Colleen Thom and Chelsea Shine have been through the wringer. Three weeks of abject poverty, withering heat and tasteless food. Three weeks of lurking lizards, scary spiders and swarming mosquitoes.
They couldn't be more grateful.
Grateful for the opportunity to challenge themselves, serve others and broaden their horizons in ways they could not have imagined.
Never was that more evident than as these two ACC athletes said farewell last month to the Vietnamese children they taught, embraced and captivated.
"I didn't realize how much impact we'd had on the kids until the last day," said Shine, a University of Virginia basketball player. "A lot of them were crying, a lot of (us) were crying."
Thom, a Virginia Tech cross country runner from Yorktown, started "bawling my eyes out" when an interpreter translated a hand-written letter from a 9th-grade student named Hien.
"I hope I will see you again," she wrote. "I hope fate brings us together again."
Shine and Thom are among 62 ACC athletes participating this summer in Coach for College, a global initiative to promote higher education founded by former Duke tennis player Parker Goyer.
The Americans, 18 from Virginia and Virginia Tech, team with Vietnamese coaches to teach children basketball, soccer, volleyball and tennis. More important, the curriculum also includes health, physics, morality and English.
"We were using sports to connect with the kids and teach them the value of higher education," Shine said.
Vietnam has progressed markedly since the 1975 fall of Saigon, but still only about two percent of adults attend college. Goyer chose the country on the advice of a Duke professor and started the program in 2008.
A Rhodes Scholar studying at the University of Oxford's Said Business School, she coordinates Coach for College with Duke's Center for Civic Engagement. Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Florida State contributed $2,500 for each participant from their school, while the ACC funded those from elsewhere in the conference, Goyer said via email.
Goyer hopes to expand Coach for College into an international version of Teach for America, the program that places teachers in rural and urban schools throughout the United States.
"It will require a lot of work and luck!" Goyer said.
Thom and Shine would be first in line to help Goyer recruit.
"It sounded perfect to me," said Thom, who learned of Goyer's project via an email. "I really love coaching, and I really wanted to go to a (developing) country to see what I could do to help. I called my parents right away, and I applied that night."
A 2010 Peninsula Catholic graduate, Thom has tutored American children and worked with them at basketball camps. But nothing rates with her Vietnam experience, an emergency trip to the hospital notwithstanding.
"By far the best part was getting close to the kids," Thom said. "They were probably the happiest and most well-behaved kids I've ever taught. They're outstanding students and people."
A self-described worrier, planner and creature of habit, Shine quickly discovered that she needed to become more patient, spontaneous and relaxed.
"I feel like I grew up a lot in my ability to relate to people and communicate with them in different ways," she said. "It was real humbling experience, to say the least, to see people living off of basically nothing and still being happy."
Shine, Thom and their ACC colleagues for this session met several times via Skype to prepare for their journey, which ran from May 26 to June 20. They flew into Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, crashed for a night in a back-alley hostel and then bussed several hours to the southern portion of the country.
Thom's base was a "two-star hostel" in Thuan Hung, Shine's at Can Tho University near Hoa An. Each site included eight ACC athletes.
"You get to know people very quickly," Shine said of her companions. "You share all the new stuff, all the culture shock."
Shock such as village huts walled not by brick or wood, but tarps and blankets. Shock such as cars being nearly as scarce as horse-drawn carriages in Charlottesville and Blacksburg. Shock such as the toilet-side faucets that passed for showers.
"That," Shine said of the restrooms, "was a little different."
As were the language barrier, pervasive pests and mystery meat.
"Our motto was, 'Eat first, ask questions later,'" Shine said. "I didn't mind the food at all, but the portions were pretty small. We had white rice with every meal, and they called me Miss Soy Sauce because I doused everything … to give it some flavor."
Thom said her quarters were nicer, but late in her stay she was rushed to a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City with an undiagnosed intestinal ailment that still lingers.
"It was really scary," she said. "Fortunately, my doctor spoke English, and she was able to talk to my dad, who's a doctor."
As indelible as those impressions are, the people, "extremely welcoming" in Shine's words, trump all. No matter the language hurdle and cultural differences.
Just gaze at the faces in the accompanying photos. Look at the child cradled in Shine's left arm, the unbridled joy of Thom and Hien.
Yes, Internet connections were unreliable, limiting communication with family back home. Yes, hot soup was not Shine's idea of a hearty breakfast and led to her dropping seven pounds. And yes, Shine and Thom are behind on their summer conditioning.
Mere inconveniences all.
"It was so rewarding," Thom said. "The translators were really great, and I still stay in touch with them on email and Facebook."
"It was an exhausting three weeks," Shine said. "But it was so rewarding and so worth it."
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Coach for College participants
Claire Crippen, swimming
Elizabeth Nilan, rowing
Chelsea Shine, basketball
Paige Terry, rowing
Hadley Bell, field hockey
Casey Ridge, swimming
Eric Bolden, football
Kimberly Patten, lacrosse
Julie Wolfinger, lacrosse
Ryan Rotanz, lacrosse
Jessica Trapeni, cross country
Drew Dillon, cross country
Colleen Thom, cross country
Aunye' Boone, track
Devin Cornwall, track
Keith Ricks, track
Morgan Allen, swimming
Kaleigh Gomes, swimmingCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun