Alaska's Mica Chen Embraces Teaching, Coaching Roles
Not only was Mica Chen a key defensive presence for Alaska but a player that head coach Brian Scott considers an ambassador of the program's team culture.
Not only was Mica Chen a key defensive presence for Alaska but a player that head coach Brian Scott considers an ambassador of the program's team culture.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020
by Blake Timm, Assistant Commissioner For Communications

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – Whatever you do, don’t call Mica Chen a coach.

The two-year right-side hitter and defensive specialist for the Alaska volleyball program is making the transition from the floor to the sidelines as a volunteer assistant coach but she doesn’t feel like she has earned the “coach” title.

“I really don’t want to say ‘coach,’” Chen said. “I don’t feel like I am good enough to coach college volleyball.”

While she may not feel like it, head coach Brian Scott believed enough in her abilities to bring her on board after two years as a key defensive player for the Nanooks. Playing in all but two matches during the 2019 season, Chen averaged 2.25 digs per set.

For Chen, who is from Shanghai, China, the role is providing a chance to not only continue to be involved with the game that she loves but to remain in a community and culture she has fallen in love with.

“I felt like two years was not enough for me,” Chen said. “I still want volleyball to be part of my life. I wish that I could play here forever.”

Coaching was not initially part of Chen’s intended career path. But as it happens for many college students, the best-laid path has taken several detours. Those detours have included remaining in the United States, coaching and working as a teaching assistant in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ communication department.

Chen planned to return home to China for the summer but, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of airline tickets, she remained in Alaska. She also intended to return to China to become an English teacher but the lure of American culture may amend those plans as well.

“American culture is so different than Chinese culture,” Chen said. “I love it here. I love doing outside activities. At home, could I go jet skiing? No. Could I go hiking? No. It’s different and I really love it here.”

Chen joined the Nanooks as the program was entering a renaissance. A transfer from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, Chen played in 21 matches and started in 14 as Alaska finished with a winning record for the first time in a decade. Transitioning to more of a defensive role in 2019, Chen was still key as the Nanooks became a squad that the rest of the conference had to worry about every night.

“We pushed each other hard and learned so much from each other,” Chen said of her two years of success with the program. “We struggled for a bit each year but we just regrouped, we learned from each other and believed in each other.”

Much of that stems from the attitudes of Chen and a corps of like-minded teammates, which allowed that success to be driven on the court.

“When players can create that camaraderie and ability to work together, that is when we will be successful,” Scott said. “As far as a coach goes, I have far less of a role in that success than the players do. It has to be player-driven. Mica is one of those players who helps us be a player-driven program.”

Playing for Alaska was a breath of fresh air for Chen, who played six years of volleyball in China before coming to the United States. She excelled, participating in the Chinese National Junior Volleyball Tournament in 2015.

Like much of Chinese society, however, training in volleyball was about repetition. She did the same thing every day. While Chen loved the game, she did not love the routine and the repetition. It was not what she wanted for her life. She wanted to discover more of what the world was all about.

When the opportunity came to play in the United States, Chen jumped at it. In her last season at Indian Hills, Chen averaged 2.34 digs per set.

But how does someone from China decide to move on from the plains of Iowa to the snow-capped mountains of Alaska? It was as much about wanting to experience more of America as much as it was continuing to play volleyball at a high level.

“I was super curious about Alaska,” Chen said. “I am a big fan of polar bears so I wanted to see the polar bears in Alaska. I also love the Northern Lights and I had never seen them before.”

Chen acknowledges that the transition from playing to coaching is tough. It can be hard to set boundaries with former teammates that are now looking to you for advice. But Chen believes that the challenge also provides her an advantage. “I feel like my teammates still see me as one of their teammates. That is good because I feel like I can communicate with them better,” Chen said.

Over the first two weeks of fall training, Scott acknowledges that it has been hard to get Chen to feel comfortable providing guidance to her former teammates. He is certain those skills will come as the year moves on. More importantly, though, he wants Chen to be active in fostering the culture that has raised the program to a new level.

“Mica was such a great player in terms of helping us develop a culture here,” Scott said. “It is hard to put into words but she embraces everybody. She has been the glue that has helped bring everyone together. It is hard to let someone like that go and when she said she wanted to stay and be involved, we jumped on the opportunity.”

Like with her coaching role, Chen’s teaching assistant role changed from her intended path. As the fall term neared, she expected to be grading papers and reviewing assignments.

“My supervisor told me that I would be teaching two public speaking classes. And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” Chen said. “I was still mentally thinking like a student-athlete. It was hard to change.”

Chen is teaching two public speaking classes with radically different focuses. The first is centered around group dynamics and learning to be better communicators and problem-solvers in a group setting. The second focuses on traditional public speaking techniques, such as the structure and organization of speeches and how to keep an audience’s attention.

Like her feelings about the word “coach,” Chen says not to call her a professor or instructor. She believes that, like with her coaching duties, she has a unique relationship with her students.

“I can promise you that (the students) do not see me as the professor or an instructor but as a friend,” Chen said. “The way they talk with me is funny. I enjoy spending time with them and I learn a lot from them.

“I want to makes these classes super fun for them. I hope that they can have fun and learn something at the same time.”

Chen’s early experiences teaching at UAF has put another twist in her intended path. A multicultural studies major, she initially wanted to return to China and teach English. Chen now desires to remain in the United States and teach. While she initially thought that she wanted to teach in an elementary school setting, Chen is realizing how much fun teaching in college can be.

“The time I spent teaching elementary students was fun,” Chen said. “But now that I am teaching college students and see that their reactions are so much different, I find myself enjoying the college students more.”

The same is true on the volleyball floor where Chen is getting more comfortable in her role. Sometimes, Scott says, it takes a little nudge to remind her that she has plenty to offer.

“Mica is a great volleyball player. We have to remind her that she really knows what she is doing out on the floor,” Scott said. “She has hints and tips and plenty of things that she can provide out on the floor. She didn’t quite know what to say at first but I am confident that she will continue to develop those skills.”