When Carlie Littlefield ’21 first saw the kids approaching the basketball court, she gave up all hope of getting any shots. They’ll take the ball from me and start playing with it themselves, she thought. After all, she was outnumbered by middle schoolers who did not speak her language.
To her surprise, her first shot was rebounded and eagerly passed back. Shot after shot, the kids chased down the ball and cheered her on. Littlefield, a standout point guard from Waukee, Iowa, was one of 10 Princeton student-athletes participating in the Coach for College program in rural Vietnam. She was there to serve as a role model to the children, and she was touched by how eager they were to help her.
Coach for College promotes higher education through sport, bringing students from Princeton and other U.S. universities to work with Vietnamese coaches and instructors who teach academic subjects, sports, and life skills to more than 500 children in rural communities.
Seth Napier, U.S. program director of Coach for College, said the children are at a crucial stage in their lives, when having a mentor can give a significant boost. “At the end of three weeks,” he said, “the Vietnamese students leave camp with a higher motivation toward overcoming the many obstacles they face to stay in school, knowledge that will help them succeed in the upcoming school year, and perhaps most important, a new confidence that they have deep value as individuals in the eyes of their coaches.”
Max Schwegman ’18, a track and field alumnus and two-time Coach for College participant, said that academically, there are limits to how much can be covered in three weeks. But for the kids in the camp, a boost in self-confidence could be the difference between staying in school and dropping out. “If we can get them to believe in their abilities,” Schwegman said, “they will be able to find the confidence to pursue their own dreams instead of writing them off as unachievable.”
In the classroom, the Tigers were paired with Vietnamese college students who assisted with translation. Each undergrad typically teaches one sport and one academic subject to students in two different grades. For Littlefield, it was math and basketball.
“Each lesson I taught, I tried to get the kids excited about learning and eager to continue to improve at whatever we were working on that day,” she said. Sometimes she would resort to barrages of high fives (or handfuls of candy) to motivate her sixth- and seventh-graders.
The program “leverages our student-athletes’ love for academics and love for athletics,” said Brendan Van Ackeren, assistant director of athletics for the Princeton Varsity Club, which has worked with Coach for College since 2013 and supports about 80 percent of the costs for the Princeton students in the program. The Tigers gain new perspectives from being immersed in a culture so different than their own.
Upon her return, Littlefield found herself complaining a lot less. “My eyes were open to the fact that anything I could possibly complain about was trivial compared to what the kids experienced each day,” she said. “I try to approach every day and every workout with renewed gratitude.”