participants. The PVC sat down with each student-athlete to learn more about their educational experience this summer.
Our fourth conversation is with Danielle Sawtelle ’17 (women’s lightweight rowing).
What were your expectations for the trip after you learned you had been selected to represent Princeton University?
I actually didn’t go on the trip with too many expectations, I really just hoped I would be able to really influence the children and help them learn.
Can you tell us a little about the children you taught as part of the program?
The children were amazing. There were definitely kids that didn’t want to be there and caused a lot of trouble, but for the most part they were all very eager to learn. They were also all very sweet and showed us immense amounts of love, greeting us with hugs and holding our hands. And on the last couple days they even brought us presents and invited us to their houses for snacks. I absolutely fell in love with the children, everyone was in tears on the last day of the program.
How did the language barrier affect your teaching/coaching strategies?
The language barrier definitely presented its share of challenges. It was sometimes difficult for our translators to understand us, or they wouldn’t have a word in their language which we wanted to use. For sports it is hard because you want to talk in real time, because sports are very in the moment, so for that I did end up learning the Vietnamese words for pass and shoot and so on.
What were the most striking differences between your experiences in the United States and that of life in the area of Vietnam that you visited?
One thing that was different about life in Vietnam was that even though things seemed more run down and people had a lot less money than Americans seem to have, people were a lot happier, at least it seemed like it. And having live markets with cattle and eels on the side of the streets was very different too. Even though the area seemed run down, it was very much alive.
What is your favorite memory from the trip?
I don’t think I could really pick one moment as my favorite memory, just the whole experience of getting to know the children was amazing and I feel so close to them. Probably the day before our last we got to go to some of their houses for snacks and got to see how they were away from school, then they came to visit us at our home and gave us rides on their bikes/motorbikes and that was a lot of fun because no one was sad yet, it was just a happy time.
What is the funniest thing that happened?
I’m not totally sure what the funniest thing was, probably this one boy really enjoyed Frozen, the movie, and would often grab our hands and start skipping down the halls singing Let it Go in broken English until you joined in and danced/skipped with him.
How have you changed as a result of participating in Coach for College?
I definitely think I have changed since the program. I feel like my confidence has grown and that I have really come to appreciate other countries on a deeper level than I had before.
What is the most important than you learned/realized from this opportunity?
The most important thing I learned from this program was that a language barrier can’t stop you from forming real and deep relationships. I still get messages from my kids saying they miss me and I have their gifts sitting on my desk here at college. I didn’t think it was possible to get that close to someone you couldn’t hold a conversation with, but leaving those kids was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
What would your advice be to current Princeton undergraduates about participating in this program?
My advice about the program is to do it. I think everyone should have an experience like this and think Coach for College was one of my all time favorite experiences. If they do participate I would recommend letting yourself be open to everything and everyone. I had some great interactions with just me and the Vietnamese translators that I don’t think some of the other American’s got, and I think that was really important to the experience as a whole
To see more photos from our student-athletes’ experiences in Vietnam, click here.