During the summer of 2016, seven Princeton student-athletes were selected to travel to 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 various Secondary Schools. 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 seventh, and final conversation is with Claire Collins ’19, a member of the Princeton women’s rowing team who traveled to the Hau Giang Province – Hoà An of Vietnam.
What were your expectations for the trip after you learned you had been selected to represent Princeton University?
I knew that the experience would be out of my comfort zone, being in a new country and working with new people. I thought that most of my learning and eye opening experiences would come from the kids. I was really honored to be selected and decided that my attitude and excitement for the experience was what was important in making it as meaningful as possible.
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?
First off, in Vietnam mopeds rule the roads. Most of the kids we worked with had never been in a car. It was wonderful being in a smaller town and being able to work closely with the Vietnamese college coaches because we could understand Vietnamese culture better. The homes are much more simple (one story and generally open to see from the outside) and people are very open. I also found the pace of life to be very different. In the States, we go hard with work and hobbies during the week and then we drop down to our weekend modes. In Vietnam, they mix in relaxation and work during every day, as it creates a healthy balance. People are generally happy and proud to work hard and they expect that of themselves.
Can you tell us a little about the children you taught as part of the program?
In my camp, we worked with 6th and 7th grade students. They were energetic, sneaky, funny, joyful, creative, attentive and brave. Many of them happily tried new things (especially within the sports and life skill sessions) and were excited to form relationships with us. In some ways they were similar to students of that age in the US: always making jokes and sometimes difficult to settle down. They cared a lot about each other and the coaches. I thought it might take longer for the kids to feel comfortable around us foreign strangers but they were quick to give hugs and try to make jokes with us.
Can you tell us what a typical day was like?
Usually, I would wake up at 4:50AM and workout from 5:00AM-6:20AM, grab some breakfast and catch the bus at 6:40AM to go to the school (our school was about 4.5 km down the road). School started at 7:00AM and we taught 6th grade in the morning. I taught English and coached volleyball. At the end of the morning session we would have a Life Skills session, where we taught the kids about goals and dreaming big. At 11:00AM we would head back for lunch and a short nap before heading back to the school to start another session with the 7th graders. We would come back from the afternoon session at 5:30PM for dinner, showers, some journaling and lesson planning for the next day. I was usually tired enough to fall asleep around 8:30PM.
What is your favorite memory of the trip?
I really enjoyed the walk back from one of our student’s homes. It was so calm and quiet as we walked a path that had papaya trees, banana tress, sweet potato plants, coconut trees, mango trees, flowers, fruits I didn’t even know and of course rice plants. It was beautiful in a way to have all of the vegetation surround you as it showed how simply these people can live surrounded by such amazing nature. I made the walk with 3 of the Vietnamese college coaches and we chatted about our different lifestyles and I got to ask so many questions about culture. It was a relaxing and awesome afternoon.
How have you changed as a result of participating in Coach for College?
The biggest way I have changed as a result of my experience with Coach for College is an outlook of “going with the flow”. I am a regimented person; I like order and routine. However, I learned to not get so shaken by disruptions to my norm. I learned to adapt to the way of life around me. This allowed me to observe my surroundings more and be happier in the situations I was in. This helps me as an athlete with my daily routines.
What is the most important thing you learn/realized from this opportunity?
I learned how communication is not always a barrier for understanding someone or forming relationships and friendships with others. I also got to see our culture from a different perspective, being the minority and hearing the stereotypes and perceptions of the kids. Finally, it was refreshing and important to see how simple life can be. People want to be happy and it is helpful to stay in the moment.
What would your advice be to current Princeton undergraduates about participating in this program?
I would definitely recommend this program to other Princeton undergraduates. It is a wonderful way to see the world, experience another culture in an authentic way and make great relationships with other athletes but also with Vietnamese colleges students and kids. There are many aspects you learn that you can take back and apply to your academics, athletics, and daily life.
To see more photos from our student-athletes’ experiences in Vietnam, click here.