Tar Heel Travelers: Alexis Amato and Lexi Walters
Release: 07/21/2015

Hello Tar Heels!

My name is Alexis Amato and I am a rising junior on the rowing team.  I am majoring in Health Policy and Management. 

And my name is Lexi Walters and I am also a rising junior on the rowing team.  I am majoring in Exercise and Sport Science and Public Relations.

We recently got back from an amazing experience in Vietnam through the Coach for College program.  Coach for College is a program that takes collegiate American athletes across the world to Vietnam. During the month of June, we were stationed at middle school camps in rural Vietnam and worked with other American university students along with Vietnamese university students to teach both academic and athletic lessons to Vietnamese youth! Our efforts were in an attempt to decrease the school drop-out rate and increase the health and physical activity enjoyment of the Vietnamese children.

We went to Vietnam at the same time, but were placed at different camp sites.  Although we weren’t together for the whole experience, our days were structured similarly.  We were assigned a color team (both Team Green), an academic subject (both Biology), and a sport (Alexis- soccer, Lexi- basketball).  Each week included four days of teaching and coaching—four hours for each grade where the students alternated academic and sport classes (Mon-Thurs) and a day of competitions and testing (Fri).  During the instruction days, we taught 7th grade in the morning and 6th grade in the afternoon.  In addition to sports and academics, we also taught the kids about culture and different life skills.  Fridays were always the most exciting because the color teams competed against one another, partaking in a variety of sports activities based upon the skills they learned from the week!

While there were many beautiful places in Vietnam that we were fortunate enough to visit during weekend trips, it was both humbling and shocking to see the condition of the areas where our camps were located.  There was garbage scattered all along the street, grass was knee high in the school yard, and children walked to school with poor footwear and plastic bags as makeshift backpacks.  The snacks provided during the school day could have been the only food some children had all school day and candy used as rewards during class were treasured.  The kids surely did not live in luxury, but they always came to school smiling and excited to learn and spend time with us coaches. 

Lexi: Coach for College was such an unforgettable, eye-opening experience, but one moment in particular really affected me.  Every day we met with our color groups to discuss different aspects of life. One of the lessons was about education-related ambitions.  I talked about my experiences with higher education, why I picked my majors, and my goals for the future.  I didn’t think I said anything particularly impactful, but my view changed when I saw the results of the life skills test for that week.  One of the questions on the test asked the kids to write about a person they admired and why.  A girl in my class, Diem, wrote that my co-coach and I were her inspiration.  We were shocked because she was one of the quietest kids in class.  She wrote that she wasn’t sure if she could go on to higher education (high school and college are very hard to get into in Vietnam), but that we made her believe that it was possible. During our lesson, we focused on telling the kids to pursue their passions, not just a career field that their society deems as acceptable. Diem said that she thought she had to study science to be a doctor because that’s what a lot of people do, but that we let her know it is okay to study something else.  Diem’s response, along with several of her classmates’, made me reflect on everything that I take for granted.  It had never been a question of if I was going to high school and college, just which one.  Most of these kids do not have the means to pay the fees necessary to continue past middle school.   I have the amazing opportunity to go to a great school, play a sport, and study what I’m interested in.  I also began to understand the impact that I was having on the kids and how much they were affecting me.  They really want to learn and take everything you say to them to heart.  From that point on I made sure to get know every kid on my team in an effort to find a way to help them achieve their goals.  These kids radiate positivity and approach every challenge with a smile.  I hope that they can hold on to this attitude along with everything they’ve learned and experienced in our time together and use it to achieve their dreams. They’ve inspired me to strive to take the resilience and optimism they exude back with me to the States and apply it to all aspects of my life.

Alexis: Although I made so many memories that will stay with me forever during my time with Coach for College, one instance immediately made a huge impact on me. We taught every student at camp during sports and academics, but we taught our own color team life skills and these were the kids we got to know really well. During the second week of camp, one of the boys, “David,” came up to my Vietnamese coach and said today would be his last day of school. He was clearly upset and she sat him down to see what was wrong.  David said his family only had one bike and his father now needed it to get to work.  It would take over an hour to walk to school and working for his father before and after school, he would not have enough time and would be too tired to do both.  My co-coach pulled me aside later and told me what was happening.  I immediately burst into tears. I knew how talented and smart David was. He led our team in all the sports and regardless if he didn’t want to show it, he did well in all the academic subjects.  I decided that we had to get him a bike and I partnered with all my American coaches.  Everyone offered to pitch in money and get David a bike.  In the end, the school helped us find a better solution of getting rides for David but this experience helped me realize two things.  I need to be a lot more grateful for all the amazing opportunities I have because many people all over the world are not as fortunate.  Secondly, this kids captured my heart in less than a month. I would do anything for these kids and no matter how far a distance or difficult a language barrier, they will always be “my kids” and I will always show off their pictures like a proud mom J

Although we each had our own unique and unforgettable experience in Vietnam, it is safe to say that although we could not stay there, we have brought back with us a new perspective with which to view our lives here in America. These kids taught us many things from cultural dances and games to Vietnamese words that we could never seem to pronounce right. Most importantly, they taught us to appreciate everything we have.  On the last weekend, we visited some of the students’ homes and saw their small living spaces and minimal belongings. It was eye-opening to see that this is common living standard for many of the children yet they were always happy and smiley.  Life isn’t about how many fancy gadgets we own or the brands of clothing we can afford, but rather it is about pursuing your passions, making the best of your circumstances, and enjoying every moment.  This trip lasted just 25 days, but the memories made, lessons learned, relationships fostered, and peace-sign selfies snapped will stay in our hearts for a lifetime.

We urge everyone to look into this opportunity that UNC so awesomely supports and apply because it will change your life!!

If you want to read about our trip further, check out our blog.

And lastly, GO HEELS!

Alexis Amato and Lexi Walters



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