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As I sit in the airport I can’t help but feel nostalgic. The kids are spamming my Facebook now with video calls, and when I pick up we just look at each other for a few minutes. Some are better at English than others, but very few are capable of holding a conversation in English. Somehow it doesn’t matter. They manage to formulate a sentence explaining that they miss me very much, I reciprocate that I miss them too, and then they just want to stay on the video call for a few minutes. While our communication is limited the message is powerful.

“It was the small things that had the most profound effect on me. Every afternoon when we returned to the school after lunch I was greeted by the biggest smile from one of the boys on my team . . .  Simply put Coca was “the man.” He loves camp with a passion, and he puts his full effort into everything he does. Coca’s enthusiasm was the post-nap boost that I needed to get pumped up for every afternoon.”

During my last few days in Vietnam I really began to reflect on how my relationships with certain kids had developed over the course of the three weeks. Some kids who were quiet and shy completely broke out of their shells, other kids remained quite shy, and some made the transition from troublemakers to leaders. Regardless, in one way or another every kid became more comfortable with us and we, too, became more comfortable with the kids. Even though we live in two completely different worlds with different priorities, it is unbelievable how quickly we found common ground. Our life experiences are so drastically different, yet the kids and I both jumped at the opportunity to learn from one another. What became clear to me is that we are all humans, we are all compassionate, and often we learn the most from those who are most different from ourselves.

It was the small things that had the most profound effect on me. Every afternoon when we returned to the school after lunch I was greeted by the biggest smile from one of the boys on my team. His name is Ngoc, but I couldn’t get the pronunciation quite right so we settled on the nickname “Coca.” Simply put Coca was “the man.” He loves camp with a passion, and he puts his full effort into everything he does. Coca’s enthusiasm was the post-nap boost that I needed to get pumped up for every afternoon. Coca and I grew incredibly close, and despite the fact that Coca’s English was pretty limited, I think we came to understand each other pretty well.

Duke student with arms around Vietnamese student
Coca and me.

The rural countryside of Vietnam is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, but what makes the country so special is the people in it. I will dearly miss all of the Vietnamese and American coaches and administrators that I had the opportunity to work alongside, but I can confidently say that what I will miss most is the children. They have left their mark on me, and I’ll never forget them.

group photo of ten Duke and Stanford students in the Vietnam program
ACE in Vietnam Team

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