In mid-October 2021, the news of an exchange program between Fulbright and Yale-NUS College, the first liberal arts college in Singapore, came to Fulbright students as a pleasant surprise. Longing to return to Singapore, a country that had left a deep impression on me since my first visit in 2020, I lost no time in applying to the program. As if ông trời (the sky) had heard me out, I was selected!
My exchange semester at Yale-NUS College (which I, in the spirit of Singaporean acronyms, would endearingly refer to as YNC) commenced in spring, at the height of a COVID-19 outbreak in my hometown, Haiphong, and when travel restrictions in Singapore were still in place. It came with overwhelming uncertainties: I received a letter of entry approval that got the dates wrong, came into contact with a positive case a few days before my flight, and had to delay my flight at financial costs. The thought of serving the required Stay Home Notice (SHN) for seven days in a strange hotel and being away from home right before Lunar New Year unsettled me. However, in retrospect, I’m deeply grateful for having been given—and brave enough to grasp—an opportunity to study at the lovely YNC.
The semester at YNC is one of the most academically fulfilling semesters to me. My course choices were determined by my interest in anthropology and curiosity about urban studies. Anthropology of China, the course that I had kept my eyes on long before the semester and went to great lengths to get enrolled in, is my top favorite. I appreciate reading well-written ethnographies about contemporary China (the country that has intrigued me since I was a child), being facilitated to critically discuss and evaluate them, and encouraged to co-produce knowledge with my classmates. It was encouraging to see myself manifested as (Dang 2022) in my classmates’ writings. In Anthropology of China, I felt like an aspiring scholar, constantly challenged and supported to engage in thought-provoking conversations with my “colleagues.”
Social Life of Cities, my first urban studies class, was more practical. I was introduced to concepts that I had heard of but never really understood—gentrification, segregation, place marketing, and so on. The highlights of the course were our field trips to two interesting neighborhoods, Joo Chiat and Geylang, and my research into Vietnamese marriage migrants. I appreciate Social Life of Cities for connecting me to the spaces of Singapore—whose diversity challenged my preconceptions of the city-state as boringly modernized—and to an important part of the Vietnamese diaspora in Singapore.
Meanwhile, Introduction to Anthropology equipped me with knowledge of foundational anthropological topics and familiarized me with anthropological writing. My learning experiences would never have been as rewarding without my supportive Profs (the way YNC professors are addressed) and critical classmates, whose ideas I learned tremendously from.
I cannot bear speaking about my YNC experience without mentioning my residential life at the beloved Saga College, one of the three Residential Colleges (RCs) at YNC and doubtlessly my bias. By a strange configuration, everyone in my suite (flat) was exchange students. We decorated our suite with self-made red lanterns and shared Lo Hei—a Cantonese-style salad integral to Chinese Singaporeans’ New Year celebration—to welcome an auspicious new year.
It was the meals I shared with my friends that added warmth to my YNC life. I won’t forget our walks to the Saga Dining Hall—climbing down two floors as the elevator didn’t work on our floor during the semester, reading event posters and smelling somebody’s perfume in the elevator, greeting the lovely dining hall auntie, presenting the Green Pass on the UniVUS app, scrutinizing the food samples, and getting full dishes (or dabao, means takeaway) with infused water. My laundry experiences are also unforgettable—for the meditative strolls across the beautiful courtyard to the laundry room, the washing app, efficient dryers, and funny encounters. My residential life was filled with quotidian rituals that, no matter how many times they were repeated, always got me spirited.
Oh, and the friends I made. They, and my affections for them, are simply beyond words. Their diverse backgrounds—and yet common kindness—exposed me to stories and experiences I had never encountered while in Vietnam. Discussions about race are a major part of them: born into a majority ethnic group in a racially homogeneous country, I listened to my friends’ sharing about their experiences as bearers of hyphenated identities in awe. Apart from these critical discussions, we also had so much fun! Much as I’m sad not being able to mention them specifically, I’m happy to recount some of our memorable shared experiences: learning Teochew-Singlish phrases, seeking Vietnamese food, exploring parks and museums, hanging out at hawker centres, enjoying shiok mala, celebrating birthdays, chatting about Heavenly Official’s Blessing, Cardi B’s MVs, and…mini-crushes (^^).
I want to end this piece by reminiscing about the places that will always have a place in my heart: the aromatic, soothing forest-like YNC campus; the one and only Saga College; my room—especially the bed next to the window overlooking a magnificent landscape at sunrise and sunset, from which I, every night, gazed at the suites and corridors that remained warmly lit against the darkness of exterior space; the Saga courtyard where I rested idly inside a hammock; the airy and cozy Saga Dining Hall; the Saga laundry room; the inimitable YNC library (for its vintage style—cozy brown-colored furniture and yellow lights); the University Town Green, where I loved strolling around and ending the stroll with soya ice cream or hot cheese waffles from Shiok Shack; NTUC Fairprice, where I bought most of my stuff; NUS Cheers, where the ept uncle attending the outlet instructed the clumsy me how to insert my second SIM card; the well-trodden corridors; the scenic eco-pond and air-conditioned Performance Hall building; the bus stops—New Town Sec School, University Town, NUS High School, Yale-NUS College—and buses—particularly 196, 33, and 96, where I felt an odd sense of fulfillment as part of the commuting crowd; the well-shading footway from the University Town bus stop to Saga College that felt like a hiking trail; the MRT stations—particularly Clementi and Buona Vista, the crowded East-West line, and the MRT cabin itself, where I enjoyed observing people and watching the shifting landscapes; all the neighborhoods that I visited—especially the quaint Toa Payoh (where I could see my paternal grandmother living the quiet life that she enjoys in a lotus-themed HDB complex near the old Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple), Tiong Bahru, and Woodlands.
I’m attached to these places not only because of the people associated with them, but because of themselves. To me, any place has a soul and a charm perceivable by those vibing with its energy. As much as I appreciate the people that walked into my life, I appreciate and dearly miss the places that generously accommodated me, including the unlisted. I have told my friends that Singapore, as the biggest place of all, has a charm that grows on you the more you spend time here—a charm that may not be perceived by short-term visitors, or those who spend time around touristy places only.
To me, the semester abroad at YNC is more than an academic journey. Looking back, those precious four months was an extended opportunity for me to meet the diversely identifying people I would never have met had I remained in Vietnam, to inhabit particular places—big and small, some of them unimaginable in Vietnam (the safe and efficient public transport system, on the whole), and to understand Singapore in a much more nuanced light. Thanks to these endearing people and places, my stay in Singapore has continued as soon as it ended: right now, sitting at my desk to type these words out, I’m convinced that I will be back, if not to my dear YNC, then to the Singapore where English is spoken in a uniquely, charmingly emotive manner.
Đặng Thị Hoài Linh (Co-design year Student)
Lead Faculty for Technology and Innovation of the YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam on the upcoming seminar for young leaders from Southeast Asia, the exponential progress of technology, and its implications for the future of the region.
Vietnam has been home to Dr. Vladimir Mariano, a computer scientist, educator and entrepreneur, for seven years. The country is part of a journey spanning 34 years of efforts dedicated to technology, which began when he first learned how to code in a summer camp as a 14-year-old boy growing up in the Philippines. After completing his Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Mariano has held official posts at universities, startups and tech companies in the U.S., the Philippines and Vietnam. And now, with his recent appointment as Lead Faculty for Technology and Innovation of the YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam, according Dr. Mariano, it is nothing short of a dream come true.
“I dreamed of coming to Fulbright when it was first announced by [the then] U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016,” he said over our Zoom conversation. “I was excited. This is not just a new university. It is part of the history of the relationship between the two nations. To be part of this unfolding history is like a dream come true. I’m also very happy because it reconnects me back to the United States, where I got my Ph.D., where my family and I embraced and were welcomed by America.”
But in fact, Dr. Mariano’s hope and vision for the future of education actually goes back to the year 1995, when the internet was first introduced in the Philippines. “[At that moment], we imagined it was going to revolutionize teaching and democratize knowledge,” he told us. “Unfortunately, higher education is not evolving and innovating at the pace of technological progress. It is still desperately trying to hold on to its old ways, emphasizing degrees, grades and courses.” And with the pandemic, he lamented, the inequality has been laid bare, and exacerbated, meaning students who don’t have computers, laptops, or internet access won’t be able to engage with schools.
“When I heard about Fulbright, and especially the YSEALI Academy, I thought maybe this is the place that will innovate, and affect change, in the way we learn,” he said. How can we overhaul the education system, in a way that prepares the next generations to face incredible challenges in uncertain times – is the question he kept coming back to in our conversation.
“As future leaders of Southeast Asia, young professionals need to be critical of technology’
Technology has made exponential progress since Dr. Mariano’s days in the Philippines. “[In 1988], watching how a computer can process so much information in so little time was like magic, and we were magicians who commanded this new machine,” he shared. “I decided there and then that it was going to be my career, being with this very interesting machine.” Yet he admitted, even with his decades-old experience, technology is developing so fast that one can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen next. “In 2030, my son will be at the age of 26. Still I can’t tell what jobs are going to be in demand, what skills will be needed in the workforce in the future,” he said. “A lot of that is dictated by technology. Considering how fast the world is changing, we have to understand how these powerful tools are influencing us.”
Built on his observations and concerns in the field of AI, in particular machine learning and computer vision – his research expertise since doctoral years and later on, his ventures with tech companies, Dr. Mariano has chosen the theme of the upcoming YSEALI seminar to be “The Digitization of Trust”.
“What is trust?” in the digital age is one of the critical components he would like Southeast Asian fellows to discuss and explore in this seminal get-together between international scholars, industry experts, and future leaders of the region. “As young leaders, you’re going to lead yourself, and you’re going to lead other people,” he explained. “In order to lead, you have to make decisions. And those decisions have to be based on truth, and facts.”
You may recall the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, which exposes viewers to how social media manipulate and distort our perception of reality through calculated design features, aggravate our most staunchly, deep-seated beliefs, to the point of spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation. “A lot of people believe that AI is neutral, that it’s not biased,” Dr. Mariano said. “But it’s actually behaving in a biased way. Biased to whom? What are the goals of AI? It is the same goal as the company behind them, who writes the algorithms to collect data and maximize profits.”
He continued: “We all know the internet has been beneficial to the democratization of information. But now AI has put that on steroids, in terms of its ability to propagate good information, as well as misinformation and disinformation.” Citing the fact that most people are now experiencing life through screens and smart devices, and the fact that online transactions make up a considerable portion of business worldwide, Dr. Mariano hopes the upcoming YSEALI seminar will shed light on AI as a substantial entity that is trying to “sway your opinion, or put your opinion in a certain place”.
“As a leader in Southeast Asia, what should you do? How do you swim in this ocean of information and misinformation overload, in order to make a good decision for you and your people? I think it’s one of the biggest concerns now with artificial intelligence.”
The future of education through technology
While Dr. Mariano has had years of experience in the industry as co-founder and CTO of tech companies in the Philippines and Vietnam, education remains his true calling. “The idea that you can make a tech product out of what you’ve learnt in school, something that can be of use to people and also, you can make an earning out of that, was quite foreign to the students I was teaching in the Philippines many years back,” he shared. “What I learned from my work in the industry, I shared with them. I told my students, ‘This particular formula, or this algorithm, is important not just because you’re going to take a test, but I actually applied it to a company to solve a problem.’ Because of that, they do not forget it, regardless of their score in the test.”
His ultimate goal is to inspire new generations with the beauty and creativity of technology. Alongside his work at the YSEALI Academy, Dr. Mariano is running MakerSpace Kids, an initiative where children can come together to learn how to design games and build robots. He believes these activities will help them master math, physics, coding and digital art from an early age – through the very things they love to play with and intuitively understand – and empower these children with the possibilities of ideas for the future.
Otherwise, Dr. Mariano is also collaborating with the research team of the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management – lending his expertise in A.I. and digital image processing to a project that will analyze satellite images – to unveil changing landscapes and piece together stories on the ground about agriculture, forestry, and environment developments in Vietnam. “Technology has always been a two-edged sword; it has lots of benefits, but also risks,” he said. “It is a powerful tool for good. Now, when I say for good, one guide for it is the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, overpopulation in urban areas, and many, many other issues on our path towards economic development. At YSEALI Academy, we hope to empower fellows. Instead of being distracted by the latest cool apps on our phone, we should think about how technology can actually help solve the biggest problems in the region right now. That we should think regional, and together as a people.” he said. “To do that, we need to take control of technology. We have to be aware of its influences and adapt fast to changing tides, and know that regardless of your background, you don’t have to be just a consumer of technology, but you can make technology.”
Dr. Ian Kalman has been a dearly familiar name to the Fulbright community as one of the founding faculty members at the university, as well as his often raved-about course on Digital Anthropology, among many others. Every year, Ian has managed to bring new values to the school, from leading a Fulbright Speakers’ Series, initiating our first academic conference, to his recently published book, Framing Borders: Principle and Practicality in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Last week, we sat down with him to chat about his new book, his teaching philosophy, and his vision for the future.
From a local case study to a global phenomenon
While the topic of borders is not entirely new since it forms a fundamental part of political life, often is studied in historical or geographical terms: when, where, and how they were drawn. Ian, however, explores them through a perspective known as Symbolic interaction in sociology. “[It] is the theory that the realities that we live in are constantly being constructed through our conversations. The world that can be experienced is known and reproduced through dialogue, discussion, and interaction,” he explained.
His book, Framing Borders: Principle and Practicality in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, published in 2021 by the University of Toronto Press, addresses a fundamental disjuncture between scholastic portrayals of settler colonialism and what actually takes place in Akwesasne Territory, the largest Indigenous cross-border community in Canada and the United States. As a multi-sited ethnography, the mainstay of anthropological qualitative social science research, the book explores how border crossing represents a conversation in which different actors “frame” themselves, the law, and the space that they occupy in diverse ways. The blurb follows: “Written in accessible, lively prose, Ian addresses what goes on when border officers and Akwesasne residents meet, provides an ethnographic examination of the experiences of the border by Mohawk community members, the history of local border enforcement, and the paradoxes, self-contradictions, and confusions that underlie the border and its enforcement.”
Ian shared that he first became interested in indigenous border crossings when he was an undergraduate student taking a class in Federal Indian Law, where he learned about the border crossing demonstrations. In these demonstrations, Native American people would march, parade, and simply walk across the border without stopping or giving identification to say that the border did not exist. Because for them as original people of the land with their own political and cultural identities, to a certain extent, the border does not exist. This resistance in literature, or rather refusal, piqued Ian’s curiosity, and he went on a quest to answer the question: ‘what does it mean to deny a border?’ and to learn more about the nuanced complexities surrounding this political yet cultural act.
A lot of researchers spend a few weeks or a month in the place where they do research to focus on secondary sources, surveys, focus groups and such, they would come in and get all the data that they could. But Akwesasne is the place where the border is part of everyday life, so in order to understand the border, Ian decided to experience the feeling about everyday life there, embracing the field of anthropology and its emphasis on long-term fieldwork. He held: “You need to be there until it gets boring, because it is boring for most people most of the time, waiting in/on line getting asked the same questions over and over again.” Ian has spent over a year living at the border, and crossed it over a thousand times, to fully immerse himself in the experience of the locals living there, as well as to see through the lenses of the border service officers. “The officers knew me just like they knew the people who live there. And that was part of what made the research feel worthwhile.”
The book itself provides broader meanings than just the descriptive analysis of borders. In fact, as an ethnography, “[it] is an intensive study of a specific cultural context with a theoretical basis that has something broader to say about the experience of being human. It’s about one thing, and it’s about everything at the same time. Many border regions are inhabited by people who are ethnically, culturally, historically, distinct from the dominant group. So this is a global phenomenon through a local case study,” he said.
Dialogues that shape our world
Borders, in a way, frame specific ideas of how the world works, especially in citizenship identity. Referencing the work of Erving Goffman, the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century, Ian regards the conversations at borders as matters of framing, such that when we pose the same question in different ways, we will get different answers.
For a border officer asking someone: ‘are you American or are you Canadian?’, demands that those are the only two types of people that one can be. For most indigenous and ethnic minority people, many of whom are located at the borders of different states, their identities, who they see themselves as their language, their culture, their way of life, is not American or Canadian but is one that is challenged by the borders. “So the question then is: if borders are not just these lines on a map, but are something that comes into being through conversations, in which you give your documentation to a person, and they demand certain things of you, and you communicate with them, it’s worth paying more attention to what takes place in those sorts of interactions, the sorts of conversations that happen, and how people come to experience this political reality through dialogue.”
In his work, Ian argues that rather than using identity indicators like nationality, race, social standing, or gender, etc., we should look to context as a predictive measure of human interaction. “Sometimes we pay too much attention to cultural differences while there are a lot of things that are pretty much shared across all human beings,” he contended. “We all want respect. We don’t want our time wasted. We want people to be nice to us. We want people to accept the identities that we put forward in the world. So if we start from that perspective and focus more on context than identity as something that determines people’s interactions, then it will give us a lot of flexibility. Because then, we can take a more proactive role in shaping the context.”
With the understanding and appreciation for the community, Ian has spent a few years making cultural training materials for border officers to help improve relationships. He also did policy reports for the Mohawk government, both related and unrelated to this border crossing matter, helped them do quantitative research and analyze data. Time after time, Ian grew very close with the community and he still goes back to Akwesasne now, not for research so much anymore, but “just because I genuinely miss it and I miss the people”. His eyes were sparked with joy as he shared about his memories there, about the time he officiated a wedding for two of his friends along the river, or simply just the nights they played Dungeons and Dragons together.
Throughout his academic research sprinkled with light-hearted jokes, we can find one overarching theme in the book: be nice to other people. The author elaborated: “It’s a different sort of call to action. This is not a book that preaches revolution, it’s simply a path towards treating people as people. And if you do that, you’re going to be more effective with your intended goals.”
Good learning is playful
That theme about kindness and the writing style that incorporates a bit of playfulness into a theoretical text is just about an accurate reflection of how Dr. Ian Kalman is in real life. He strongly believes that it is important to enjoy the classroom experience, to learn through stories and through laughter. More important is the ability to connect things that do not naturally seem connected. Quality learning is not so much about knowledge retention because, in this digital era, most information can be found on the internet easily. It is all about creativity, making connections, and piecing together the world in creative ways. “I think that good learning is playful. And that’s what I bring into the classroom as a teacher,” he affirmed.
Throughout our talk, Ian projected a calm yet funny persona. Sipping water from a Spiderman mug, he shared with us that he was born in the same part of New York as the friendly neighborhood hero. Growing up in such a culturally diverse city, Ian has long been nurturing an open mindset and keeping an eye out for inspiration from the daily moments of surprise. He was excited to share with us his upcoming project on comparative philosophy between Native America and Asia, which was inspired by the heightened exposure to Asian philosophy from his time at Fulbright.
“At the end of the day, Fulbright is going to be the biggest accomplishment I’ll ever lay claim to, not as a sole person, but as part of that. [Being a founding faculty member], I thrive on this sense of adventure and greatly enjoy the process of building something major. At Fulbright, there is this freedom to teach a variety of classes and work with amazing students, and I have wonderful colleagues beside me. I think we genuinely are providing something new and transformative, both for their lives and for Vietnam on the whole,” Ian said.
On December 5, 2021, Fulbright University Vietnam junior Dang Nguyen Huong Duong (Class of 2023) along with her teammates Nguyen Cao Nam Anh (Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Finland), Hoang Dieu Khanh (Foreign Trade University, Ho Chi Minh City) and Nguyen Le Minh Thy (DePauw University, USA) won the first prize of VinUniversity Global Case Competition 2021 organized by VinUniversity. The team EVA competed head-to-head in three rounds against 1,085 teams with 4,000 students from 200 prestigious universities in 30 countries before becoming the First Prize Winner of the competition.
The theme of VGCC 2021 is “VinFast – Go Global”: How can VinFast – a young Vietnamese business – lead the “green” movement and establish a permanent presence in the US market with its electric vehicle models. The competition’s methodology and case were designed with the consultation of Cornell University. The competition got increasingly selective after each round as teams were required to propose 2 solutions, conduct a compelling 20-page case analysis to expand business globally, and deliver a 20-minute live presentation for the judging panel, in which gathered many notorious professors from distinguished universities all over the US alongside VinFast senior managers. After 7 weeks of pursuing the strategy to position VinFast as the best choice for the Wait-and-See segment – customers who are careful with their finances and make purchasing decisions based on a car’s features and ease of use, the team EVA was officially named the Champion.
“As soon as I signed up for the competition, I spent a lot of time reading the requirements of it because I did not have much experience in dealing with real challenges of real businesses,” says Dang Nguyen Huong Duong, the Fulbright student. “Each time we were informed to be selected for the next round, we were taken by surprise since there were a lot of participating teams, many of which were comprised of graduate students who were enrolled in the MBA programs and from globally renowned universities such as Duke University, Cornell University, Oxford University, Yonsei University, National University of Singapore, etc.”
Talking about the contributing factors of their victory, Huong Duong praises her team’s solidarity and the ability to work online despite the differences in time zones and university backgrounds. “Since I have already been familiar with the teamwork culture at Fulbright, I got along with other members quickly and hardly had any communication difficulty despite the fact that it was the first time we worked online as a team.”
Huong Duong also attributes the success to the lessons she learnt from the Principle of Economics I and II courses instructed by Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu – an adjunct faculty member in Economics, Fulbright University Vietnam. “Thanks to Dr. Hieu’s courses, I honed the skills such as researching, analyzing, compiling, and presenting information. Especially, I learnt a lot from the consulting project for a corporation’s economic strategy, which was the final assignment in place of traditional exams in his Principle of Economics II course,” she says.
Huong Duong is a familiar face in both the organizing committees and contestants of many entrepreneurship competitions initiated by Fulbright University Vietnam including Hult Prize at Fulbright, Mini Challenge by Infinity Blockchain Ventures, and EntreCamp Asia Summer by Reactor School – a partner of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Fulbright. According to Huong Duong, the process of learning and accumulating these valuable experiences has somewhat matured her mindset, attitude, and skills when facing challenges and made her the best version of herself to be a fourth of an extraordinary win at the VinUniversity Global Case Competition 2021.
As the First Prize winner, the team EVA will receive a total prize of 10,000 USD and the opportunity to directly implement their solution with VinFast over the summer internship.
In her new book, “The City in Time: Contemporary Art and Urban Form in Vietnam and Cambodia”, Pamela Nguyen Corey, Assistant Professor in the Art and Media Studies Department at Fulbright, traces the urban environments of Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh as dominant influences on artistic developments in those cities over the last two decades.
From her undergraduate days at the University of California, Irvine, to her doctoral degree in History of Art and Visual Studies from Cornell University, the Southeast Asian region has been a focal point of Pamela Nguyen Corey’s study on modern and contemporary art history. “I had begun visiting Southeast Asia after I graduated from UC Irvine,” she says, reflecting on the subject of her new book. “I first went as a tourist and later, when I was a MA student, I spent a summer in Cambodia conducting a photography project in collaboration with an ethnographic field school led by anthropologist Judy Ledgerwood. During my doctoral coursework at Cornell, I became very interested in theories of landscape, space, and urbanism, and I came across several artworks by Vietnamese and Cambodian artists that reflected upon the nature of urban space in globalizing cities.”
Prior to her appointment as faculty member in Art and Media Studies at Fulbright University Vietnam in the Spring of 2021, Corey was Assistant Professor in the History of Art and Archeology Department at SOAS University of London. She has contributed to publications such as Oxford Art Journal, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Art Journal, Journal of Modern Craft, and Udaya, Journal of Khmer Studies, with titles ranging from “Đổi Mới and the Globalization of Vietnamese Art” (co-authored with Interim Provost Nora Taylor) to “Beyond yet Toward Representation: Diasporic Artists and Craft as Conceptualism in Contemporary Southeast Asia” to “The ‘First’ Cambodian Contemporary Art”.
Her new book, “The City in Time: Contemporary Art and Urban Form in Vietnam and Cambodia”, published in October 2021 by the University of Washington Press and a recipient of a Millard Meiss Publication Fund from the College Art Association, provides “new ways of understanding contemporary artistic practices in a region that continues to linger in international perceptions as perpetually ‘postwar’.”
The blurb follows: “Focusing on art from the last two decades, Corey connects artistic developments with social transformations as reflected through the urban landscapes of Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. As she argues, artists’ engagements with urban space and form reveal ways of grasping multiple and layered senses and concepts of time, whether aligned with colonialism, postcolonial modernity, communism, or postsocialism. The City in Time traces the process through which collective memory and aspiration are mapped onto landscape and built space to shed light on how these vibrant Southeast Asian cities shape artistic practices as the art simultaneously consolidates the city as image and imaginary. Featuring a dynamic array of creative productions that include staged and documentary photography, the moving image, and public performance and installation, The City in Time illustrates how artists from Vietnam and Cambodia have envisioned their rapidly changing worlds.”One of the inspirations for her book came from the artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen (also Fulbright’s Visiting Faculty) and his “Proposal for a Vietnamese Landscape” series of paintings from 2005 to 2006. “The paintings provoked ways of thinking about how the cityscape serves as a screen upon which different conceptions of modernity continue to be played out,” she says. “Such artworks inspired me to ask more questions related to contemporary art and its relationship to urbanization in the new millennium, and those questions ended up shaping my dissertation proposal. […] This resulted in the more focused study that is the book.”
Corey’s analysis is grounded in the fieldwork she conducted while living in Vietnam and Cambodia from 2010 to 2012. Between 2015 and 2018, she worked on developing a book manuscriprat based on research, while adding new discussions and revising some of her thinking about existing works. The fact that Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh were linked and selected as her sites of study owes to Corey’s perception of their sharing “a more intimate historical and cultural geography,” which she suggests might be a more productive lens as opposed to “a comparative nation-focused account of contemporary art in Vietnam and Cambodia.”
As Corey elaborates: “The latter would risk glossing over the regional complexities of the two countries and would be too broad, and possibly superficial, in scope. We know that southern Vietnam was historically Khmer land – in Khmer, it’s called Kampuchea Krom – prior to Vietnamese expansionism from the 16th-19th centuries, and there are still lingering layers of culture and language that bear a sense of connectivity between the two regions. The two cities also share what are considered to be postcolonial periods of cultural efflorescence in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the broader politico-cultural orientations of the modern nations of Vietnam and Cambodia produce contextual differences that I think make the city-specific comparative study more interesting.”
While the traditional Western-centric narrative of art history has been dissected and deconstructed in recent decades at leading institutions over the Atlantic, Southeast Asian art still plays a comparatively minor role in academic discussions, or record-breaking auctions. “For those of us working in Southeast Asian Studies, we are still faced with the ongoing problem of regional definition,” Corey says. “Regarding contemporary art, there has been a problematic tendency to represent the works of Southeast Asian artists as primarily preoccupied with such themes as Buddhism and trauma, for example. However, we can find artistic practices in Southeast Asia that are in dialogue with many of the strategies and concerns shared by artists around the world, e.g., archival practices, historiography, memory, documentary art, performance, digital art, posthumanism and ecological issues, etc.”
With “The City in Time: Contemporary Art and Urban Form in Vietnam and Cambodia”, she says: “My main objective was to produce a sound piece of scholarship that contributed to studies of contemporary art history and Southeast Asian studies. As you can see from the book blurb, I’m trying to expand what has been a predominant focus on contemporary artworks by Vietnamese and Cambodian artists as symbols of trauma.”
How does she feel, now that her book has been published? “Relief,” Corey says. “It’s nice to see the culmination of years of research and writing come to fruition in the book’s publication, and it signifies an academic rite of passage. [I am] happy to close the chapter on this work and continue with some new directions of research.”
At the moment, much of her time is dedicated to the tutelage of undergraduate students at Fulbright, whose passion and spirit reminds Corey of her own days at school. “My interest has always been in modern and contemporary art because I trained as an artist when I did my BA in Studio Art at the University of California, Irvine,” she says. “Most of my courses were taught by contemporary artists, many of whom had studied at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], which was highly renowned for its conceptual, cutting-edge curriculum in the 70s and 80s.” Through her courses at Fulbright, ranging from Arts of Southeast Asia, Visualizing Vietnam, Special Topics in Contemporary Art to the introductory basics, Corey hopes to inspire a new generation of artists, curators, scholars and cultural workers who shall contribute to the development of arts in Vietnam and beyond.
Huynh Trung Dung sees his twelve-year-and-counting journey with Public Policy as an ordinary path simply because it occurs naturally to him. But the extraordinary lies in the persistent pursuit towards this one single field where he finds his best self.
Public Policy is everything around us
From a very young age, Huynh Trung Dung already knew that he wanted to contribute to the common good of society. From his perspective, the public sector had more room for construction and direction in comparison to the private sector, and that is where he decided to work for the public good.
“Public Policy is everything around us. It is in every single breath we take, whether we stay inside or we go outdoors, we are all bounded by Public Policy,” Dung exclaimed.
There are social aspects that can only be regulated and resolved by state policies, especially those related to disadvantaged groups – the community of people with special circumstances, with limited rights and limited access to necessities. To Dung, there are three factors to evaluate the effectiveness of a public policy: fairness, equality, and longevity.
“Fairness in resources. For example, Ho Chi Minh City generates more than 20% of GDP, more than 25% of the state budget so it should receive adequate resources, but in reality, the city only retains 18% of revenue, while the remaining 82% goes directly to the state budget. Inequality here affects the efficiency of budget use, meaning that if Ho Chi Minh City keeps more, it will generate more revenue for the whole country from that fund.
“Equal access to rights among groups in society, regardless of financial condition, gender, religion, and other aspects.
“And finally the long-term calculation. Policy enacted in the present time needs to be considered with regard to its impact in the future. For example, if a policy aims to solve an economic problem now but causes harm to the environment, it is unacceptable because then future generations will have to bear the consequences.”
Education – a safe environment
Huynh Trung Dung realizes his passion with a Bachelor’s degree in foreign trade and diplomacy in Vietnam. Right after graduation, he spent eight years working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of External Relations of Ho Chi Minh City. During that time, he completed his master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
“Singapore shares many similarities with Vietnam from geography, politics to culture and diplomatic relations. The studies I’ve done there were directly applied to my work in the public sector at the time“, he contended.
As a person who always put practicality and efficiency first, his intention to contribute to the public sector when he returned to Vietnam did not go as he expected. With a yearning for growth and development, not only for the common good but also for himself, Huynh Trung Dung decided to take a leap of faith and turn to education – a place “suitable for a calm persona, not too competitive”, where he could make the best use of what he has learned and experienced in a foreign environment.
Huynh Trung Dung’s educational career started at RMIT University Vietnam, then he joined the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP). When he was about to complete his Ph.D. and return home, he was happy to join YSEALI Academy as a Lead Faculty for Public Policy and lecture at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), Fulbright University Vietnam. This place, according to him, is the best resemblance to his pursued public policy – “a big umbrella” covering many fields to solve interdisciplinary and global issues.
At YSEALI Academy, he serves as a Lead Faculty for Public Policy. In this position, his responsibilities are not confined to the teaching duties, but rather, expand to strategic planning, proposing new topics, and inviting, connecting lecturers and experts from all across the world.
The diversity of students, as well as guest speakers, poses some challenges for Dung while also presents him with interesting experiences. The challenge was that he had to design an intensive program suitable for students in 11 Southeast Asian countries (including Timor-Leste) and from a variety of professions. It is also interesting because it is the first program in Southeast Asia to discuss public policy at a regional and interdisciplinary scale for young leaders in the region. All the while, being in a coordinating lead position also gives him opportunities to simultaneously learn more about fields that are not his specialty.
“Every country has its own solution for public problems, but there are many similarities. YSEALI Academy seminar is an opportunity for young people from different countries to learn from each other from both those similarities and differences. An avid example in the Public Policy seminar on Energy Economics and Policy is that Vietnam’s problem is coal power, while in Laos, Cambodia, it is hydroelectricity and in Singapore, it is solar energy, but we all share a few things in common: efficiency issues and the impact of energy use on different groups in society” – Mr. Dung reflected on the first Public Policy seminar at YSEALI Academy. This is practical as we join hands to discuss global issues under policy approaches from many countries and different professions, to work together to do something useful for today and for the next generation, the future.
Practical interdisciplinary over pure academia
For Huynh Trung Dung, Public Policy must go hand-in-hand with practice. When deciding to continue studying for a Ph.D., among many options, he chose Pardee RAND Graduate School, USA. Unlike the majority of graduate schools in the U.S., Pardee RAND School under RAND Corporation is a leading American non-profit think tank organization, so its program is built on real projects. Where students work directly with experts.
During his research at RAND, he participated in many policy analysis projects in various fields of security, international relations, and healthcare. Research and analysis projects at RAND are mostly absorbed and applied by policymakers.
While teaching at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management as well as the YSEALI Academy, he fosters an environment where students are encouraged to debate, apply, and implement real-world projects. “When I have concerns in my head and we discuss facts together, then I really learn many things,” Dung shared.
Accompanying young people from many different fields yet all share the same interest and desire to contribute to society via public policy, Huynh Trung Dung feels inspired and energized every day. Especially in the Public Policy seminar at YSEALI Academy, he was impressed with the cooperative spirit of fellows from all over the region. “There are students who are highly specialized in their field but still were open to learn from the sharing of other fellows from different fields and in return, they also bring their knowledge to share with the whole team. While working in groups, the young leaders coordinate with each other very smoothly and openly, aiming towards the most multi-dimensional and practical solution” – Huynh Trung Dung excited.
He hopes to see more young people who are dynamic, creative, and interested in the common good participate in public policy seminars at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management and YSEALI Academy, where students are to freely explore the academic world while also can immerse in practical applications, where they can find their community and join hands to tackle the world’s interdisciplinary problems.
Nguyen Chinh Luan, a student of Master in Public Policy Class of 2022 (MPP2022) at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), Fulbright University Vietnam, is a Franciscan friar. Having a bachelor’s degree in economics, Chinh Luan chose to leave mainstream society, stepping into the realm of faith and dedicating his life to serving others. At the Fulbright School, he got exposed to advanced management and leadership knowledge in order to realize his aspirations in the journey of service.
After graduating from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics in 2004, Nguyen Chinh Luan took the road less traveled. Instead of settling down in a professional career like his peers, he decided to enter a Catholic religious congregation. He initially joined the Vietnamese Province of Jesuits (the Society of Jesus), a religious congregation of the Catholic Church, then continued in Jesuit religious formation for nearly four years.
Later, he transferred to the Order of Friars Minor Conventual – a branch of the Franciscans who were founded by Saint Francis of Assisi (Francesco d’Assisi) in 1209. Their mission is to live among the poor, relying on common resources to serve them. Dedicating himself totally to God, Friar Nguyen Chinh Luan professed simple and solemn vows, spending years discerning more deeply the ways of God. He studied Philosophy for three years and Theology for four years at the Franciscan Theological Seminary in District 9, Ho Chi Minh City.
After equipping himself in pastoral theology, Friar Luan began to connect with people in the real world. He went to Thai Binh, a province in Northern Vietnam, where he worked at a friary located next to Van Mon Leprosy-Dermatology Hospital in the Vu Van Commune of Vu Thu District. French priests built this locale as a leprosarium more than 100 years ago. For a year, Friar Luan went to the hospital every day to visit elderly Hansen’s Disease patients. Friar Luan and his religious brothers also opened a facility at the friary to care for children of the commune with Down’s Syndrome. He then went to the U.S. to participate in the Provincial Chapter of Saint Joseph of Cupertino Province of California and begin an apostolic assignment in a parish there.
After 15 years of following God’s teachings in service to the less fortunate, Luan realized that he needed to enrich his knowledge about his profession and learn new skills to cope in this volatile world. At the encouragement of his religious superiors, he decided to pursue a master’s degree. In a conversation with one of the Californian friars who is an alumnus of Harvard University, Luan became aware of the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, which was originally a partnership between the HCMC University of Economics and the Harvard Kennedy School.
“As part of my religious vocation, I had taken care of the poor, orphans, people with HIV, people with leprosy…; everything was done with heartfelt intent. I served them just because I loved them in the spirit of the Gospel. Nonetheless, my management skills were still quite limited. I realized that love without knowledge is a kind of blindness and knowledge without love an emptiness. So I decided to pursue further education in order to better serve the poor as I always desired to do,” he recalled. Friar Luan then applied for the Master in Public Policy program’s Leadership & Management concentration at FSPPM and became a student of the school in 2020.
Realizing the spirit of service
For over two decades, FSPPM has successfully recruited a student base that is diverse in geographical location, expertise, background and work experience, coming from various public, private and social organizations. Luan regards it as a chance for him to meet all kinds of Vietnamese professionals and learn from them. Although the academic pressure at FSPPM is quite intense, no one is left behind.
“At the convocation ceremony of my class, someone said in their speech: “No one will ever be left behind.” Back then, I did not fully understand what they meant. After more than one year studying here, I find it quite accurate. When I saw teaching assistants who were willing to stay up all night to help students with assignments, or teachers and other classmates who were there to help whenever I needed, I really understood that no one would ever be left behind,” Friar Luan said.
To Friar Luan, serving the poor is his purpose of life. Therefore, it is only natural for him to feel deeply connected with the mission of FSPPM, the commitment to public service. Fulbright’s educational environment is where the professors inspire students with the spirit of service and provide them with useful tools to convert their good intentions into good deeds for the community and the country.
“When I first came to Fulbright, I had a vision but it was not clear. Learning from the professors here, I feel inspired and encouraged, and I believe I can gradually implement my plans of service to the community,” he said.
Friar Luan highly appreciated the faculty members at Fulbright, among them Prof. Pham Duy Nghia, Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Dean of FSPPM, and other senior lecturers like Dang Van Thanh, Chau Van Thanh, Nguyen Xuan Thanh, Le Thai Ha, Nguyen Quy Tam and Huynh The Du.
“Their knowledge is both broad and deep, and so are their hearts, to make their visions come true. I think Fulbright is like a school of old Confucianists in which the professors are truly patriotic Confucians. I can feel their love and their desire to serve the country, and their love is gratified by their contributions to not only education but also to the public policy field,” he commented.
As a Franciscan, Luan deeply understands what it is like to live in poverty. He spent many years living with the poor, the sick and the marginalized. That makes him especially empathetic to their sufferings, their aspirations, and their needs for a better life. He knows that he needs to serve them better with the help of knowledge and skills. At Fulbright, he studies leadership, financial management, budget management and other public administration courses that will help policymakers come up with the best decisions and solutions.
“What I have learned at Fulbright over the last year has changed the way I think and also the way I live. The curriculum provides a wide range of knowledge about the processes of policymaking: how a policy is issued, implemented and supervised. From that macro perspective, students can apply what they learn in order to solve specific problems in their organizations. This knowledge is very useful because it not only helps one navigate the activities of one’s organization, but also steer that organization in a broader capacity, to serve the society we live in,” he commented.
Looking back at his experience at Fulbright, Luan also praised the school for training students to perform well under pressure and to know how to learn on their own.
“Put under high pressures at Fulbright, students learn to withstand any obstacles they face when they go back to work in their respective organizations. They become stronger, more resilient and more determined to perform better at work,” he said.
After finishing his master’s degree in public policy, Luan plans to return to northern Vietnam and build other orphanages and daycare centers for children with Down’s Syndrome. He also plans to expand the daycare system in his order’s friary in Thai Binh Province.
“I want to open more facilities for orphans and for underprivileged people in other provinces. Previously, we just ran the orphanage the way we would run a family. Now that I have acquired leadership and management skills, I can see how things can be better organized,” he said.
He also wants to open more medical clinics for the poor and the elderly. As he sees the need for low cost healthcare services for those who cannot afford medical bills, he sets sight to build a clinic in the friary of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual in Thai Binh province in the near future.
“People in the neighborhood work primarily in agriculture, so the clinic would mostly treat farmers, and elderly people with musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory diseases and common infections like flu and digestive diseases,” he said.
Last weekend, Friar Nguyen Chinh Luan was ordained to the priesthood. The ordination came as he just finished the MPP program at Fulbright and started working on his thesis. Both events mark the end of his basic spiritual and academic training and the beginning of an apprenticeship to his lifelong calling: to love and to serve.
At the University of Texas at Dallas Computer Science program, one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States, Dr. Tien N. Nguyen is a professor whose prolific research has had considerable impact on the software industry and academia of software engineering. In joining Fulbright University Vietnam as Acting Chair of the Computer Science Program, he finds a unique opportunity embodying not only his natal attachment to Vietnam, but through scientific rigor and research, the desire to propel the country’s technology and innovation capabilities to new heights.
Our story began in March 2020, when Thomas J. Vallely, Chairman of Governing Board of Fulbright University Vietnam, and Ben Wilkinson, Executive Director of Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, paid a visit to the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) to discuss potential partnership between the two institutions. What ensued was a cordial dinner after which Mr. Vallely and Prof Nguyen, still ebullient with ideas, soon agreed to breakfast the morning after to continue their conversation. “It was 7 in the morning, before his flight back to the Harvard Kennedy School,” Prof Nguyen recalls.
There, what was further elucidated by Mr. Vallely as the long-term vision for Fulbright – Vietnam’s first not-for-profit, independent university, whose undergraduate program is fueled by the tradition of liberal arts and science – had ultimately won Prof Nguyen over, for in his own work he recognized that kindred spirit advocating for the central role of scholarship and research in the advancement of Vietnamese students and society. “It was also Mr. Vallely’s tireless and affable energy that really struck a chord with me,” he says. “My dream at Fulbright is to build a Computer Science program that can lead the way in scientific research in Vietnam, and one day, stand shoulder to shoulder with the top departments in Asia and the world.”
A leading researcher in Software Engineering
A native son of Saigon, Professor Tien N. Nguyen has spent 26-27 years living, studying, and working in Japan, Switzerland and the United States before joining Fulbright as Acting Chair of the Computer Science Program. The early days of his academic career had seen a series of achievements. In 1995, he earned the Gold Medal award, an equivalent of valedictorian, for what was then the first Computer Engineering and Science degree program of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology. “It was between HCMUT and the Foreign Trade University, for both of which I scored very high in the national entrance examination,” he says. “In the end, I followed my true calling, which was the field of mathematics and science, something I’d already excelled at in high school.”
After graduation, Prof Nguyen moved to Japan for one year to attend an international student exchange program. The fact that information technology was still an infant industry in Vietnam, coupled with his desire to continually learn and grow, had landed him in Switzerland, where he completed his Pre-Doctorate (M.Sc.) on a scholarship from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne. At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, he earned a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering, then spent 11 years at Iowa State University working as Assistant and Associate Professors in the Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science Departments.
In 2016, he joined UT Dallas and became a Professor at their Department of Computer Science in April 2020. On the CSRankings of top computer science institutions around the world, based on the number of publications by faculty that have appeared at the most selective conferences across areas of the field, UT Dallas regularly ranks within the top 50 in the US for the 2008-2020 period. When it comes to Software Engineering, Prof Nguyen’s primary research interest, the university is currently ranked No. 8 and most notably, he stands third for the number of publications he’s contributed for the past 10 years. Valued for their impact on both the industry and academia, since 2005, his research has been funded by both federal agencies and software corporations, with a total of 4.5M USD for his share from the US National Science Foundation, US National Security Agency, alongside Microsoft, IBM, ABB, and Amazon.
Three decades of professional and personal progress at what he calls “the three powerhouses across three different continents” have instilled in Prof Nguyen a fervent belief in the significance of academic rigor and research culture, especially when it’s thoughtfully fused with the potential of Vietnamese students well-regarded for their brainpower and studiousness. “My roots are still in Vietnam, simply because it’s the land that nurtured who I am since birth and all the way to the moment I completed higher education,” he says. “That is why I want to bring back to Vietnam what I consider as the best, the finest aspects from these developed countries’ educational systems and support our own development in teaching, learning, and research.”
The biggest hurdle for Vietnamese students to thrive in any academic environment, according to Prof Nguyen, is how to overcome their reluctance to open debate with socially and traditionally revered lectures. “I consider myself purely as a guide, someone who has prior experience in this field that we’re exploring together. In a sense, I am an advisor to my students, encouraging them to be bold and outspoken with their ideas, at the same time inspiring them to discover and pursue their own paths.” he says. “Instead of forcing students to heedlessly adhere to facts and figures, my priority always lies in helping them see for themselves the reason we do what we do. The question of ‘why’ must invariably precede the ‘what’ and ‘how’.”
None other than his accomplishments in the field of Software Engineering research that echoes and illustrates precisely the aforementioned ethos. For the past 20 years, not only has he supervised and seen through the success of 14 Vietnamese PhD students in the United States, but collaboratively they have earned 4 ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Awards in 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2016 for research papers accepted into the annual world-renowned International Conference on Software Engineering and the annual International Conference on the Foundations of Software Engineering. Prof Nguyen is also Chairs and committee members of the top-tier international conferences in the field of Software Engineering from 2005 to now, while currently serving on the Steering Committee of the top-three international conference on automated software engineering (ASE).
“Naturally, new ideas don’t come to us every day. But if we don’t think about ideas every day, whether they’re right or wrong, big or small, that one new idea will never have a chance to come through,” he remarks. “Going back to the spirit of open inquiry and critical debate we have touched upon, I can’t stress how delighted I am every time a student questions or goes against my point of view, for that is the bedrock for a vigorous academic environment, in which everyone is free to exchange ideas, to bounce off one another so we can figure out new solutions that shall advance science and society at large.”
The Computer Science Program at Fulbright: Intuitive to the industry’s demands, Built for world-class scientific research
While the software industry in Vietnam has seen leaps and growth in recent years, not to mention the government’s incentives for nationwide digital transformation in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the local market is still confronted with shortages of highly skilled labor across areas of technology, including data analytics, artificial intelligence, programming, and information security, but to name a few. The challenge for universities in Vietnam to provide a creditable pipeline of talents, from Prof Nguyen’s perspective, doesn’t stem from any lack of financial resources which have improved significantly since his undergraduate days in the 90s, nor in any doubt as to Vietnamese students’ capabilities that he deems “rivalling the cream of the crop of developed countries’ institutions”, but instead, it’s an international mindset that in turn, trickles down to every aspect of how to build a curriculum which satisfies not only the ever-evolving demands of the market, but also elevating the status of Vietnam as a globalized hub for research and innovation within the region.
In the field of computer science, Prof Nguyen stresses the pivotal role of research in enabling developers and engineers to build and maintain softwares of “exceptional quality, more secured, more reliable and robust, and above all, resulting in optimized productivity for users”. “The raison-d’être for scientific research in Computer Science is intrinsically built-in and reflected in its practical applications by industry insiders,” he says. “I oftenly encourage my students to fully assume the responsibilities of a scientist, meaning we must strive for scientific breakthroughs that shall uncover what has been hitherto unknown to science and humankind, to advance the cause for novelties and innovation within this field we love and passionately devote ourselves to.” This inseparable interconnection between theory and functionality is also what he aims to instill in the Computer Science Program at Fulbright: “Maybe today we’re not sufficiently armed to build the fastest car in the world, but our scientific research can serve as the catalyst upon which future generations of researchers and innovators can perfect the car’s parts and engines that will ultimately make our dreams come true.”
In the Spring of 2020, Fulbright University Vietnam and UT Dallas have officially agreed upon a partnership of educational collaboration and exchange. While the pandemic has put on hold future endeavors between the two institutions, the official appointment of Prof Nguyen as Acting Chair of Fulbright’s Computer Science Program in January 2022 can be seen as the first jumpstart among many to move forward with our initial plan in facilitating programs and initiatives that shall benefit students and faculty members alike. As much as spending his time to continuously pursue his research at UT Dallas, at the moment, Prof Nguyen has already played a vocal role in the restructuring and consolidation of the Computer Science program at Fulbright. “I’m fully aware that our common goals can’t be reached within a day or two, but by laying out the initial stepping stones, what I hope is to set up a solid foundation upon which all members of our community can rely and thrive together.”
Building on his experience from the joint success between various institutions and their collective manpower, Prof Nguyen is setting his eyes on promoting collaborative research projects between Fulbright and UT Dallas as a gateway for academics in Vietnam to get informed and inspired by the ongoing issues presently occupy the world’s leading institutions. “The very thing that I’m most proud of in every achievement along my career is the collective intelligence encouraged and fostered within my groups of researchers,” he says. “What I believe as a strong point of Vietnamese students is the avid and selfless attitude to work within groups, which has served as the recipe for success in all of our research and recognition by the scientific community in the US.”
Prof Nguyen is also a founder of the Vietnamese Software Engineering Research Network, an organization that connects Vietnamese professors, researchers and lectures across the world to bolster cross-institution scientific research in the field of software engineering, all the while organizing conferences in Vietnam and introducing Vietnamese students to PhD programs overseas that can help advance their professional career in research.
But most importantly, it is his steadfast standpoint regarding the Computer Science Program at Fulbright that resonates with the school’s core principles in delivering an international liberal arts education: “In place of a teaching tradition whose coverage is too broad or vague, nor a curriculum that’s heavily skewed toward hot trends bubbling in the market, what I aim for is the model of a reversed ‘T’ letter,” he says. “It means before our students are ready to delve into specialized areas such as artificial intelligence or big data, they need to gain a strong foothold in all the basics of Computer Science and a liberal arts foundation. Only then can our students be well-prepared to take on any challenges in the real world, and become flexible and adaptable to the rapidly changing world of science and technology.”
According to Prof Nguyen, the responsibility of Fulbright faculty lies not only on outfitting students with the most cutting-edge technical skills, but for our future generation who will make meaningful contributions to society, it is no less crucial to cultivate in them an awareness and critical discernment of ethical issues in technology. “The question that I’d like students to consider is: when a user misuses a software, to the extent that their actions cause harm to fellow human beings, how much do the developers have to be accounted for in planning, building, and distributing that program?,” he says. The Ethics course will take a substantial role in facilitating the students’ viewpoints concerning this long-standing discourse over technology’s encompassing influence on myriad aspects of our lives, while serving as an imperative factor in Prof Nguyen’s goal to have Fulbright’s Computer Science Program internationally accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology in the US.
At the same time, gender diversity in the field of Computer Science is also an issue that Prof Nguyen wants to give precedence over. “I consider the human factor as one of the most important elements in our efforts to build a successful program,” he says. “For example, if we’re able to recruit accomplished female faculty members, our young students will be able to have inspiring role models to look up to, which can do wonders for their confidence and conviction in this career choice that’s often stigmatized as unsuitable for women.” He emphasizes on the many amazing opportunities awaiting female students locally and globally, as well as how teachers of all grades should encourage students to actively pursue their innate ability and passion for math and science, regardless of genders. “My most sincere hope is that the Computer Science Program at Fulbright will be an ideal space where all students, no matter where they come from or what gender they are, can develop to their fullest potential and receive wholehearted support from our faculty members, who dedicate their entire life and career to the betterment of education and research in Vietnam.”
Five years ago, Ms. Dam Bich Thuy departed from ANZ, where she had served as the first Vietnamese CEO of an international bank in Vietnam, to become President of Fulbright University Vietnam and undertake the challenging task of advancing the country’s higher education. In celebration of Vietnam’s Teachers’ Day (November 20), Vietnam Finance recently sits down with her for an insightful conversation about the transformative power of education and her inspiring journey at Fulbright. (*)
Are you currently happy with your job at Fulbright? What would you consider the most gratifying moment in this 5-year journey with the university?
I was born and raised in a family of educators. Both my parents used to teach at universities, while my younger brother also followed the family trade and became a researcher. Wanting to become a teacher myself, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Pedagogy. But you see, life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned, as my career had taken different turns. However, I think deep down inside, I still carried with me the love and passion for education, so that when the time came, the decision to join Fulbright University Vietnam as one of its founding members, and then as its first President, was something completely natural to me.
The quest to build a university from the ground up, especially one that’s based on an education model relatively new in Vietnam, certainly entails many challenges. Yet the boundless joy, the rewarding moments are truly beyond compare. I still remember the early days of a newly formed Fulbright, when our entire project team worked together in a cramped office at Bitexco [Financial Tower], tirelessly preparing for our first school year’s admissions. It didn’t matter whether you’re an academic, a communication officer, or a finance specialist, each and every one of us pitched in with one mission in mind: how to convince students and their families of our vision, to earn their trust and confidence so they’d join us in this journey of building and co-designing Vietnam’s very first liberal arts university, together.
Nor can I ever forget the first meetings we had with a group of students and parents on the educational model at Fulbright. There were many questions, even doubts and skepticisms, raised about the practicalities of liberal arts, since it goes against a traditionally held belief of Vietnamese families that “higher education is vocational education”. Some people couldn’t understand why our students have to spend a minimum of one year at Fulbright to learn the basics of humanities and arts, social and natural sciences, before deciding on a specific major. Or when we talked about our need-based financial aid program that takes into consideration each family’s financial situation, not a few parents expressed misgivings about the fairness of this model, fearing that there might be people providing false statements to gain opportunistic advantage.
And so, you can imagine how gratifying it’s been, for all of us at Fulbright, to see more and more students and parents in Vietnam nowadays recognize the values of liberal arts education, while our society as a whole has embraced it as one of the creditable alternatives when it comes to higher education in our country. Or I was moved to receive a letter from a mother whose kid had been awarded full financial aid at Fulbright. She said that had the university not offered her child this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they might have to abandon their dream, for the family simply couldn’t afford it. The mother also shared with me her intention of notifying the school immediately once the family’s financial situation has improved, so we can pass this opportunity on to other students in need.
How important is higher education in providing a high-quality workforce for Vietnam’s future development?
In his seminal work on human capital theory, the Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker pointed out that human capital constitutes 70 to 75% of a nation’s capacity to reach prosperity. He illustrated how Asian countries from Japan to South Korea to China have come to recognize the critical role of education in economic growth. Despite having fewer natural resources, those countries invest heavily on their education systems, in particular higher education, to improve human capital which in turn, contributes to their transformation into global powerhouses.
Vietnam is no exception if we want to replicate their success stories. The matter at hand, however, has become increasingly pressing as we now live in a period of uncertainties and accelerating technological change. Automation and artificial intelligence, while enabling seismic shifts in society, have brought about concerns regarding the rapid disappearance of jobs across industries, from assembly lines to retail to law.
These trends will exert grave impacts on Vietnam, whose economy primarily relies on light industry and agriculture. The labor market of those manufacturing activities will exponentially shrink due to automation and technological advances, while our agricultural production is extremely vulnerable to climate change. To sustain our development and attain greater socioeconomic accomplishments, we must ensure a successful transition of our economy into knowledge and high value-added industries. Therefore, a skilled and high-quality workforce will serve as an important prerequisite.
In your opinion, what needs to be changed so Vietnam’s higher education can catch up with the higher education systems in developed countries?
Despite the fact that Vietnam’s higher education has made significant strides over the years, in reality, we’re still confronted with the gap between the demand for skilled labor and educational opportunities in the country. While Vietnamese students perform well on standard academic tests, employers consistently report that students lack the skills needed to excel, as reflected in the high underemployment rate of college graduates.
At the same time, young people are now faced with a future of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, also known as the VUCA world. A report has estimated that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030, less than 10 years from now, haven’t been invented yet. In large measure, a university curriculum that adheres strictly to the confines of traditional career paths has become outdated.
In the end, I think we need to come back to the ultimate, if not original, role of higher education, which is to help students manage and adapt to an ever-changing world. From our hands-on experience at Fulbright over the past 5 years, I believe that higher education in the 21st century must teach students to “learn how to learn”, so they will be able to continually develop new skills and reinvent themselves. The focal point of any educational model should be on providing students with the fundamentals of interdisciplinary studies which synthesize knowledge across different fields, while honing essential skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, curiosity and creativity.
Recently, I’ve got to hear from a human resources director of a tech company. She said to me their CEO thinks very highly of Fulbright students who currently intern at the company, for they demonstrate excellent critical thinking, problem solving, presentation and collaboration skills, even better than some of their full-time employees. I’m not sure if she exaggerated it, but it’s still a great encouragement for all members of Fulbright to keep going and have faith in our mission.
The last decade has seen the growth of private investment in education in Vietnam. How would you assess the nature and quality of these efforts?
It is an undeniable fact that over the past 10 years, the education sector in Vietnam has been vibrant and diversified thanks to a growing number of private investments. Universities have also changed to become more active and attuned to market’s demand.
But frankly speaking, we still lack high quality and internationally accredited universities. Whereas private investors might have spurred the formation of new universities in Vietnam, the priority set on profit maximization has hindered efforts to improve the quality of teaching and research.
I have an inkling that the concept of private investment in education has been, by and large, misinterpreted in Vietnam as the commercialization of education. Whenever education is excessively commercialized, the repercussions, chief among them an inequitable distribution of opportunities among students to get access to higher education, would be a serious cause for concern. We simply can’t stand by and let students with talent, passion and intelligence give up their dream, just because their families can’t afford tuition. This problem doesn’t affect only a few individuals, but in fact, it’s an important social issue directly linked to a nation’s social mobility. A large part of the world, Vietnam included, sees higher education as a decisive factor for its people to move up the social ladder.
I believe the solution to this problem lies in how we can gain a true understanding of the nature of investment in education, which we can certainly learn from countries with the best higher education systems.
It goes without saying that not-for-profit universities do need endowments to operate. In developed countries, especially the US, philanthropy is a time-honored tradition and has been instrumental to top universities’ long and successful history. Donations, charitable contributions, or capital funds gifted to educational causes have also become a common practice in Asia.
Although the mainstream media in Vietnam only highlights stories about billionaires’ hefty donations to universities across the world, such as the case of Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, Vietnam’s first female billionaire, and her £155m donation to University of Oxford’s Linacre College, in reality there are more and more middle-class individuals willing to give small donations to endowment funds or scholarship funds that support disadvantaged students. These are admirable gestures and should be widely popularized in Vietnam, so that education philanthropy can truly become an intrinsic value of our beautiful culture.
I’d like to reiterate that if we want to build a better, stronger Vietnam, collectively we must build and invest in good universities. I’m sure many of our readers carry in their mind the question of what we can do to help strengthen our country, so it can stand tall and proud in the world. I can assure you, making your contribution to the development of education in Vietnam is one such way. It’s the key, if not one of the most feasible solutions, to our concern.
What would you consider as the biggest challenge for Fulbright at the moment? How do you secure the financial resources need for the university’s future development?
The hurdles that a 5 year-old university must overcome are numerous. Yet the biggest challenge for Fulbright University Vietnam is how to prove ourselves worthy of Vietnam, by rising to the particular demands of our society through ensuring an excellent teaching and research program, among other activities and initiatives aimed toward social good. Our development would mean nothing and won’t be sustainable if Fulbright can’t connect to Vietnam at a deeper level. That requires contribution from goodwill benefactors and financially savvy individuals in our country.
At the moment, Fulbright is operating from the generous funds provided by the US Government and its affiliated organizations, not to mention a 15 hectare parcel of land in the Saigon High-Tech Park, donated to the university by the Vietnamese government so we can build a new campus, envisioned as the most environmentally advanced education complex in Vietnam, and will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty and the interested public.
We’ve also received financial commitments from generous benefactors as well as Vietnamese businessmen and women, whose contributions represent their fervent support and investment in the future of education in Vietnam. But above all, we still look forward to education philanthropy becoming a common practice in our society. As previously mentioned, a $10-20 gift donated to non-profit universities in America is not at all uncommon, for it can accumulate into a valuable resource that enables them to invest substantially in teaching and research. As a result, they have been able to cultivate generations of innovators, changemakers and leaders that form the nucleus of the advancement of their society. And in turn, those alumni always come back and make contributions to their alma mater in whichever way possible. At Fulbright, we would also want to build that “pay it forward” culture.
Do we have similar types of small donations at Fulbright?
Absolutely. In fact, the endowment we’ve received so far has exceeded far beyond our expectations. Among our benefactors are individuals of middle income, who still manage to donate a small sum of money every month to support the university’s scholarship fund or endorse an initiative they believe in. Every donation, large or small, means the world to us.
Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao’s donation to Linacre College has captured the public attention in Vietnam. In your opinion, what can we do to incentivize private donations to universities in Vietnam?
Although I’m just a casual observer of that story, I still hope her gesture will serve as an inspiration for other well-to-do individuals in Vietnam in making their donations to local universities.
But words are not enough to build a culture of education philanthropy in Vietnam. The reason it has become so successful in America is due to the US Government’s federal tax deductions for charitable donations, in which contributions made to non-profit universities can be claimed as tax deductions. In Vietnam, we do not have similar incentives to encourage wealthy individuals’ charitable giving. But I think it’s time our government should give it due consideration to mobilize the untapped resources of our society.
In that ideal scenario, it’s critical that endowment funds are allowed to marshal contributions from every part of society as much as incentivized for doing so. In the US, the number of university endowment funds has increased hundredfold since 1980, in particular, the size of those of elite institutions have risen to tens of billions of dollars. While still a novelty in our country, I believe it’s an imperative to attract more private investment in higher education and in turn, the future of Vietnam.
(*) The article has been translated from Vietnamese to English by Fulbright.
Fulbright University Vietnam is pleased to announce 5 excellent students who won our undergraduate scholarships for the class of 2025. They are Nguyen Dac Hoang from Hai Phong, Tran Tieu My (Kien Giang), Nguyen Hoang Ngoc Ha (Dak Nong), Luong Ngoc Chung (Binh Phuoc), and Le Dao Minh Tam (Quang Ninh).
These talented young Vietnamese have demonstrated exceptional academic excellence, as well as their strong commitment to community service in Vietnam. Each will receive a scholarship equivalent to 50% of the annual tuition fee for four years, in addition to financial aid (up to 100% of tuition fee) that also covers their housing expenses for the first two years at Fulbright.
“Congratulations to the recipients! Thanks to the generous support of our donor, Fulbright University Vietnam is proud to be able to offer these scholarships to our students. This is one of many scholarships that Fulbright aims to offer our next generation of change-makers. While there is still more work to be done, we will continue to expand our aid portfolio so that more Vietnamese students can gain access to higher education regardless of their background.” – says Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam.
We’re delighted to share with you the students’ personal thoughts and inspiring journey to Fulbright. While they may come from different regions in Vietnam, we recognize in them a common dream to pursue a liberal arts education, the desire to make meaningful contributions to their communities, and the passion to venture into the unknown.
Tran Tieu My
Inspired by the “Save Son Doong” campaign, Tieu My started to learn more about the environmental issues that affect her hometown, and founded the Saving Green Club at her high school. “Being a young person, I decided to be the change I want to see in this world,” she says. “I believe that if we can build a chain of young people who share the responsibility for sustainable development, they will make great contributions to our community and for the future.”
At the “Plastic Waste Reduction Initiative” competition organized by WWF Vietnam, her club won Second Prize and received $2,500 to implement their idea to high schools in her hometown. Naturally, Tieu My also wants to establish an environmental club at Fulbright, as well as visiting preschools and primary schools to teach children about environmental issues.
“My hometown, Go Quao, is a poor place. The young people there rarely have resources to approach life-changing opportunities,” she says. “When I told my friends that I’d been accepted to Fulbright, they didn’t know much about what a liberal arts education is, or how important a global citizen’s skills are. It got me into a lot of thinking.” Tieu My wishes to visit schools in the rural area, as well as creating video content on her social media, to share her life story and the journey that got her into Fulbright. “This scholarship is not only about money, it gives me the chance to come to my university of choice and realize my dreams,” she says.
Nguyen Dac Hoang
Dac Hoang is the founder of Wise Thoughts Vietnam, a non-government organization whose mission is to fight against discrimination, prejudices and stereotypes in Vietnam. Over two years, it has gathered over 50 young artists, freelance writers and journalists, all joining hands to create a safe platform where the vulnerable can raise their voice and have their stories heard. The organization also organized exhibitions, produced a series of online talk-shows and attracted over 40,000 followers on their Facebook page.
“Since writing has been an indispensable part of my life, I would love to build a community of young writers and writing activities at Fulbright,” he tells us. “ I have some ideas for a writing club, possibly inviting famous authors and novelists to host writing workshops on our campus. My dream is to co-design and publish a book with my Fulbright mates, contributing to 2025’s legacy.”
Dac Hoang also plans to create a new podcast called “Humans of Fulbright”, where the Class of 2025 can share their stories and empower each other on their personal journey. At the moment, he’s looking int0 Arts and Humanities, believing “works of art are the best tool to go back in time without a time machine.” While aspires to become a writer for magazines and independent research organizations, ultimately his plan after graduating from Fulbright is to become “an individual full of stories worth telling, full of joy and always believing in a brighter future.”
Nguyen Hoang Ngoc Ha
A math enthusiast from Dak Nong, Ngoc Ha has participated in many math competitions and camps across the country, winning awards back and forth. “I never forget each delightful moment whenever I solve a math problem,” she tells us. “Since I was little, I have loved the beautiful lines, the logical equations, and the deep work and creative time I must put into math.”
At Fulbright, she plans to concentrate on Mathematics and Computing. Her dream is to come up with tech products that can solve real-world problems in the future. While she intends to apply to the university’s STEM Club, Ngoc Ha also aspires to collaborate with other students to build a project that supports farmers in her hometown and various farming communities. “Due to my upbringing in a farming area, I have witnessed farmers’ economic difficulties and the climate challenges they have to face,” she says.
Ngoc Ha credits her mother as her biggest inspiration: “Although she grew up in a destitute part of Nghe An and didn’t have as much opportunity to study, my mom still tried her best to pursue a bachelor degree even though she was over 30 years old. She’s now an inspiring teacher, a hard-working farmer, and a tender homemaker. She taught me to always value my lifelong learning and motivated me to play different roles in others’ education. She also empowered me to embrace my identity, to love farming and overcome any challenges in life.”
Luong Ngoc Chung
In 2021, “ Lullabies of the Rivers”, a project Ngoc Chung co-founded in high school, was selected as part of the British Council Vietnam’s The Rivers of Life programme that leads to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The project, which inspires 20 high school students in Dong Thap to tell their stories via self-written songs about how climate change has impacted their families’ livelihood along Sa Giang River, has earned him the invitation to attend the launch of the Special Report on “Youth for Climate Action in Vietnam”, among whose many esteemed guests was the COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma.
Needless to say, Ngoc Chung is deeply passionate about the climate crisis and social causes. “For the future, I’m thinking of working in the field of development, advocating towards a world of equity, transparency, prosperity and sustainability in Vietnam,” he tells us. “We lead our lives not as individuals, but as members of the community. Because of it, we must strive for the betterment of everyone around us.”
The Fulbright scholarship, for Ngoc Chung, is a reminder that he should never stop trying to become a whole person. Having recently read ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama, he reflects: “Coming to each stage of my life means having a somehow new worldview proportionately. By continuously learning and practicing the values I believe in, whichever plan I am going to have in the future, my most sincere wish is to become a kind and active person. I am becoming!”
Le Dao Minh Tam
Minh Tam was the Head of Content and Debate Coach at her high school’s Debate Club in Ha Long. In 2020, her team won the Trường Teen VTV7 Debate Competition, the biggest debate competition in Vietnam that attracted 100 high school teams from all 63 provinces.
At Fulbright, she plans to facilitate networks between the university’s Debate Club and high schools in the Southern region, with the ultimate goal of having Fulbright in the World Universities Debating Championship. “Being able to meet and greet new individuals and get energy boosts from them tremendously makes my life more meaningful and cheerful than ever,” she says. “With debate being my greatest strength, I want to promote meaningful and effective discourses on topics where student’s contributions are essential to the development of the Fulbright community as a whole.”
While she currently sees Social Sciences as a potential focus at Fulbright, Minh Tam wishes to one day work in the field of education. “The scholarship prompted me to think about the distribution of opportunities in education and how it applies to my own case. Knowing that I’ve been granted the opportunity to alleviate any financial burden and focus on my study, it becomes the main driving force behind every single effort of mine, to give back to the school and to communities that I want to engage in the future.” she shares. “I’m always happy to strive for a good cause.”