Carolina assistant coach Amy Smith recently had the chance to catch up with junior Kristin Aloi and ask her about the Coach For College program which took her to Vietnam this summer. It was a beautiful and enlightening journey that provided Kristin with a fantastic learning experience.
Amy: What is the Coach for College program?
Kristin Aloi: The Coach for College program is dedicated to helping disadvantaged youth in rural Vietnam. It brings student-athletes from all over the ACC together to teach academics and basic sports, as well as simple character building, to Vietnamese children in some of the poorest areas of their country.
Amy: How did you find out about CFC?
Kristin Aloi: The first time I heard about this program was from Kara Wright, a former Carolina gymnast. She participated in the program twice and had nothing but amazing things to say about it. I met a few other student-athletes at Carolina that had also gone through the program. From talking to them, I became intrigued; this sounded like a program that I would thoroughly enjoy. There was something about the way they talked about the people they met that really touched me and I knew I wanted to have an experience like that.
Amy: Were you nervous about traveling so far away?
Kristin Aloi: Surprisingly, I was not nervous at all. If anything, I was most nervous about getting lost in one of the airports on the way there. But besides that, I was excited to get to Vietnam, to be able to see, firsthand, a completely different culture than my own. I didn’t really think about the fact that I was literally going to be on the other side of the world from my family and friends. I was curious about the sights and experiences that lay ahead of me. It was going to be like nothing I had ever done before and I wasn’t too sure what to expect. That mystery excited me.
Amy: While working at the camp, what was a typical day like?
Kristin Aloi: We woke up every day at the crack of dawn. I should know because I heard the rooster crowing every single morning. Breakfast was served at 6:30 a.m. and by 7 a.m. we were off to the school, which was about a 10 minute drive from the guesthouse where we stayed.
At 7:30, classes would begin with our sixth graders. The first class of the day was a life skills class. These lessons focused on character building with an emphasis on the importance of higher education. Then we continued the day, teaching an academic class. The four that were taught were math, physics, health, and English. I was the math teacher. After academics we taught a sport class. The sports we taught were volleyball, tennis, soccer, and basketball. I was one of the volleyball coaches.
After sports, we switched back to academics, teaching a different group of sixth graders. And after that, we went back to sports again. Each class period lasted roughly 45 minutes. With a quick wrap-up period at the end, the morning finished around 11:30 at which time we went back to the guest house for lunch. At 1, after being fully refreshed from lunch, we would head back to the school and repeat the same thing we did in the morning except with our seventh graders.
Overall, our teaching day ended around 5:30 p.m. However, we would usually stick around the school for a little bit longer and play around with the kids - maybe play a game of basketball or volleyball. After that, we headed to the guesthouse for dinner. Around 8 p.m., we would all regroup together to begin lesson planning for the next day and do other administrative things. Finally, once that was finished, our day was done and we went to bed. Next day, rinse and repeat.
Amy: What was the guesthouse like that you stayed in?
Kristin Aloi: After living in these conditions, I am so appreciative of what we have in America. There was no hot water. There were no flushers on the toilets. There were lizards all over my wall. I slept with a mosquito net. The conditions challenged me to live just like the Vietnamese people. I have so much respect for them; it was hard. You truly see how spoiled we have become here in our country with all of our electronics and what not. It was a good wake-up call to myself, showing me how much I really don’t need.
Amy: After living in those conditions, what did you realize that you were most thankful for in America?
Kristin Aloi: I am most thankful for flushing toilets.
Amy: What do you think was your biggest challenge during the camp?
Kristin Aloi: The biggest challenge, I thought, was learning how to work with a translator. Each American coach had a translator who was a Vietnamese college student. You had to learn to speak in simple, short sentences so it would be easy to translate.
The first week I was very frustrated because I didn’t feel like my words were getting through to the kids since I had no idea what the translator was actually saying to them. They could have been telling them a joke for all I know while I was trying to teach a math lesson. In fact, sometimes, the teaching styles of the Americans clashed with the teaching styles of the Vietnamese and because the Vietnamese were ultimately the ones who communicated with the children, they always got the last say in the matter. For example, you would tell the children to raise their hand to answer a question and become terribly confused when they all started writing in their notebooks instead. This happened to me repeatedly. It required a lot of patience and compromise to solve this problem. Over the span of the camp, it all got easier as translator and coach both learned how to best work together.
Amy: Throughout this entire experience, what had the most impact on you?
Kristin Aloi: The kids. They were absolutely amazing, and so inspiring. In America, I just see so many kids that hate going to school, complaining about having to do this or do that. This could not be more opposite in the school I was teaching at in Vietnam. These children were so eager to obtain knowledge. Their bright eyes were always staring up at me with intrigue even when I was teaching something like the intersection of lines, not the most exhilarating topic in the books. Also, I never saw one parent drop them off or come by to pick them up. It was entirely up to them whether they would actually come to school or not. They all had to ride their bikes there, some riding for up to two hours to get to the school. Yet, every day, they were all there, in their seats, waiting patiently, before it was time to begin. And this is just the beginning of how much these children touched my life. Getting to know each and every one of them was truly a blessing.
Amy: If you had to pick one moment or experience that especially stood out to you, what would it be?
Kristin Aloi: The most emotional part of this entire experience was saying goodbye to the children at the end of the trip. Truthfully, I didn’t expect it to be as dramatic as it was but it has come to be a moment that I will never forget and will always cherish. It went something like this:
There we were: all my sweet children in our original classroom with their big, brown eyes staring up at me, waiting for me to start talking for the very last time. But this time was different. I saw no smiles, no laughs; instead, I saw tears welling up in their eyes. They all knew it was the end. The room was quiet until one of the girls, Tram, could no longer hold it in as she covered her face and started sobbing. That did it. The whole room burst out in cries, including myself. We just couldn’t face the goodbyes. I went to the middle of the room and motioned for everyone to come towards me and we came together for a big group hug, tears and all.
It was completely surreal, surrounded by my babies, never wanting to let go. As our group hug disseminated, I began hugging each of them individually. I squeezed them tight and told them how amazing they were. Of course, they didn’t understand me because I don’t speak Vietnamese. But I looked them square in the eyes and smiled and then kissed their foreheads, hoping to get the message across about how much I cared for them.
Soon, the camp director came in, informing us that the bus was out front and it was time to go. The children’s sobs got louder as they realized this was it; the time was now. For a second, I stood frozen, trying to capture and remember every feeling from this moment. I was completely heartbroken, but at the same time, I don’t think I had ever felt so loved by people that I had known for such a short amount of time, who didn’t even speak the same language as me.
When I think back on it, it truly blows my mind on how well I got to know each of these kids, their personalities, their likes, their dislikes, inside and out, without even speaking the same language. It is absolutely insane. But as I stepped out of the room, I lost that thought and then realized another; I would never see these children again. I would never know what would become of them, what they would achieve, how they would grow up. It was the worst feeling in the world. I felt so helpless.
They followed us out to the bus, clutching my hands, grasping my hips. Once I got to the bus, I turned around, looked them in the eye, blew a kiss, and boarded the bus. That’s the only way I could do it, simple and fast. I couldn’t stretch out the goodbyes any longer; it was tearing me apart. And as we drove away, the kids waved goodbye. Some walked aside the bus while others tried to follow behind on their bikes. I faced forward in my seat and buried my head in my arms and cried. It hurt too much.
Despite this tough ending, I am so grateful that I had the chance to enjoy this once in a lifetime experience. This incredible opportunity has helped me grow as a person and become more thoughtful of the world as a whole, not just outside my window. Through Coach for College, I know I’ve made enough memories that I will cherish deeply and that will last me more than a lifetime.