ACC athletes challenge themselves, serve others in Vietnam

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Colleen Thom and Chelsea Shine have been through the wringer. Three weeks of abject poverty, withering heat and tasteless food. Three weeks of lurking lizards, scary spiders and swarming mosquitoes.

They couldn't be more grateful.

Grateful for the opportunity to challenge themselves, serve others and broaden their horizons in ways they could not have imagined.

Never was that more evident than as these two ACC athletes said farewell last month to the Vietnamese children they taught, embraced and captivated.

"I didn't realize how much impact we'd had on the kids until the last day," said Shine, a University of Virginia basketball player. "A lot of them were crying, a lot of (us) were crying."

Thom, a Virginia Tech cross country runner from Yorktown, started "bawling my eyes out" when an interpreter translated a hand-written letter from a 9th-grade student named Hien.

"I hope I will see you again," she wrote. "I hope fate brings us together again."

Shine and Thom are among 62 ACC athletes participating this summer in Coach for College, a global initiative to promote higher education founded by former Duke tennis player Parker Goyer.

The Americans, 18 from Virginia and Virginia Tech, team with Vietnamese coaches to teach children basketball, soccer, volleyball and tennis. More important, the curriculum also includes health, physics, morality and English.

"We were using sports to connect with the kids and teach them the value of higher education," Shine said.

Vietnam has progressed markedly since the 1975 fall of Saigon, but still only about two percent of adults attend college. Goyer chose the country on the advice of a Duke professor and started the program in 2008.

A Rhodes Scholar studying at the University of Oxford's Said Business School, she coordinates Coach for College with Duke's Center for Civic Engagement. Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Florida State contributed $2,500 for each participant from their school, while the ACC funded those from elsewhere in the conference, Goyer said via email.

Goyer hopes to expand Coach for College into an international version of Teach for America, the program that places teachers in rural and urban schools throughout the United States.

"It will require a lot of work and luck!" Goyer said.

Thom and Shine would be first in line to help Goyer recruit.

"It sounded perfect to me," said Thom, who learned of Goyer's project via an email. "I really love coaching, and I really wanted to go to a (developing) country to see what I could do to help. I called my parents right away, and I applied that night."

A 2010 Peninsula Catholic graduate, Thom has tutored American children and worked with them at basketball camps. But nothing rates with her Vietnam experience, an emergency trip to the hospital notwithstanding.

"By far the best part was getting close to the kids," Thom said. "They were probably the happiest and most well-behaved kids I've ever taught. They're outstanding students and people."

A self-described worrier, planner and creature of habit, Shine quickly discovered that she needed to become more patient, spontaneous and relaxed.

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