A journey to find “the gems in the rough”


From an accidental meeting at Olin College

On a summer day in 2015, Fulbright University’s founding group met with the President of Olin Engineering College Richard Miller in Massachusetts. They had hardly envisioned this meeting would mark a turning point in their long journey of searching and testing ideas for Fulbright’s undergraduate program.

Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, a key figure of the University’s founding team felt truly captivated by Olin President’s statement that “Olin is never a complete work”. For Olin, the creation of educational experiences has been a constantly iterative process. This philosophy helped Olin – a newly-built university – emerge among the best American science and engineering colleges in less than a decade.

Ngan, a Bates graduate who earned a doctorate in development at Cambridge University, had been teaching economics at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program for 6 years before she joined Fulbright University Project as Director of Undergraduate Program*. Having sought for innovative educational ideas, Ngan felt greatly inspired by Olin’s unique approach.

“Having tried for a while with the ideas of importing curricula from an American university, we found few opportunities to be ourselves. It seemed inappropriate to replicate an educational model from the United States for Vietnamese students who have inherited a different education, culture, and social foundation. Even if the engineering program in the United States has been rooted in tradition for over a hundred years, Olin still discovered a way to innovate, and succeeded,” Ngan said.

The meeting with Olin helped the Fulbright team realize what they had been looking for. Ngan then spent months in the United States to learn about Olin and other U.S. liberal arts universities, focusing on various areas such as academic design, admission, and student life.

By luck, Ngan was at Olin during their admissions cycle. She was impressed with the admissions process, and how the selection of shortlisted candidates was organized over three week-ends. She also spent time meeting and talking with many students. Through exploring Olin’s innovation in university education, Fulbright team gradually defined and shaped the very first ideas about their institutional undergraduate program.

To a journey across Vietnam to find the gems in the rough

From the fall of 2015, Ngan and Ben Wilkinson, another core founding team member, began to work regularly with Dr. Mark Somerville. Considered as the chief architect of Olin College’s foundational year, Somerville finally agreed to take on the role as senior advisor for Fulbright.

If working in a team, what are you seeking from your teammates? This is the first question Mark posed to us,” Ngan recalled. “Although we didn’t have clear ideas on how to design an undergraduate program from a blank slate, Mark planted a precious seed in us. Before asking us what the product could be, he asked us what the team should look like.”

As an experienced pioneer, Somerville advised that the most critical factor to develop a decent undergraduate program from scratch is to know the “users” or our target students, including their personality traits.

“Only after identifying who our users are, can we create an educational product that suits our target students. We started our work from this point,” Ngan explained.

To answer this question, Mark Somerville and Ngan conducted an interesting study. For several months, Ngan came back to Vietnam and traveled on buses from the North to the South, visiting highschools all over the country. Through referrals from her friends and former students in different provinces, she had many opportunities to meet and chat with high school students about multiple subjects.

Vietnamese young students did not hesitate to express their most intimate thoughts: from the anxiety and pressure to meet their parents’ expectations, to the desire of earning a dream job and giving back to their society.

They also shared with Ngan what they imagined for a dream university: one with a lot of greenery, where teachers were friendly to students, and where they could be themselves and pursue their boldest dreams. These stories came together like a treasure and were so attractive. Consequently, Ngan was so inspired that she joined numerous activities to stay close to the students, to try and understand them, and to volunteer for social projects serving the youth.

“Although this was only a collection of their short yet truthful stories, these students pointed us to an unexplored treasure, raw gems hidden in mines. The data obtained from our journey greatly surprised our leadership board and made them much more confident in Vietnamese students’ potential capabilities. Such experience also strengthened my belief that these students would be the best co-creators of Fulbright University,” Ngan said.

Based on what they discovered about Vietnamese students throughout the trip, Ngan and Mark worked together to classify data and eventually came up with seven personas of “typical Fulbright users”. These personas then played as a “compass” in the designing process of Fulbright’s inaugural academic programs and admissions.

In a meeting later in Boston, the University’s Board made an important decision to conduct the Co-Design Year before officially launching the undergraduate program. This meant designing a school year that allows Fulbright faculty and students to explore innovative educational ideas, prototype them and then to refine a proper undergraduate education.

Soon after the Co-Design Year concept was approved, Fulbright team organized various workshops to introduce Fulbright project in leading American universities, including MIT, Harvard, and Stanford in an extensive search for like-minded founding faculty.

Since the Co-Design Year is a radically unique idea in Vietnam, they intentionally tried every effort to get different Vietnamese constituencies involved from the beginning.  In early 2017, similar workshops were conducted in Ho Chi Minh city with the participation of prominent educators, employers, parents and highschoolers. Their feedback, then, was incorporated into the University design.

Proven Belief

In the fall of 2017, Ngan and the Admissions team traveled across Vietnam again in search for Co-design students. She visited 26 high schools in 22 provinces and cities to introduce, for the first time, the newly established university that was designed based on the dreams of students, whom Ngan met in her previous trans Vietnam trip.

During the trip, Ngan was touched by the story of five high school students from Nguyen Binh Khiem High School for the Gifted (Quang Nam), who started a mushroom planting project. They talked about the project’s success enthusiastically and asked if they could submit it as a proposal for the admissions process, so the whole team can apply to Fulbright University.

“How can Fulbright find raw gems hidden in the rough? This is a journey full of surprises and amazing discoveries about the young, creative, and talented generations of Vietnam. They encouraged us to believe that Fulbright’s educational ideas can come true,” Ngan said.

The appeal of Fulbright model became more evident during the admissions process of the Co-Design Year, conducted in late 2017. While other Vietnamese universities selected students based on their grades and test scores, Fulbright designed a unique, holistic assessment process that emphasized on student’s abilities as a whole person.  Its success in recruiting a diverse student body of talents across Vietnam has demonstrated Fulbright’s assumption about Vietnamese students.

“One example was when we observed students teaming up in the interview round. There was no competition as usual. Instead, students were put into a nurturing environment to explore their talent, and work together; they did not feel mutually exclusive but mutually supportive. When I saw young students, unfamiliar with one another, bid farewell amicably after the admissions process, I thought: “Yes, this works.” The Co-Design Year is a feasible idea.”

Fulbright’s Co-Design Year just lasted for 9 months. Nonetheless, Ngan knows that it will take longer to truly understand the value of their past experiments.

“I still remember Mark Sommerville once said that we can learn something from failures and grow from there. The Co-Design Year is a remarkable year. We have come to understand one another, deeply know our “users” and learn how to respond to challenges and changes. Co-creation spirit, thus, will be a striking feature of Fulbright University Vietnam”, Ngan added.

* Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan is now Fulbright University Vietnam’s Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

Xuan Linh

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