Making friends on the other side of the globe

 Hanna Barton (left) traveled to Vietnam as part of the Coach for College program offered through UW-Madison. Barton taught the students biology and coached them in volleyball for three weeks.

The day after UW-Madison discus thrower Hanna Barton competed at the Junior Nationals track meet in Eugene, Ore., she was on her way to Vietnam. After nearly 24 hours on several planes, she made it there in late June where she spent three weeks working with 120 middle school aged students.

Barton – a 2014 McFarland High School graduate who will be entering her sophomore year at college this fall – discovered the program Coach for College through UW-Madison’s office of student athlete development.

“I’ve wanted to go to Vietnam, it’s always been in the back of my mind,” she said. Her desire was developed through conversations with veterans who told Barton about the amazing places and people in the southeastern Asian country.

The Coach for College summer camp is to promote higher education through sports. The coaches inspire the children to be motivated. Having student athletes at the camp demonstrates what it’s like to be motivated and committed.

Barton was a camp coach in a town right outside of Da Nang. Being a coach entailed more than teaching the seventh and eighth graders to play volleyball. She would coach the students four days a week and the teams would compete against one another on Fridays. Barton has an extensive volleyball background from her years at McFarland High School.

Due to the language barrier, Vietnamese college students served as translators for the United States coaches. Barton said the students are taught English so most of them can read or write English, but do not speak the language very well.

“But by the end I could communicate with them (the students),” she said, even picking up a few Vietnamese phrases. While there was a language hurdle the students and coaches found ways to communicate through gestures and physical examples of what they wanted the students to do during practices.

“And when you were giggling with the kids, you all knew you were giggling at the same thing and that was the best moment with the kids,” she said.

She also taught the campers biology and life skills. Barton was a perfect fit to teach the subject as a biomedical engineering student.

During one biology lessons about dressing for the weather, Barton found the campers could not even fathom how cold it can get in the United States. The low temperature in the Asian country is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Then again, when the temperatures reached more than 100 degrees the Vietnamese didn’t find it overly hot. After experiencing those peaks Barton has found Wisconsin to be bit chilly even with temperatures in the mid to upper 80s.

Barton said life skills are taught to students in the United States as part of school curriculum, but in Vietnam it is not ingrained into education. The skills the students learned are ones we often take for granted: what it’s like to set a goal, what inspires them, what they want to be when they become adults, what teamwork is, what higher education can do for your life, and what challenges they face.

The Coach for College program is an opportunity to explore the cultural differences between the countries. Da Nang is approximately 8,200 miles away from McFarland but culturally, it seems even further than that. For one thing, people take off their shoes when climbing stairs as a sign of respect. They enjoy refreshing avocado smoothies (which Barton claims taste very good) or bubble tea, and believe pale skin is beautiful and even purchase makeup to appear more pale.

The idea of personal space is much different than in the United States. In Vietnam if there is a person sitting on a bench it’s common to just sit next to the stranger. In the United States, a person would choose to stand rather than sit next to a stranger. Furthermore, time is a bit more fluid. While Barton was used to a more rigid and structured time schedule, the campers would not follow the rigid schedule but decide to change activities when they felt like it.

“It’s also part of my personality to just go go go,” Barton said, “and it’s interesting to see their culture isn’t that way. … Even just walking through a temple they’re just taking their time.”

She also found it interesting that a farm was so close to the camp that cows would wander over during the day and moo outside the window.

Barton told the Vietnamese translators: “We have a lot of cows (in Wisconsin), I’m just not used to them wandering into my schoolyard.”

While in Vietnam, Barton had the chance to visit the area. They went to a beautiful local Buddhist temple, traveled to the Forbidden City in Hue, and spent time at a beach. She also visited Ho Chi Minh City during flight layovers.

When the three weeks of the camp ended, it was an emotional goodbye for the coaches and campers. There was even cake, though most of the frosting ended up on people.

“So there we were crying with frosting on our faces,” Barton said.

After traveling to Vietnam, Barton is already looking to find other travel opportunities; perhaps somewhere she can put her Spanish speaking skills to use. Barton could also be part of Coach for College as a director to serve as a resource for the coaches.

“After traveling I just want to travel more,” she said. “There’s just so much of this world to see and people live so differently than we live. It seems so ignorant that I could spend my whole life right here and not experience what it’s like in the rest of the world. … Overall (being in Vietnam) was just really eye-opening.”