The students of VOLeaders Academy supported Vietnamese kids by hosting sports camps. [Image: VOLeaders Academy Twitter account]

Tennessee Student-Athletes Volunteer in Vietnam

ASEAN The Mekong

In July, 14 student-athletes at the University of Tennessee (UT) had a unique cross-cultural experience in Vietnam through the school’s VOLeaders Academy. Inspired by Nga Le — the first Vietnamese student selected by the US Department of State’s Global Sports Mentoring Program — the VOLeaders Academy chose Vietnam as the destination for its second service trip. While traveling to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, students visited the Paralympic training center and Ton Duc Thang University, exchanging their ideas with local communities.

The VOLeaders hosted sports camps for children at the youth center in Ho Chi Minh City and SOS Children’s village. Additionally, they engaged in social justice advocacy on behalf of Vietnam’s people by visiting the Agent Orange care facility for children and Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. During their service activities, sports provided a powerful platform for communication — a common language that superseded linguistic differences. The fourteen VOLeaders’ valuable reflections from Vietnam will inspire both Americans and Vietnamese to build stronger ties in various sectors in their two countries.

Vietnam has strengthened its economic ties with Tennessee: in 2016, the total value of the state’s exports to Vietnam was $245 million, representing an increase of 57% over the previous two years. Now, Memphis, TN is home for over 3,000 Vietnamese: “Little Hanoi” contributes to the city’s cultural diversity. The Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, has collaborated with the Vietnam National University in research to tackle mental health challenges in the Southeast Asia.

Tennessee’s growing relations with Vietnam are part of a larger trend of strengthening US-Vietnam ties. US exports to Vietnam increased by 43% in 2016, totaling $10.2 billion. During the 2015/16 academic year, Vietnamese students were the 6th largest group of international students in the United States. Also, Vietnam was the third most popular destination of US students studying abroad.

Yeo-Ri Kim is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a Master's candidate in Global Policy Studies at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas.