The school year began with an Orientation Week. The topics were about mental health, how to live together in the dorms, personal boundaries, and respect for other people’s privacy…
It was only two months ago that we started our Fulbright journey. Yet, we felt as though it has been ages.
Overcoming our fears
On our very first day, we sat in a circle and wrote down our own answers for this one specific question: “What is your biggest fear in the Co-Design Year?”
There were 54 anonymous responses. In almost half of them, the most popular fears were: not being good enough, not living up to the expectation, mediocrity, and worthlessness. We read out loud those fears. Each of us then picked up one piece of paper, shared it with a friend, said to our friend that “It’s ok” and finally tore it up.
The activity helped somewhat but we still have not yet overcome the inner voice inside our heads that kept saying: “You will never be enough.” The truth is we can’t help but feel the unsaid hope and expectation that our families, friends, teachers, and the society set for us.
However, the biggest pressure has to be our expectation we set for ourselves. We are a group of students who have high self-esteem, and a strong sense of responsibility.
We come across at times as perfectionists and self-demanding. Thankfully, our professors understand all of this and are helping us overcoming this each and every day.
Learning to “Co-Live”
There are 54 Co-Designers who are of different ages, and come from different provinces. We use different accents and dialects. We bring different stories. And most importantly, we are 54 unique persons with 54 different personalities.
Yet, no one makes fun of Minh Tam’s and my Mekong Delta accent, or Ngoc Long’s Hue, Chi’s Quang Ngai, and Thuong’s Quang Nam accents. We understand and are proud of where we come from; and we never feel belittled because of that.
We agree to call our friends, professors, and staff by the names they want to be associated with. There is no rule indicating that “Mr” is only for male gender or “Mrs” is only for female gender. Or there is no rule indicating that one has to be called by their birth name, their Vietnamese name, or their foreign name. Here at Fulbright, we can choose to be called by the name we want, and live true to our own self.
On the first week of school, we started off with the Orientation Week on mental health and how to live together – because we have to stay together in a dorm. We learned about our personal boundaries and how to respect others’. We learned to listen, to express our emotions, and to care about others’ emotions. We also learned to say no.
These concepts are not new to us since we saw it a lot on the Internet. Yet, it’s easier said than done. For example, we were asked to sit down, look into our partner’s eyes and say: “I feel that you are not good today. Are you okay?” Believe me, it was so hard to say even though it were just a few words. Most of us could just stared at each other awkwardly and then laughed.
Learning to fail
“It is okay to fail” or “Fail fast” were the two sentences that the professors kept repeating at Fulbright when we started. They even wanted us to literally fail at something so that we could learn from our mistakes, analyze what we did wrong, and how to improve further.
Learning to learn
One interesting thing about studying at Fulbright is that we can never guess what the professors will do in tomorrow class. For example, our professor came to class with a bag of M&M chocolates so that we could learn to balance chemical reactions causing greenhouse gas.
Or one day we played the werewolves game to learn how society works. We cut cakes then debated on equality and fairness. We solved a crime scene to learn a research methodology. All of this teaching methods help keep me intrigued and motivated every time I come to class. I now know how to explain normal daily activities using academic theories.
During this Co-Design Year, we learn in modules; each module lasts for 3-4 weeks. After each module, there will be a sprint week, in which we will have to use everything we learn to create a product as a team.
Our first module was Learning to Co-Learn. During sprint week, we were asked to design a 3-hour class to introduce to our foreign professors about the “Authentic Vietnam.” We were divided into groups of 6-7 members. Each group decided on their own topics; some of them were: Folk tales, Music in different period, Moonshines, Subsidy period, Banh troi nuoc (sweet dessert)…
At Fulbright, there is a concept of a “time box.” Normally, we have class four days a week, 3-3.5 hours a day. Our class usually starts from 9 AM – and it’s wonderful for late risers like me. We can negotiate the start time for our class; but if you ask to start class at 8 AM, your request will be revoked.
With this schedule, the total hours we have to be in class are much less than in high school. However, we have to do homework, read and prepare for the next class. Thus, the total amount of time we spend for school work in general is 7-8 hours a day.
In the first weeks, because we only had homework, we tended to procrastinate. When it came to sprint week, we stayed in class for some 6 hours a day. During these 6 hours, we worked intensively: no phones, no emails, no Facebook, no messaging, and no private matters.
It was 6 hours of pure concentration and productivity. After these 6 hours, we set all work aside and got back to our normal daily lives.
The professors also have a rule of no work email or homework on the weekends. Thanks to this “time box” concept and the idea of “Committing your time to one thing,” I can balance my life and school work. I work hard and still play hard on the weekends.
No talent is forgone
At Fulbright, those artistic ones get a lot of attention and are treasured. For example, if our professors see a student drawing, they will come by and compliment the student. They will even ask the student to teach them how to draw because they genuinely are interested in the student’s hobbies.
This is so new to us. Back in high school, our teacher would remind us that we should focus on our school work and homework instead of our hobbies. I still remember that my high school friends had to forgo their hobbies because of the pressure of doing well in school. I just wanted them to all come to Fulbright so that they could pursue their dreams.
At Fulbright, your uniqueness – both in appearance and in thinking – is respected and fostered. We are not afraid to be different; we are afraid of not being unique.
The culture shocks
Most Fulbright’s faculty, staff, and residence advisors are foreigners or have studied abroad. Thus, we feel as though we are living in a Western-culture environment.
Everyone here thinks that tattoos and piercings are completely normal and are part of their personal style. And as I mentioned earlier, we always fear of not being unique enough; thus, we start wanting to have tattoos or piercing to make a statement. Of course, this need is fully respected at Fulbright.
However, we still live in Vietnam, which is still conservative. Out of 365 days in a year, we still have to spend most days interacting with the society, which still has prejudice against tattoos and piercings. The yearning to express ourselves while trying to be appropriate makes us experience culture shocks, even when we are living in Vietnam.
The 9,000-dong-banana blues
Since our main campus in District 9 is still under construction, we are currently located at the Crescent Campus in District 7. As part of the Fulbright Founding Scholarship*, the university sponsors our accommodations in Phu My Hung complex, which are equipped with A/C, gym, and a swimming pool. We also receive three millions Vietnam Dong a month for food and other expenses.
It sounds appealing, doesn’t it? But everything is not as it seems. Let me tell you the other side of this appealing life we are leading and our trade-offs.
Our monthly allowance is three millions Vietnam Dong (approximately VND 100,000/day). This seems comfortable for most students, but not for us. We have to stay in the Phu My Hung area; and within the one km radius, there is no wet market, cheap restaurants or street stalls. Where we are, expensive restaurants and convenient stores are in abundance.
With our budget of VND 100,000/day, we struggle to have three square healthy meals a day. For example, one banana at Circle K costs VND 9,000 and with this amount, we can buy a bunch at a wet market.
This struggle is partly because (1) we cannot get access to cheap food source close to where we live, (2) we don’t have the time to go to the wet market, and (3) we don’t have the transportation means to go far for food.
We ask our parents for help; but for those students who are not from Saigon, life is tough. Imagine two girls crying on the 13th floor of a luxury apartment building because there were no food left in the house and no money left in the wallet. While the affluent lifestyle was happening right outside their window, the two girls understood that the high life in Phu My Hung area was not so high as expected.
Lê Thị Nga My
(Co-Design Year student)
*All Co-Design Year students receive a full scholarship to participate in the Co-Design Year, which is comprised of tuition and other living expenses.