Parker Goyer’s unique approach to education has made a big impact on Vietnamese middle school students—and on student-athletes across the U.S.
During her time as a member of Duke’s women’s tennis team, Goyer realized how difficult it was for student-athletes to partake in civic engagement experiences abroad. But following her graduation in 2007, Goyer found a way for student-athletes to make a difference on the other side of the world.
Since launching Coach for College—an immersive summer-service program in Vietnam—in 2008, Goyer has watched the program develop to include four sites in two Vietnamese provinces. It has grown from a staff of 20 athletes from Duke and North Carolina to 60 American student-athletes from 20 different institutions, and Goyer believes Coaches for College has room to continue growing.
“From the beginning, I envisioned Coach for College one day being a global program,” Goyer said in an email. “In some ways, I am seeking to create an organization and movement on the scale of Teach for America that will allow college athletes from different—and even rival—universities to come together for a common cause.”
A different approach to education
Through a curriculum that integrates sports into the learning experience, Coach for College offers not only an alternative means of education for rural Vietnamese youth, but also a civic engagement opportunity designed for time-strapped college athletes.
Goyer’s initiative provides the middle school populations of the Hau Giang and An Giang provinces with opportunities to pursue a more interactive education, taught by American athletes and Vietnamese college students.
“They don’t have a lot... and at times I felt like they were giving me more than I was giving them,” said Loren Shealy, a North Carolina field hockey player who participated in 2012 and was named Sports Illustrated’s Female College Athlete of the Year in May. “We did these little life skills lessons before the start of each school day, and those two things were always the main message for us, because in sports, when you’re out there training and you’re out there competing with your teammates, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to believe in the person standing next to you in order to achieve something.”
Relating life skills and academic subjects to sports marked a stark contrast from the usual educational experience in Vietnam.
“In school they’re taught to be more passive and lecture-driven and memorize everything,” Goyer said. “We connect everything to sports. We teach physics, biology, math and English using sports examples and metaphors. I think that’s a really good way to help make them excited about the subject but also have them see it as more tangible.”
From the court to the classroom
At Duke, Goyer excelled at tennis—reaching as high as No. 30 in the nation—and earned a degree in psychology, but she also had a passion for service. By her senior year, Goyer had already started thinking of ways to connect Duke and Vietnamese students, reaching out to Nike to discuss her ideas.
After spending the summer of 2007 in Vietnam and Belize, Goyer began to formulate an idea for a program that integrated sports and education.
“It has always been my goal to create a major global initiative that involved utilizing sports to promote higher education around the world, as well as research findings from psychology,” Goyer said. “Most policymakers and international development organizations focus on structural solutions, such as providing infrastructure and financial aid, and I have always wanted to demonstrate the value of a psychological approach.”
Goyer further developed a plan for the program through talks with the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, the U.S. State Department and NCAA Vice President of Educational Affairs Robert Vowels—a former Duke football player—from whom she would receive $10,000 in funding to start Coach for College.
That year, she also earned a fellowship with the Robertson Scholars Program, which allowed her to devote a portion of time to an independent project.
Tony Brown, the former president of the Robertson Scholars Program, had taught Goyer at Duke and knew first-hand of her work ethic and her ability to pitch an idea.
“I was not going to admit her to the class, and she actually talked me into it,” Brown said. “I didn’t think she had time for the class, and she convinced me that she’d make time, and she did.”
To get the program started, Goyer raised funds for her initiative through support from Duke’s Provost’s office, as well as from several other Duke and North Carolina departments. Duke Provost Peter Lange saw Coach for College as a valuable opportunity to provide the university’s athletes with similar service opportunities to non-athletes.
“It was clear that athletes would not be able, for the most part, to take advantage of DukeEngage because of their schedules,” Lange said. “If the DukeEngage experience was going to be a valuable one for non-athletes, I thought that this might be an opportunity to give at least a part of the same experience for athletes.”
DukeEngage has since played an administrative role for Coach for College, and worked closely with Goyer to develop her program during the last six years. She also secured a $175,000 grant from the U.S. State Department for her 2009 summer program, and for the past two summers, Coach for College has partnered with the East Meets West Foundation, a group that has 25 years of experience working on improving education, healthcare and clean water and sanitation in Vietnam.
Goyer’s entrepreneurial efforts only tell part of the story of her commitment to Coach for College. Since launching the program, she has also completed a Master of Science degree in comparative and international education and an MBA at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and is currently completing a dissertation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Although continuing her academic career puts an added strain on her time, Goyer’s education gives her the tools to take a multidisciplinary approach to her work. Her research has focused on the program and provided data to show that Coach for College both increases the student’s higher education goals and reduces dropout rates.
“In the field of international development, there’s a lot of focus on evidence-based decision making and outcomes, so this provides a lot of data to show the results in a way that’s very compelling and could also be subject to rigorous examination,” said Tom Low, the CFO of the East Meets West Foundation.
Low, who visited the Coach for College program this year, said that the Vietnamese students he observed were making connections between their sports activities and their academic courses.
Elaine Madison, who has worked with Coach for College as DukeEngage’s Associate Director for Programs, said that Goyer’s methodology has helped DukeEngage as well.
The impact on the American student-athletes is also evident. Emily Hyland, a senior rower at Duke, served as a teacher in 2012 and decided to return as a student director in 2013.
“Meeting people that are the same age as you and going through similar experiences as you adds another dimension to the experience and is incredibly eye-opening,” Hyland said. “While you learn a lot about Vietnamese culture and way of life, you perhaps learn more about yourself, the culture you were raised in and why you see things the way that you do.”