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September 12, 2011

Serving others

By: Marc Mullen

Eleven Tech student-athletes visited Vietnam over the summer, helping educate young children over there while also learning a lot about themselves

When people asked me about my trip, I just tell them every emotion you can experience to the fullest. It’s just hard to put into words. It was just amazing.” – Ryan Rotanz, Tech women’s lacrosse player

When don’t parents worry? From the time they find out they will be expecting a baby until well past the time their children reach adulthood, parents are always worried about their kids.

Colleen Thom (below), a runner on the Tech cross country and track and field team, helped teach Vietnamese kids (next photo) this past summer as part of the “Coach for College” program that sends college student-athletes to other countries to provide educational opportunities for youth. Thom became good friends with a young lady named Hien (next to Thom), and the two still keep in touch.

The toughest test for many parents is when their kids finally leave the nest for more than just a summer camp, and most times, this occurs in late August when freshman students begin their first year in college. It’s a relief, though, knowing that their teenagers are just a phone call away, or for many, less than a half day’s drive from home.

However, this summer, for 11 Virginia Tech student-athletes’ parents, that was not the case, as those Hokies joined 51 other ACC athletes participating in “Coach for College,” a forum for American college student-athletes to use sports to help provide access to higher education to youth in countries abroad.

Conceived by Parker Goyer, a 2007 graduate of Duke University and a former member of the Blue Devils women’s tennis team, Coach for College, according to its Web site “provides a sports infrastructure to youth who attend middle schools in rural parts of developing countries, and helps them develop excitement for and proficiency in science, leadership, language and like skills using sports as a means to applied learning.” Tech and several other schools contributed $2,500 for each of their student-athletes to participate.

The students traveled halfway around the world – close to a 24-hour trek for any concerned parent – to Vietnam for a near month-long experience that included teaching athletics and academics in that country in Southeast Asia.

“My mom and dad were definitely worried,” Colleen Thom, a member of the Tech cross country and track and field team, said. “I actually didn’t tell them until after I was accepted. I told them ‘I’m planning on going to Vietnam this summer,’ and they were a bit hesitant about it. My mom was calling a bunch of people. She was very crazy about making sure I knew about everything that could happen over there.”

The 11 participants from Tech included Kimberly Patten (lacrosse), Julie Wolfinger (lacrosse), Ryan Rotanz (lacrosse), Jessica Trapeni (women’s cross country), Drew Dillon (women’s cross country), Aunye Boone (women’s track and field), Devin Cornwall (men’s track and field), Keith Ricks (men’s track and field), Morgan Allen (women’s swimming and diving) and Kaleigh Gomes (women’s swimming and diving).

After receiving an email about the program, those interested had to fill out an application and go through an interview process. Once accepted, some second-guessing seeped into a few of their minds.

“I think everyone had some fears going over to Vietnam. There are a lot of different hazards that you hear about, but don’t really know about because you’ve never been there,” Ricks said. “You had to think about disease and war and wonder ‘Is this really a good idea?’ But once we got over there, you began to understand things are a lot safer than what you had originally thought and then you adapt to the things you aren’t familiar with.”

“When I was packing, I thought ‘Wow, I’m really going to be alone, and I’m going to have to take care of myself,’” Rotanz said. “But after all of this, there were a lot of problems that came up, and I had to figure these things out on my own. My mom wasn’t there to help me out. I really grew up a lot, and I think it’s something that I needed.

“Going to college, you grow up, but you still have your parents to help you out. They are just a phone call away. This was something that I needed to do by myself. This helped you grow up and made you realize how real it was and how far away you were.”

One of the biggest advantages to the students in this age, though, is technology. Thom noted that her interview as part of her application was on Skype, a computer program that allows video chats over the Internet. Also, despite not being able to use modern conveniences like a cell phone or laptop at any time of the day without any restrictions, it was comforting to them that it was a viable option.

“My parents were nervous, but they got more at ease when I was able to talk to them,” Rotanz said. “We could Skype, but there was an 11-hour difference. I would wake up at 6 a.m. so that I could talk to them, or we would do it before I went to bed. But just to see my face and see how excited I was and I could tell them about my day, it made it easier for them.”

And the days were filled with many memorable experiences and relationships that the ACC athletes and their counterparts in Vietnam will never forget.

“Just having that one-on-one experience with a different lifestyle was what I will take from this,” Ricks said. “Like the food, the environment, so many things, and you had to adapt for 24 hours a day, not just an hour or so. It was every day, even when you slept. We had to sleep in mosquito nets, so just living the completely different lifestyle was amazing.”

Thom will remember, “The kids, for sure. I became really, really close with this one girl, Hien. I became close with a lot of them, but she just had a very big impact on me because I saw myself in her.

“She was outstanding. She had this thing about her that made everyone around her want to do well, and it inspired me to do the same. It was cool that a younger person inspires you like that. She wrote me this long letter, and in it, she wrote ‘I really hope I can see you again in my life,’ and every night, I kind of think about it and I just hope that our paths do cross in the future somehow. I always say a prayer for her every night.”

The student-athletes each went to Vietnam at various times over the summer. Once there, they were split between two camps, Thuan Hung and Hoa An, and were full-time teachers, utilizing lesson plans. They worked with translators to teach the middle school students, and the student-athletes definitely realized the impact they were making on the Vietnamese and vice versa.

“It was tough teaching. We were working hard, long, hot hours, but it was worth it,” Ricks said. “The students were really appreciative, and I was really surprised with how accepting they were of us. When we were leaving, there were a lot of tears, a lot of the kids were crying.

“They didn’t speak English, but I think we had a deeper form of communication with the students. With the translators, sure, but you could understand the kids with things they would do or their facial expressions.”

“Some kids biked over an hour and a half to the camp just to get an education,” Rotanz said. “Some days, I would come in and be rundown, feeling bad, and then I would see how excited they were to see us. Seeing them made me feel how lucky and blessed I am to have the things I have. These kids have the best outlook on life and have so much fun and energy, and you just take that and use it.”

However, all of their experiences weren’t positive, as each seemed to struggle with the food, as well as some other aspects of living in a foreign country for almost a month.

“We had some minor illnesses. I actually got sick for a couple days, but it was from the food and adjusting to the weather, the heat,” Ricks said. “It was just a combination of everything, and it lasted just a couple of days. The kids were all sad and asking where I was, and they drew me pictures, so they were really happy when I returned.”

“I definitely missed Heinz Ketchup and just food,” Thom said. “I had never tried seafood or soup before and that was basically the meals over there. I tried shrimp and fish for the first time and soup. I went the hospital. That was about the only bad part.”

“I had trouble with the food and I’m not even a picky eater. I just could not get full,” Rotanz said. “I didn’t even know what I was eating half the time, the different meats, and I got to the point where I just didn’t even want to know because there were no other options and I was really hungry. But I did get adjusted.”

Yet it wasn’t all work and no play for this group. Once they finished their three-week stints, many became tourists, visiting temples, riding elephants and doing zip-line tours through the jungle. Many wouldn’t have done these things without the “Coach for College” program.

Thus, these student-athletes are supportive of the program and would encourage anyone interested in the experience to apply and take on the challenge. They do offer different pieces of advice.

“I would tell anyone to do it, but I would warn them that it’s going to be a challenge,” Ricks said. “But when you’re done, you will be proud of what you experienced and were able to accomplish. Every day over there was different than any other day I had in my life.

“If I was at home this summer, I probably would have been watching TV, maybe working out a little bit. But I was actually doing something every day that was beneficial to changing the world. They don’t get a lot of opportunities like this, to learn in this type of environment.”

“I don’t know what I would say because I think a part of the experience is not knowing anything and just going into it and experiencing the journey,” Thom said. “But I guess I would say realize that the relationships that you develop are only for a short time and to treasure them. And to make sure you exchange contact information with everyone.”

Thom and Rotanz each mentioned that they do keep in touch with the Vietnamese translators that they worked with via Facebook – another technological advantage to students in this age – and would enjoy the opportunity to meet up with them again, as some of the kids have expressed interest in continuing their education in the United States.

Rotanz concluded her thoughts with this: “I hope they expand it to other countries. I know that they are looking into South America. Vietnam was great, but I feel like they should start expanding it even more. Parker, the person that started it, wants to make it for all NCAA athletes, and I think that would be a great idea.”

With all of the modern technologies for the student-athletes to keep in touch, and given how these three Tech student-athletes raved about their experiences, parents of future participants in the program probably won’t mind.