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Education Through Athletics: Coach for College in Vietnam

By: Princeton Athletic Communications
          Release: 09/05/2013
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Isaac Serwanga ’13 and Katharina Gebert ’15, Princeton University's 2013 Coach for College participants.
Courtesy: Princeton Athletic Communications

PVC News - Coach for College Special Edition

During the summer of 2013, two 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. Isaac Serwanga ’13 (football, basketball, track &field) and Katharina Gebert ’15 (lightweight crew) 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 Kat and Isaac to learn more about their educational experience this summer.

PVC: Can you tell us about what a typical day was like?

Isaac:  For coaches, the day began around 6:30am for breakfast. Breakfast was very routine: 2 eggs, bread, iced tea, and an assortment of fruit. At 7:10 am, the bus would depart from our local hotel and drive us to the school we worked at no later than 7:25 am. In the morning from 7:30am-11:30 am we would teach and coach 8th graders, switching off in 40 minute periods as the kids rotated from subject to sport. The last period was called “Life Skills.” This period in my opinion was the most important as well as the most fun. Depending on the week, we would teach the children about specific things they could apply to all aspects of their lives in a variety of ways. Teamwork and cooperation was taught through outdoor activities; creativity, imagination, and persistence were demonstrated through the children’s ability to create their own projects together. Our goal was to make sure after every fun activity we did, we left the kids with a take home message that allowed them to transfer these activities and lessons into developed life skills that they could apply to their own lives. After we returned from lunch (and sometimes a quick nap), we would repeat the same schedule as in the morning but with the 7th graders. At 5:45pm when we returned to the hotel, dinner would be ready. Eggs, fish, chicken, beef, rice, vegetables, soups and an assortment of fruits were most commonly served. After some free time, we would meet up that night around 7:45pm to go over our lesson plan and sports drills for the coming days. A game of cards, story-telling, or T.V. watching with other coaches would often end the night.

PVC: How have you changed as a result of participating in Coach for College?  

Katharina (Kat): My global perspective on education, standard of living, and overall culture has dramatically changed, thanks to Coach for College. Without this experience, I’m not sure I would have ever had the chance to engross myself in a third-world country in this hands-on way. Though reading the newspaper and learning about “cultures different from your own” in school, actually seeing it firsthand is incredible. I have a newfound appreciation for the amenities we take for granted here in the United States. On top of this, the patience I learned in working with the students will aid me greatly.

PVC: What is the most important thing that you learned/realized from this opportunity?

Isaac: Playing sports allowed me to break down all social, racial, and cultural barriers and connect with kids from Vietnam who I would’ve never had the chance to meet. Sports served as the bridge between these children and me. This program was life changing for these children—as well as for myself—because their doubt was replaced with hope and belief. And in the end, I’ve realized that all of this was made possible through the power of sports and the great lessons that can be taught through them. Participating in Coach for College was the experience of a lifetime for me.

PVC: What is your favorite memory from the trip?

Kat: The most memorable part of the trip actually occurred on the last day. All the coaches had returned to the hotel for the evening when all of a sudden we heard shouting from outside on the street. A few of us went downstairs to see what all the commotion was, and were greeted by a swarm of our students. They had biked from their homes across the town to come see us one last time. It was absolutely touching.             

Isaac: On my Orange team, I had a kid named Huu. He was a scrawny kid with a boisterous personality. Every day, he would be by far the most difficult child to contain. He would run from class to class, interrupting almost all the classes simultaneously. In America, we would label him a “trouble maker.” As a group, all us coaches spent nearly an hour discussing what we could do with him. We came up with nothing.

One day during a life skills session, I decided to bring in a Michael Jordan book to talk about persistence and overcoming obstacles. For the first time ever, Huu sat and listened intently. He was captivated by the book, and the story of Michael Jordan (The kids didn’t know who Michael Jordan was!). After we read some excerpts from the book, I asked the kids to write what they can take from the book. I read Huu’s response which said, “Michael Jordan never stopped trying. Because of this, he overcame his obstacles. If I keep trying, I can overcome my obstacles and listen in class, and become a better student.”

For the last week, I saw great improvement in Huu’s behavior. When he would revert back to his bad habits, I simply asked him, “How did MJ overcome his obstacles?” He would look at me inquisitively, then sit back in his seat and fix his behavior. At the end of camp, Huu and I shared a special moment when I gave him the Michael Jordan book. I told him he has the potential to be a phenomenal student, and he told me that he will never stop trying like Michael Jordan.

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To see more photos and additional quotes from Kat and Isaac, please visit our Special Edition of the PVC News by clicking here.

To read the entire Q&A, please visit the Princeton Varsity Club’s official website by clicking here.

Coach for College is a service learning program that brings together American student-athletes and Vietnamese university students to teach academics, sports and life skills at summer camps to children in rural Vietnam.  To learn more, please visit www.CoachforCollege.org.

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