For five Lyons, Coach for College program in Vietnam was a transformative experience

Clockwise from top left, Mount Holyoke student-athletes Laureen Jean-Jacques, Piper LaPointe, Aria Mallare, True Usiatynski, and Rachel Katzenberg all participated in Coach for College for three weeks this summer in Vietnam.
Clockwise from top left, Mount Holyoke student-athletes Laureen Jean-Jacques, Piper LaPointe, Aria Mallare, True Usiatynski, and Rachel Katzenberg all participated in Coach for College for three weeks this summer in Vietnam.

Studying abroad for a semester is both valuable and common for U.S. college students. But for the varsity student-athletes among them, team and training commitments often get in the way of participating in such a vital part of the college experience. In 2008, former Duke University tennis player Parker Goyer created a program to change this narrative, and called it Coach for College. What started off as a partnership between Duke and the University of North Carolina has now grown to include over 40 universities, and Vietnamese college students from over 30 schools. 

This year, Mount Holyoke joined the list of U.S. institutions participating in Coach for College, and sent five of its student-athletes to Vietnam, based on their outstanding applications: 

  • Laureen Jean-Jacques '23 (Miami, Fla.); Soccer
  • Rachel Katzenberg '25 (Reisterstown, Md.); Field Hockey
  • Piper LaPointe '23 (Mansfield, Mass.); Rowing
  • Aria Mallare '25 (Chicago, Ill.); Track & Field
  • True Usiatynski '25 (Fayetteville, N.Y.); Equestrian 

These Lyons, along with peers from other U.S. colleges, formed small teams with Vietnamese college students, and were dispersed to various summer camps in rural Vietnam. For a three-week period, they led children from local middle schools through various academic subjects, sports, and life skills. 

The campers are considered to be at a crucial developmental stage, and it's an age when many students begin dropping out of school. Many of the children face the crucial choice of whether or not to continue their education. The hope is to give Vietnamese children a new viewpoint on the importance of education.

The hope for the Lyons and other U.S. participants, meanwhile, is gain unique skills and experience that can be used later in life. 

"Being a coach for CFC is one of, if not the, most purposeful things I've done," said Mallare. "I made so many memories, made so many good friends, and learned so many new things during my time in Vietnam."

We had the chance to interview four of the participants from Mount Holyoke, to gain a better understanding of their involvement in the initiative. This is what they told us.

What impact did Coach for College have on you?

True Usiatynski: For me personally, being an International Relations major, I really loved the experience – truly amazing. I think it was important to learn about Vietnamese culture through the lens of the children. I think that kids are a really great way to learn about a culture, because they're so open to sharing.

Piper LaPointe: Coach for College really got the ball rolling in my journey to becoming a teacher. Overall, it was just eye-opening and rewarding. During their first week, we asked the basic get to know you questions, and a lot of their responses were so beyond what I have ever experienced. It really showed me how strong these kids are. Absolutely some of the strongest kids I've ever met.

Rachel Katzenberg: It was really important to me, since I loved working with kids, but this would be the first time that I would be coaching or teaching someone younger than myself. This program solidified that I do want to work with kids in the future.

Aria Mallare: It really got me out of my comfort zone, and I had an amazing time! I wasn't as culturally shocked as I thought I would be. I was really prepared for these tough, rural conditions, but when I got there I was totally fine. My dad's family is from the Philippines. I've never been to the Philippines, but having a multicultural upbringing definitely helped a lot.


What impact do you believe you left with the kids you worked with?

True Usiatynski: To my understanding, at the end of 9th grade they have an exam to potentially move on to high school. It's not something that everyone does, whether for financial reasons or other reasons.  I hope that we encouraged kids to continue on to high school. Or at least developed more of a sense of value for education.

Piper LaPointe: My last day was one of the saddest days of my life. Mainly because I connected with the kids in those three weeks. There was not a single kid who didn't cry. It was really heartwarming to know that these kids really took something away from us. It felt like our presence impacted them beyond education. I am still getting Instagram DMs from them. The fact that they found me on social media to thank me says a lot about the impact I left on them.

Rachel Katzenberg: From the first day, these kids treated us like celebrities. Giving us high fives, taking selfies, giving us snacks. It really felt like we were really important to them. To some of the kids, we were a lifeline to them. On the last day, just about every kid was crying. It really hit me when I got on the bus how big of an impact I left on them.

Aria Mallare: We take tests every Friday, and our first math test was a little rough for the kids. So the next day, I shared my struggles with high school math with the kids. My grades weren't the best, but I put in the work to get better at it, and my teacher saw the effort that I was putting in. She was very patient with me and wanted to work with me. Afterwards, I learned to really like math and not see it as a challenge, but more like a puzzle. So when I see the kids struggling, I can relate to them. I hope they learned they can do hard things through practice and hard work.

What is your favorite memory of the entire experience?

True Usiatynski: At the end of each week, our homeroom teams would take tests to see where they are in each of the subjects, and they would compete in sports. I really thought it was super fun to cheer on my Yellow Sunshines. I thought that was so fun to be supportive and cheering them on, and telling them it doesn't matter how you do, just do your best. 

Piper LaPointe: I taught physics during my time in Vietnam. There was this one particular experiment where my co-coach and myself were trying to get these kids to balance on a box that was supported by paper rolls. I just remember picking these kids up one by one and trying to get the experiment to work. It was so funny, since we couldn't get it done, but I would say that was my favorite memory. Just getting to be really silly in front of the kids and getting them to laugh.

Rachel Katzenberg: I got to teach math and coach baseball. Most of the kids don't even know what baseball is. There was a young girl that was struggling to hit the ball as we were throwing the ball to them. Finally, she made contact and she dropped the bat and was jumping up and down in excitement. It warmed my heart to see how excited these kids were.

Aria Mallare: It's hard to pin down one favorite memory, but I taught a lesson on stereotypes. One of the biggest stereotypes that the kids are facing is what can boys do versus what can girls do? In one of the exercises that we did, we asked them to draw a doctor, an athlete, someone who is successful, and someone who is smart without giving them any descriptions. The idea was to identify any patterns in the drawings, like did people only draw men as doctors. But when it was time to show us their pictures, everyone in the class had drawn me as the doctor because it's something that I had talked about. I was so filled with joy and inspiration to see that these kids thought of me when they thought of a doctor.

If given the opportunity, would you go back?

True Usiatynski: Absolutely! I would love to go back, whether it's to the same site or somewhere else in Vietnam. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life. I've been trying to tell my little sister that she needs to try and do it. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone.

Piper LaPointe: I don't think I would go back to do the same thing. Not because I didn't enjoy myself, but because it was so special. I would love to go back and find some of the kids that I taught and the coaches that I worked with to see where they ended up.

Rachel Katzenberg: There are so many other experiences that I would love to have. But I would go back as a director or to reconnect with kids again!

Aria Mallare: In a heartbeat! I would go back so quick! I talk to the kids I coached everyday still – even kids that weren't in the program. I really bonded with the Vietnamese coaches. I would love to visit the kids to check on them. I really want to see them grow and do the things I know they can do.