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Upon returning home, I have found myself routinely scrolling through the photos I took in Vietnam. In almost every photo, and almost every memory I have of my trip, everyone, including myself, is wearing a bright and genuine smile. In a country where I could not speak the language, these smiles allowed me to connect to and learn from the people around me. It was the people behind these smiles who made my three weeks in Vietnam so special and unforgettable.

I recall my first day in Long Mỹ when my friend from Stanford and I went for a walk to explore where we would be living for the next few weeks. As we walked down the streets, weaving through the markets and narrowly dodging motorcycles, we were met with many curious stares. We were very aware of the fact that we looked out of place in this small rural town in Vietnam. However, despite feeling foreign, there wasn’t a second where I felt any nervousness or apprehension. Every stare was accompanied by the most warm and welcoming smile. Only minutes into our walk, we heard several voices yelling “hello!” from across the street and looked up to see a group of local boys who were waving for us to come to the café they were sitting at. As we approached, one boy pulled up Google Translate on his phone so we could have a short conversation. We saw this group around Long Mỹ several more times during our visit and were always sure to wave and say hello. Shortly after this encounter, we walked past a public tennis court. The women playing caught our eye and gestured for us to join them. Racquets were placed into our hands and before we knew it, we were rallying and laughing together.

I felt so privileged to be welcomed into the community with such open arms. The smiles of all these strangers caught me by surprise and taught me how welcoming and open the Vietnamese culture is. I will never forget the unwavering kindness and acceptance extended to me throughout my time in Long Mỹ. I hope to embody these values more in my life going forward.

Furthermore, these smiles taught me a lesson in forgiveness. Prior to driving to Long Mỹ, the ACE group spent one day in Ho Chi Minh city, where we visited a museum about war crimes committed by Americans during the Vietnam War. With those images of cruelty and callousness at the forefront of my mind, I was shocked at the warmth with which the Vietnamese people welcomed us predominately US, English-speaking foreigners.

With those images of cruelty and callousness at the forefront of my mind, I was shocked at the warmth with which the Vietnamese people welcomed us predominately US, English-speaking foreigners.

– Chelsea Proutt, Duke Rowing

The next day, we arrived at the school where I met my students for the next three weeks for the first time. Without a doubt, I will cherish their smiles the most. At first, the students in my classes were shy, hesitant to speak up, and many wore masks to hide their faces. During the first week as we bonded and the students felt more comfortable, you could notice the number of masks worn decreased each day. I loved seeing each of their smiles as they grew in confidence. Although I loved teaching biology and soccer, my favorite memories took place outside of class time.

In the mornings, it was often very hot, and by the time we had all completed two academic lessons, two sports lessons and a life skills lesson, both coaches and kids alike would be facing some depleted energy levels. I remember one afternoon when we took our grade eight team outside for team bonding, Ava (one of my fellow “Green Team” coaches) sprawled out on the ground of the courtyard. The kids laughed and began to join her. Before long we were all laying on the floor in a circle, staring up at the sky. The kids next to me began to point and teach me how to say ‘sky’ and ‘clouds’ in Vietnamese, and I in turn taught them the English terms. Rolling over to face each other in a circle, everyone was beaming, just taking in the moment to pause and enjoy one another’s company.

In the afternoons, we taught grade nine. More often than not, this was the time when there would be heavy rainfall and sometimes, we would have to postpone or cancel sports lessons. In one of these instances, we all ran outside and embraced the downpour. We linked arms and ran in circles, jumped in puddles, and mimicked making snow angels on the floor of the courtyard before running over to the tiled stage. We created our own slip n’ slide and laughed as everyone took turns sliding, surfing, or occasionally belly flopping across the stage. The rain was pouring down too loudly to hear anyone speak, but the smiles we shared said everything.

Their ability to feel gratitude for each moment or lesson and to always remain so present amazes me.

– Chelsea Proutt, Duke Rowing

During the second week of camp, we sat down with each member of our year eight and nine classes and had one-on-one conversations to get to know them better. My heart sank as I learned more about some of my happiest students’ backgrounds. Many came from broken homes, many had parents who did not support or value their education, and some had lost loved ones and parents. Regardless of the weight of what was happening in their personal lives, almost every student expressed that they were happy to be at the Coach for College (CFC) camp and grateful to be able to learn in both academic classes and sports.

One of my most attentive, hardest working students shared that his parents would not allow him to continue his education past grade nine, and one of my kindest, most generous students shared that he was grieving the loss of his father. For me, these conversations gave the smiles I had shared with these kids entirely new meaning. Their ability to feel gratitude for each moment or lesson and to always remain so present amazes me. I hope that one day I will have a semblance of their ability to focus on living in the moment and connecting with those around me.

It seems crazy that all the incredible memories, experiences, and relationships I have formed took place in just three weeks. I will remember this trip for the rest of my life and hope to carry in my smile some of the warmth, acceptance, resilience, and gratitude I learnt from the smiles I shared in Long Mỹ. I am forever grateful to ACE for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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