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During the past summer, five Duke Rowers dropped their oars for three weeks to pursue immersive international service in the inaugural year of the Rubenstein-Bing Student-Athlete Civic Engagement Program (ACE).

A joint effort between the athletic departments and civic engagement offices at Duke and Stanford Universities, ACE provides one-time funding for selected student-athletes to travel to South Africa, India, China, or Vietnam and serve the local community through youth sports and coaching, education, environmental conservation and more. Rowers comprised nearly a quarter of the ACE participants from Duke, making Rowing the best-represented team in ACE 2016.

Senior and co-captain Elizabeth Horne, a participant in ACE in South Africa, explained that the goals of ACE align with her team’s values and culture.

“We are a very passionate and driven group of women with a sincere desire to do as much as we can to help each other and the people around us,” Horne said. “In the past, members of our team have been very involved in the DukeEngage program.” DukeEngage is an immersive eight-week service program for selected Duke students that helped influence the development of ACE.

When Duke Rowing received its first bid to the NCAA championships last year, scheduling conflicts with many of the DukeEngage programs arose for the rowers. “For this reason,” said Horne, “the ACE Program came in at the perfect time,” since ACE programs are only three weeks in length.

Other Duke rowers who were selected to participate in ACE 2016 were junior coxswain Meagan Lew(India), junior Grace Williams (Vietnam), junior Tara Christensen (Vietnam) and sophomore Isabel Ruby-Hill (China).

For Christensen, coaching middle-school Vietnamese youth in various sports was a refreshing reminder of what sports are all about.

“Playing every day with those kids renewed my love of sport,” she said. “It reminded me how lucky we are as student-athletes to get the opportunity to do what we love every day.”

ACE in Vietnam participants helped lead a summer day camp to teach rural Vietnamese students about topics such as goal-setting and the value of education, perseverance, teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership. Through the program the rowers got a close look at rural education in a developing country, and the experience changed many perspectives.

“Playing every day with those kids renewed my love of sport…It reminded me how lucky we are as student-athletes to get the opportunity to do what we love every day.”

– Tara Christensen

“I will definitely use all the opportunities I am given academically now,” said Williams, who joined Christensen in Vietnam. “I know a lot of places in Vietnam just do not have the same opportunities, especially for girls.”

During ACE, the teammates were scarcely able to communicate with one another due to differing schedules, time zones and access to technology. “I didn’t communicate much with my teammates while I was there because of the time difference,” said Horne. “And because we didn’t have our phones or access to wifi for most of the day.”

But the rowers agree that their common experiences from ACE have brought them closer since returning to campus.

“I think there definitely is a bond between us as we can all discuss our experiences and compare thoughts about the program,” added Horne.

“Once we were all back on campus, it was so exciting to hear about everyone else’s experiences and compare them back to your own,” Williams reflected. “Rowing is so fortunate to have representatives travel to all four of the locations.”

Although Williams and Christensen were in the same program, they had different roles and did not get many chances to work or hang out together. “It was crazy to me that we could be in the same place on the other side of the world and be so busy that we couldn’t spend much time together,” said Williams.

Christensen added that despite their separation, “we got the opportunity to spend time together on our weekends off, and we roomed together on our second weekend trip, which was a fun chance to catch up and share our experiences.”

“We really relied on teamwork in China…I have definitely gained more principle and leadership experience through ACE.”

– Isabel Ruby-Hill

The student-athletes’ training obligations did not vanish during the three weeks of ACE, and the varying availability of workout equipment often required some creativity.

“I brought my own bands and a pull up bar and was able to maintain my fitness while there,” said Christensen. The student-athletes on Christensen’s program exchanged workouts from their respective teams. “While the training facilities were limited, it was a cool opportunity to work out with athletes from different sports.”

Horne’s ACE in South Africa group had access to a full gym, “so it was very easy to keep up with workouts.” She added that her main difficulty in training was simply fatigue, because “we were doing a lot of manual labor at some of the project sites.”

The rowers’ gains as athletes transcended the gym. “We really relied on teamwork in China,” said Ruby-Hill. “I have definitely gained more principle and leadership experience through ACE.”

“[ACE] has also helped me to connect with other people on the team who I didn’t previously have very close relationships with outside of a rowing environment,” added Horne. “I think that has made me a better teammate.”

Horne also credited her coaches for embracing the ACE Program. “Our coaches have been extremely supportive of the program, and have been very receptive and encouraging, which always helps to promote team culture.”

Evidence of an evolving ethic of service on the rowing team: four out of the five 2016 ACE rowers are serving as ACE ambassadors and promoting the program among Duke student-athletes as well as leading pre-departure training for the next ACE group.

Speaking to future ACE athletes, Christensen emphasized her love for the local youth on her program. “The kids you get to work with every day on this trip are truly amazing people, and the bond you form with them over a few short weeks is unlike anything else I’ve ever been a part of. It was an incredible three weeks that took me beyond my comfort zone.”

Read the full story on Duke Athletics.