Ngoc Lam did not at first believe he had the right profile or financial capacity to study at Fulbright University Vietnam. He discovered the university through the Everest Launchpad summer program, and first applied in 2017 unsuccessfully. But for Ngoc Lam, this was surprisingly less an issue of lacking academic achievements, and more about different expectations regarding what Fulbright looks for in students.
Ngoc Lam remembers: “Back then, I briefly researched liberal arts education, but the concept is still very new for Vietnam. I had never done anything like this before. The undergraduate program was entirely new and there was very little information available. Students in Vietnam are used to very different university applications: we tend to focus on GPAs, grades, and extracurricular activities that can bolster our profile. I had no extracurriculars because I was so intent on improving my grades at school. I really wasn’t confident throughout the application process, as there were so many talented contenders, and didn’t really understand the qualities Fulbright was looking for: community-mindedness, a spirit of exploration, and desire for self-discovery. At Fulbright, our background doesn’t define us. Our character does.”
This is why, armed with a better understanding of the admission process, Ngoc Lam attempted again in 2018. This time, he submitted a new original piece of work, a sample of a seven-chapter story he published. Inspired by One Piece, a Japanese manga, his short novel combined the lessons he learned from the serial with his personal life experiences. This was a new experience for Ngoc Lam, and felt like a risk. After all, he is not a professional novelist. “I’m not a wonderful writer who earns money online. I just wrote it in my leisure time to help teach English to children in an orphanage in Nha Trang, my hometown. It was too long for the Admissions team to read, so I submitted three chapters.”
Ngoc Lam was admitted at Fulbright but was concerned over how he would be able to afford tuition costs: “Tuition is significantly higher than that of other universities in the country. Don’t get me wrong, in hindsight, I realize we have an amazing faculty with excellent academic qualifications. Professors are thoughtful, attentive and kind. Fulbright students get access to speaking events, and conferences inviting researchers from prestigious institutions that students can attend to at no extra cost. This requires a lot of resources. Still, I was shocked the first time I looked at Fulbright’s fees. I come from a middle-class family in Nha Trang, so I wasn’t sure we were eligible for financial support. But a family like my own just could not afford to pay full tuition. It was my mom who trusted we would receive financial aid and convinced me I would be able to study here. We realized the process is very different to most other universities.”
Indeed, Fulbright doesn’t offer merit-based scholarships or grants solely for low-income families, using instead a need-based financial aid model. “Fulbright has a place for everyone. Once we are admitted, the financial aid team will assess a lot of information about our financial situation to make sure anyone who is admitted can afford to study. But that means the process requires a lot of trust and effort from everyone involved.”
A strict but fair system
Ngoc Lam remembers the Financial Aid application process was arduous and time-consuming. The application is supported by a variety of documents and questions, and seemed especially discouraging for a twelfth graders already busy with schoolwork: “There were extremely specific questions, such as ‘Where has your family traveled to in the last five years?’ or ‘Can you provide the contact of an acquaintance who can verify this information?’ We had to do our best and gather all the required financial statements. They even asked for photos of my house, taken from the inside as well as from the outside. Financial officers also visited us to confirm we had replied accurately. I was astonished by these questions and how strict the process was. I don’t think any high school student like me could complete it by themselves, which is why having the help of my parents was so important.”
But for Ngoc Lam, it was all worth it. “It’s because the process is so strict that we can trust Fulbright’s Admissions team. If you think about it, financial aid officers have to make decisions over large amounts of money. In the end, their decisions make the difference for families like mine, between being able to afford sending their kid to Fulbright or not. Filing in accurate and honest financial information has resulted in an appropriate offer that allowed me to study here.”
Financial Aid on a mission
Most, if not all students at Fulbright receive some form of financial aid like Ngoc Lam. But beyond the immediate benefits, this further ensures the student body at Fulbright is socially diverse, and not an elitist institution. Ngoc Lam finds he benefitted from a learning environment that fosters a multitude of opinions and life experiences. “I’m studying with many talented classmates, whom I admire a lot. Before entering Fulbright, I thought of myself as a rather mature teenager, but I had a lot to learn from them. They broadened my horizons on matters like sex and gender, feminism, but also issues like racism.”
Ngoc Lam’s experience with Financial Aid did not end there. Understanding the role of Fulbright’s Admissions and Financial Aid department, he had the chance to participate as an intern: “I really believe in what financial aid is doing, and I hope I can contribute to help the students who come after me. From my observation and experience with the courses, together with the teachers, the Admissions team as well as the Communications team, we helped clear misconceptions and supported many applicants. I was also a co-creator for the Fulbright Experience Day.
The Admissions office wants us to join them because they want us to help shape Fulbright. And our goals are the same: to create a place where students can learn what they need, what they like, regardless of their background. A school unlike any other in Vietnam.”