by Mina Johnson
Last summer, SUNY Geneseo women’s basketball senior Katie Peterson had the opportunity to spend three weeks in southern Vietnam teaching in a small, rural village, as part of a program called, “Coach For College,” which brings American college student-athletes together with Vietnamese university students to teach academics, athletics and life skills at summer camps to children in some of the most remote areas of the country.
One of 15 student-athletes (and the only Division-III player) accepted into the program, Peterson was also awarded a scholarship through Geneseo’s Student Ambassadorship program, which provides students the opportunity to perform research, travel and engage in other forms of independent learning.
When they arrived in Vietnam, the group members were split into pairs and linked with two English-speaking Vietnamese university students that translated their lessons for the children. Peterson taught the subjects she was most knowledgeable about: math and basketball. Additionally, they taught life skills such as how to set goals, study and become leaders.
“Because the kids couldn’t understand us, they wouldn’t necessarily appear to be listening whenever we spoke. It took us awhile to get accustomed to them only paying attention to the translators, especially since I’m used to students acknowledging that they understand me,” said Peterson, who is majoring in childhood special education and history. “But when it came to basketball, while the rules and concepts were difficult for the students to grasp, they sure loved to play.”
A typical school day for Peterson included getting up at 6:30 a.m. to teach the eighth graders in the morning, and teaching the ninth graders in the afternoon before heading home at around 5:00 p.m. Every two days, the students would learn each academic subject and sport, and then Fridays were exam or competition days.
Getting acclimated to the country came with many surprises for Peterson. “Everyone rides around on scooters. There were times when I saw entire families riding around on one scooter and nobody wore helmets. I even saw a roasted pig on the back of a scooter!”
The weather in the region also took some getting used to for Peterson, as it was a bit different than a typical summer in her native Ithaca, N.Y.
“The second week we were there was the beginning of monsoon season. It would pour in spurts like I have never seen before and all of the kids would run inside, while everyone in the program would run outside because we were so hot.”
Various weekend trips provided times to explore the country, one of which was to a very small village on the western coastline.
“We went to a beautiful resort basically in the middle of nowhere and it turned into a trip I would never forget,” said Peterson. “On the Saturday we were there, there was a Cambodian wedding taking place. Our camp director had lived in Cambodia and spoke the language. So one thing led to another, and we ended up at the wedding reception. The kids tossed flower petals all over us as we danced with the guests and it turned into one of the coolest nights of my life.”
Peterson was also able to discover the rice fields along the Mekong River, which she credited as the most beautiful aspect of the entire trip.
“The program put us in a hotel owned by a Vietnamese family, who went out of their way to make us feel at home,” Peterson said. “The family cooked each meal for us, serving the traditional Vietnamese soup called Pho for breakfast and providing rice and a huge bowl of broth with every meal. While the steamed vegetables they also served were my favorite, they would often add French fries to the mix to make the meals more Americanized.”
Another one of Peterson’s most memorable moments was on her last day of school.
“One of the hardest things for us was not knowing if we were teaching the kids anything or if they were benefiting from us being there. But on the last day when we said our goodbyes, there was an awards ceremony and all the children gave us gifts and were really sad to see us go. It was a moment that will always stick with me because I was able to see that I truly made an impact. The kids came from very poor families yet they were some of the happiest students I have ever taught. They were always excited to play and learn and that’s what made this trip so remarkable.”
Peterson hopes to be teaching in New York City or abroad after graduation next May. She is currently planning a presentation to encourage more student-athletes to apply for Coach for College as well as all the other study abroad programs available through Geneseo.
While she lists “My family, hamburgers and my hair-straightener” as things she missed the most, she also wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
“It was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience to see another part of the world and help people in the process. By going to totally different countries and experiencing completely different cultures, you realize all that you really have that others may not.”
Mina Johnson is in her first year as the assistant director of athletic communications at SUNY Geneseo.