Alisha Mah ’18 | Swimming & Diving

Da Nang, Vietnam

The Coach for College program description enticed me more than I had realized. I knew I had always enjoyed coaching sports to younger children, but my reaction to the Coach for College program description made me realize that teaching is a possible career path I might pursue. All throughout my freshman year, I continually contemplated my concentration choices. Neurobiology, economics, or psychology?  In my mind, neurobiology leads to research or medicine, options that interest me with hesitation. Economics leads to law or business; psychology leads to any of the above. Of course, these concentrations are not limited to the options I mention, but these were the options that I was considering. However, after participating in the Coach for College Program, I discovered that teaching comes naturally to me. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the students despite the language barrier. Although the subject I taught, physics, was not my primary choice, I was not afraid that I did not know the material well enough to teach the students because I did not put myself in that position. I reviewed the course material well in advance; I took notes on the provided lectures before even departing for Vietnam. Every day, I walked into the classroom with a big smile on my face because I was excited to watch the students learn.

The students could not tell me directly what they learned each day because they do not speak English, and I do not speak Vietnamese. There were times when the language barrier did not cause any problems. For example, when I was coaching basketball, hand gestures and body language translated well. Telling them to split into four groups, however, was much harder. Even though the Vietnamese coaches were meant to translate, they sometimes forgot that the children did not understand English just because they themselves understand English. So if I said, “Divide into four groups,” the Vietnamese coaches would not say anything until they realized that they needed to translate. Another challenge was that I used slang words that the Vietnamese coaches did not understand. None of the Vietnamese coaches have ever been to America, and the English they knew was straight from the textbook. They knew far more formal English than colloquial terminology. Often times I would use slang to describe something, and they did not understand the meaning. In addition to the language differences between the American and Vietnamese coaches, there was a slight difference in the accents between the Vietnamese coaches and the students. My camp was based in central Vietnam, and many of the Vietnamese coaches were from northern Vietnam. The accent in central Vietnam is a combination of the northern and southern accents, so they could understand the coaches but sometimes the coaches could not understand them. The program directors did an especially excellent job at providing opportunities for the coaches to interact with the locals. On one of our weekend trips, the coaches had to bike around the city of Hoi An and the nearby villages. One of our tasks was to take a picture of a traditional Vietnamese house with its owner. Another task was to eat a traditional Hoi An dessert. At our guest home, we ate whatever the owners cooked for us; not once did I eat a Western dish.

As I previously mentioned, Coach for College gave me insight to new professional options that I will consider. Furthermore, I will not take for granted the opportunities that Harvard has provided for its students. Coach for College was founded because the dropout rate in Vietnamese primary schools is unfortunately very high. These students drop out to help their families work in the fields or stores or factories. The program teaches the students that a higher education is very beneficial. Participating in Coach for College made me realize that I am very fortunate to be receiving a higher education at Harvard. Starting sophomore fall, I am bringing back a better work ethic.  I  will  take  advantage of  the  outstanding course  selection  and  effectively utilize  the knowledge given to me by my professors.

I would like to give many thanks to the Weissman family for making this life-changing opportunity happen. If it weren’t for their gracious donation, I would not have been able to learn through experience. Their generosity allowed me to grow as a student without having to worry about any financial burdens. Admittedly, I would have taken this trip even without the grant. However, the Weissmans’ donation allowed me to be fully immersed in the program without financial setbacks. The Weissman family: Thank you for an amazing opportunity.