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My time in Vietnam was an experience-for-a-lifetime but not because of one of those cliché responses like “their culture is really different compared to ours.” I’m not saying I didn’t experience this, but my trip was incredible for another reason. It was unbelievable because of how humbling the entire experience was for me. Everyday had its own struggles. The days were long (often beginning around 4:45am and ending at 10:00pm), and the lesson planning could be difficult. It wasn’t physically taxing per se but rather mentally taxing. This was due to the need for constant engagement with the students. Failure to do so on our end had the potential to be the difference between a kid going onto higher education or dropping out. Even though it was hard work, I wouldn’t have changed my experience. I think too often people just do service to check off a box on a resume. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against that, but Coach for College (CFC) and ACE in Vietnam were much more than that. It was an opportunity to connect with people and kids. It was an opportunity to see the daily struggles of another’s life. If I had one word to describe my experience, I’d say it was “humbling.” My time in Vietnam was humbling for a variety of reasons.

You see three weeks is the longest amount of time I’ve ever been away from family. Be it my twin brother or another one of my brothers, there have been very few instances where I have been separated from them. This trip was the first time I’d been separated from family for an extended period of time. Talk about getting pushed out of my comfort zone! And to be honest, I think I fared pretty well in dealing with this change. It was a chance for me to grow along with the kids we were teaching. One thing that vividly sticks in my head is how easily I slept each night. To some surprise, I am notorious for having sleepless nights stirring in bed thinking about wrestling and my future plans. It’s a horrible habit that has been hard to shake. However, throughout this trip there were very few instances where I struggled to sleep. Be it that my attention was focused in the moment or that maybe I was too exhausted to even overthink things, sleep was a breeze. I was a part of something greater than myself so I couldn’t focus my attention on myself. It goes to show the power that service projects like CFC can have on the individuals involved. It reminds me of the Muhammad Ali quote that, “Service to others is the rent you pay for you room here on earth.” Giving back to others is truly an incredible experience.

“Even though it was hard work, I wouldn’t have changed my experience. I think too often people just do service to check off a box on a resume. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against that, but Coach for College (CFC) and ACE in Vietnam were much more than that. It was an opportunity to connect with people and kids. It was an opportunity to see the daily struggles of another’s life. If I had one word to describe my experience, I’d say it was ‘humbling.'”

Additionally, my ACE experience helped me realize the struggles teachers and educators go through to effectively connect with their students and to have a positive impact on their lives. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the hard work that goes into teaching until I had to do it myself. I didn’t think much of it that for forty years my dad has gotten up at 4:30 every morning to teach and mold the youth of America. It’s a thankless job and widely underappreciated, but a good teacher has the capabilities to change lives, to spark curiosities, and to build a community. They work long hours inside and outside the classroom sacrificing massive amounts of time. Just from our lesson planning sessions, I realized the value of time. The more time we invested resulted in a greater outcome in the classroom. From my own personal experience, I attempted to mimic the teachers that had the greatest impact on my learning when I was teaching biology classes. Each teacher had their unique methods of keeping their students engaged.  It usually stemmed from sacrificing their time for the sake of their students learning. That’s not an easy feat. You have to be very selfless. One example was my high school biology teacher drawing intricate diagrams and models of cells and organ systems on the whiteboard. He would use multiple colors and break down all the small intricacies. Something as small as this kept the class engaged for the entire class period. His extra effort in the classroom translated to him being one of the most loved teachers at the school and inspired me on to my future career path to becoming a doctor. Hopefully I did him justice with my own chalkboard drawings of organ systems. And if you’re reading this right now, thanks, Mr. Dufford!

“Additionally, my ACE experience helped me realize the struggles teachers and educators go through to effectively connect with their students and to have a positive impact on their lives. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the hard work that goes into teaching until I had to do it myself.”

Anyway, the last and probably the most impactful part of my experience in Vietnam was the day before we were leaving. After all the competitions were ended, we were to walk to one of the student’s houses to experience rural Vietnam. We walked for an hour and half to get to our destination. The coolest part though was the mob of students who followed along as we traversed the long path. That walk really allowed us to get to know the students we’d worked with for three weeks. It strengthened the relationships we had built.

I learned two key things that day. One, these kids sacrifice to attend CFC and to interact with us. Many of the students travel long distance early in the morning to come to camp. And two, regardless of the struggles associated in their lives, every student came to class happy and eager to get started. Their circumstances didn’t control their attitudes. They controlled their attitudes which were often extremely positive.

I’ll admit, I was hesitant to apply for ACE. I feared being away from wrestling for three weeks. I had goals and dreams and I thought if I was away from wrestling that long, my goals would be stifled. However, what I learned through this experience was just as valuable. Not just for my current goals but for my life after wrestling. This experience puts things in perspective. It humbles you!

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