At the 2nd Vietnam Conference on Earth and Environmental Sciences last August, Dr. Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang, the first female keynote speaker of the program, presented her research on the role of microbial activity in setting the ocean carbon flux – a vital factor to the stability of our global climate. Her work has been published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, one of the prestigious international scientific journals that covers the natural sciences. By combining interdisciplinary approaches including biochemical, molecular, and modeling techniques, she defines the mechanisms under which microbial communities respond to and mediate biogeochemical cycling. This mechanistic understanding then allows her to develop predictive tools to quantitatively measure the functional shifts of microbial communities in a changing environment and the potential feedback of the microbial community dynamics on the environment.

As a young scientist who has dedicated her passion to researching, few people know that Dr. Huyen Trang had a rather difficult start to her career. Talking with her, we cannot help but admire her passion and contributions to the Vietnamese science community and the international scene at large. Meeting her in person, we feel warmed by her vibrant and energetic vibe. It is also this incredible energy from Dr. Trang that makes students more engaging and interested in scientific theories, which can be quite dry and hard to keep up with. On the other hand, she shares that she is fueled with motivation by Fulbright students’ curiosity, especially when they ask her very sharp (hardball) questions.

Dr. Huyen Trang (middle, first row) and her students at Fulbright exchanging gifts for Christmas

Together, let’s find out more about Dr. Trang’s journey and passion for microbiology.

Good morning, Dr. Trang! Can you share with us a bit about your journey to becoming a microbiologist?

 It is very difficult to pinpoint when or why I started to develop this passion for sciences, but one thing for sure is that I have always been curious to explore new knowledge and to understand how the world around us works. When it was time to apply to universities, I almost followed the traditional path that my father had planned for me, which was the Banking Academy. My father, like many parents at that time, wanted me to have a stable job for life, as a girl should. However, on the very morning that I had to submit the paperwork, I made a last-minute U-turn to pursue my passion for sciences, which can easily be the boldest decision of my life. Thankfully, my mother supported my choice and then, my path in science just progressed naturally.

In the diverse fields of earth and environmental sciences, microbiology is the field that excites me the most. Microorganisms are so tiny that we cannot see them with the naked eye, yet they hold mighty power over the environment. Everything around us is covered and composed of microorganisms – they are on our skin, in our stomach, in the water, soil, air, etc..

Therefore, any study of microorganisms has the potential to scale up its findings to global solutions. Any discovery about them will help us have a better understanding of our living environment.

The three musketeers of the Integrated Sciences team at Fulbright (from left to right: Dr. Nguyen Thi Hong Dung, Dr. Nguyen Thi Trang, and Dr. Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang)

As a young scientist with bold passion, you must have faced many difficult challenges. How do you know that you are on the right track and persevere through?

Me, I love the challenges of sciences for they always give me something to cultivate my curiosity. Though, I also had to accept that this academic pursuit can be taxing at times. I was fortunate to become a fellow of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF) and received financial support to pursue Ph.D. and post-doc research in the United States. Back then, being the youngest fellow and also shooting for a rather new major at the time – Environmental Sciences, it was a bit lonely. At my research lab, I was always the only Vietnamese, among very few Asians, and the only female represented.

Like most scientists, I was used to working at the lab till late, only leaving work when it was so dark and cold outside. And for my specific major, researchers often have to be exposed to toxic gases. So yes, there were moments of doubt that whether or not such sacrifices of my health and my youth were worth it. Yet, I found solace in new discoveries, when my research progressed, and when I could write reports and share the findings with family and friends. It’s the “aha!” moments in science that keep me going.

It’s always a fun time exploring sciences in Dr. Trang’s class

Many Vietnamese scholars choose to stay abroad for their career prospects. Did you have any doubt or hesitation when deciding to return to Vietnam?

Though Vietnam is still catching up with the world in terms of research conditions and laboratory facilities, objectively speaking, we have an environment so rich in great research questions that I aspire to explore.

There are silver linings to the lack of modern technology. In developed countries, research can become dependent on modern tools with built-in smart algorithms, and as a result, the research process can become a black box. In contrast, when doing research the traditional way, we are forced to think and pull knowledge from all disciplines to connect the dots and work the problem out. Hence, it trains us to flexibly adapt to the ever-changing environment.

You were one of four keynote speakers at the Vietnam Conference on Earth and Environmental Sciences (VCEES) 2022, and this is also the first time the conference has a female scientist as the keynote speaker, how did you feel?

I was really happy to represent the “minority” in sciences. Before this conference, I was also the only female panelist on Science and Technology Day 2022 organized by the Institute of Mathematics under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi.

Dr. Huyen Trang as the only female in the panel discussion at the Science and Technology Day 2022

Although females are still the minority in the scientific community, their contributions are not to be overlooked. Just like microorganisms, they can be small in size but they are an essential influence on the global ecosystem.

Similarly, although Vietnam is still a developing country, we have no less of a responsibility to protect the environment than other countries across the globe. For example, we are the second largest rice exporter in the world. A 1-meter rise in sea level due to climate change can cause saltwater intrusion and change the entire farming conditions in the Mekong Delta, which in turn will have devastating effects on our food supply chain. In tune with the message emphasized throughout the VCEES 2022, my research focused on the microbiome to provide perspectives and solutions from local micro problems to global macro challenges.

For many people, science can be dry, obscure, and complex. How do you make science more approachable in class?

This past semester at Fulbright, I teach Scientific Inquiry and Introduction to Environmental Sciences. This semester, I took the students to Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, which has been recognized by UNESCO for its biodiversity with its characteristic mangrove ecosystem; and Vietnam Waste Solutions in Binh Chanh, where they have waste-to-energy process to help alleviate the waste burdens on our environment. In combination with knowledge learned in class, these field trips can help students better understand the surrounding nature and have a more comprehensive view of the impact that humans lay on the environment through daily activities. Thereby, they take action and lead a more sustainable lifestyle, contributing to the world’s efforts to protect the environment.

Dr. Trang’s class field trip to Can Gio Biosphere Reserve…


… and to Vietnam Waste Solutions in Binh Chanh

I am also really delighted that the students are proactive in their learning – they have great visions and plans to pursue such diverse passions. I remember even before I officially joined Fulbright, I was already impressed with these bright students. So when we interviewed for the faculty position, we had to teach a demo class to test out the chemistry with the students and how each lecturer would have a different way to engage in class. The topic I chose for this demo session was soil microbiology, which is rarely discussed in Vietnam. And I was so happy to see the students actively engaged in the classroom, raising some very sharp questions.

The field trips you designed in your classes align very closely with the environmental issue around us. Is that an intention to encourage young Vietnamese to be more invested and proactive in solving Vietnam’s local problems?

Through interactions inside and outside the classroom, I hope students can grasp the current situation of environmental issues in Vietnam. Even if they do not plan to pursue scientific research, they still have a clearer perception of the societal landscape. Just starting with small actions such as reducing plastic bags or cycling instead of driving, we can add to the ripple effects towards more sustainable living habits for the whole community. Even the biggest problems will need solving from the smallest aspects. And that is why I am in love with the study of microorganisms, for they are so tiny, yet so mighty.

I truly have faith in the students at Fulbright University Vietnam. They are curious and eager to learn. They are not afraid of challenges. And they ask the toughest questions. As a lecturer, my job is to give them the tools – the foundation knowledge, so that they can use multidisciplinary thinking to find their approaches and solutions for the challenges of their communities, ones that are closest to their hearts.

Thank you so much, Dr. Huyen Trang, for your enthusiastic sharing with Fulbright! We wish you all health and happiness for the new year, to continue inspiring generations of Vietnamese youths and contributing to the scientific community.

Bảo Trâm

Coming as different sets of personalities pursuing two distinctive development pathways, both Lê Kiều Oanh and Lê Quốc Chí – the recent Panasonic Scholarship winners have a special place in their hearts for the community. And in their own way, they strive to give back.

On September 27, Lê Kiều Oanh and Lê Quốc Chí, the two Co-Designers at Fulbright University Vietnam received the highly competitive Panasonic Scholarship Program for Undergraduate Students 2022.

Surpassing 350 strong candidates from 65 universities across Vietnam, Oanh and Chí were among the 20 recipients of 30.000.000 VND. In addition, they will have great opportunities to participate in Panasonic’s skills development training workshops in communications, problem-solving and time management, just to name a few.

Lê Kiều Oanh: “I feel truly happy when I get to see the smiling faces of children”

Lê Kiều Oanh is a student filled with positivity and enthusiasm. At a young age, she has already involved in several organizations. Oanh was the Business Development Leader at EM-IN, Sales and Product Manager at Nook Renovation, and later joined McKinsey & Company and worked on a public sector development plan. Most recently, Oanh assists in strategic development and project management at Koidra Inc. Oanh also supports the establishment of many university-wide clubs and initiatives at Fulbright.

Among many of her projects, EM-IN is the nearest and deareast to Oanh’s heart. EM-IN, a social enterprise developing and distributing Emotional Intelligence (EQ) toolkits for children, was founded during her very first days of Fulbright’s Co-Design year 2018-2019. In the class “Ethics in Context: East Asian Ethical Philosophy in Vietnam, the Region, and Beyond”, led by Dr. Nam Nguyen, Director of the Vietnam Studies Center and Faculty of Vietnam Studies, the students were to initiate a community service. Oanh, back then being a member of the Fulbright Psychology Club, joined her peers on a field trip to Đà Lạt to introduce EQ to 30 orphans.

“We were deeply touched. We were happy to be able to help those unfortunate kids during the visit. But we also regretted that we couldn’t stay any longer to practice emotional intelligence with them,” Oanh shared. “That gave us the idea to create an EQ toolkit that children can self-educate and practice among themselves.”

This was the main reason why EM-IN’s evolved from a school project to a professional social enterprise. Oanh, together with her fellows, had made constant efforts in researching, developing, and prototyping to officially launch two boardgame toolkits, namely “Universal Children Day” and recently “Biết Mình Biết Ta” (Know Yourself, Understand Others).

Consisting of multiple cards identifying different types of emotions, scenarios and prompting questions, “Biết Mình Biết Ta” turns an educational EQ session into an exciting quest. Although the original target user was children aged 8 to 15, the toolkit in fact brings all family members closer together and fosters a mutual understanding. EM-IN thus won hearts and support of the parents themselves, who later help expand its outreach to potential customers.

Previously in September 2021, Oanh and EM-IN were awarded the Fulbright’s Community Change-Maker Scholarship funded by generous donors, among them was Temasek. The grant was a tremendous help to EM-IN’s very first product distribution. Embracing the sustainable model of a social enterprise, EM-IN always donates most of its profit to orphanages across Vietnam.

Alongside with her role in Business Development and Operations at EM-IN, Oanh constantly engaged in a wide array of startups and community-minded projects. During a gap year in university, Oanh became a vital member of Nook Renovation, a home renovation startup using a tech-enabled platform. From the early days of doing market research as an intern, Oanh had proudly earned herself the title of Product Manager and later, Sales Manager there.

After a significant project at McKinsey & Company through Manpower Group to research and propose a provincial development plan, Oanh returns her focus to Fulbright. At the same time, Oanh is now a part-time Project Manager at Koidra Inc., a world-leading AIoT-for-manufacturing startup based in Seattle (USA) to transform high-impact industries.

Her young age is no barrier to Oanh’s quest for the breadth and depth of business overview in Vietnam. “By taking part in different roles across disciplines, I can continuously round out myself. I can keep contributing to meaningful social causes like EM-IN. Since I am a Fulbright student, I always want to give back to the community in whatever I do and make the world a better place,” said humbled Oanh.

“In the next 5-7 years, I will continue to accumulate my work experience and professional networks and grow my financial capabilities. One day, I wish to develop EM-IN at scale – one that provides care and comfort to many more disadvantaged children. I feel truly happy when I get to see all the children’s smiling faces that EM-IN has helped over the years.”

Lê Quốc Chí: “Economic indicators mean nothing without the deeply-rooted interpretations to Vietnamese context.”

Chí comes with a confident demeanor and much maturity for his age. Chí is persistent. Chí trains his resilience perpetually. Chí thinks of himself as a marathon runner. And Chí believes there is no challenge too great.

As one of 54 students who received the Fulbright Founding Scholarship, Chí has grown closer to not only lecturers but also University Council members during his Co-Design year. Among them stands “cô Thủy” – Ms. Đàm Bích Thủy, President of Fulbright. Recently, Chí was deeply moved by one of her answers during the interview: “I want to see Fulbright students switch their majors 2 or 3 times during their 4 years at university, because it shows that they have made experiments and they have carefully considered their options.” Perhaps this was the much-needed encouragement for the brave student to officially make his decision of changing major from Computer Science to Economics.

Chí takes the flexibility of designing his own curriculum to most use. Along with the Economics classes, Chí also enrolled in some of the classes in Applied Mathematics and Social Studies majors to develop an interdisciplinary mindset. Thanks to this self-adapted syllabus, he gets to practice analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data, which horns his interpretation and linkage skills.

In particular, the “Sustainable Development: Science and Industry” class, lectured by Dr. Nguyen Thi Trang – a Faculty Member in Integrated Sciences, has inspired Chí to actively seek the correlation between macroeconomics and the real-life socio-economic status in Vietnam.

“Economics allows me to read complex indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP), total import-export turnover, energy prices, or foreign direct investment (FDI). Nevertheless, they mean nothing without the deeply-rooted interpretations to Vietnamese context,” asserted Chí.

Among many fields of Economics, Chí pays special attention to and made extensive research into the seventeen sustainable development goals, with a focus on applying renewable energies to promote economic development. “Economic indicators are sometimes too complicated to explain to my family. So, I usually share with them my passion via an electricity bill,” shared Chí.

“There are two ways to lessen the burden of a monthly electricity bill for most families in Vietnam. One, people must use electricity more efficiently to reduce the cost, such as turning off appliances when not in use. Second, they should install renewable energy devices to save electricity.”

Chí always seeks opportunities to enhance his knowledge, such as becoming a teaching assistant to Dr. Graeme Walker, a Faculty Member in Economics at Fulbright. During the last Fall semester of 2021-2022, Chí bridged the gap between Dr. Walker and many junior students. He facilitated online and offline group activities, ensuring the highest teaching and learning quality amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only excel at his study, Chí is also the President of the Fulbright Tennis Club. Chí has actively connected and successfully established a community of young like-minded people who are passionate or interested in tennis. Chí invited the coach over and hosted weekly training sessions. The Tennis Club has made a positive impact and promoted a balanced lifestyle between studies and sports, hence, fostering physical and mental health among the Fulbright community.

Chí is one of a few competitive members of the highly selective Venture Fellows Program (VFP), a program initiated by the Fulbright’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI). During two summers with VFP, Chí was a Market Researcher & Consultant Intern at CoderSchool and then Project Manager at VNG Group. In spite of their distinctive scale and working environment, CoderSchool and VNG both share an entrepreneurial philosophy in their operations. “The summer internships at two different tech startup companies helped me gain valuable insight into their roles in the Vietnamese economy. Apart from being the driving forces for economic development, they are also key agents who lead positive impacts in society through innovative technology products.”

When asked about the difficulties that Chí encountered, the young man hesitated and humbly shared: “For me, there is no challenge too great.” Chí explains, “I accept that I live in an era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. That’s why difficulties are inevitable. But I always try to make today better than yesterday. Just like a marathon runner, I embrace resilience above all.”

Phương Mai

On a balmy night in May, stealing a brief moment of respite in a quiet corner, Tam Nguyen was absorbing it all – the streaming influx of visitors; the whirring buzz of congratulations and conversations, friendly embraces and flower bouquets; the convivial clink of wine glasses. It was, after all, the opening night of “Illuminated Curiosities”, a group exhibition organized by the Nguyen Art Foundation across the campuses of EMASI Nam Long and EMASI Van Phuc. The show features 46 artworks by 26 artists, and Tam had served as its curatorial assistant.  

Newcomers who are not quite familiar with the custodians of the local art scene, and even those well-versed in it, might be forgiven for having accurately guessed Tam – with his small stature, all-black attire, and febrile demeanor – as a junior assistant of some curatorial art stars. For Tam Nguyen is indeed a fresh face to the contemporary art milieu of Vietnam, with “Illuminated Curiosities” being his very first significant curatorial project, while the 22-year-old is still currently a junior majoring in Art and Media Studies at Fulbright University Vietnam.     

The early trails of a young art apprentice

Born into a family of humble means from the South end of Vietnam, Tam Nguyen arrived at Fulbright with a dream, pure and simple, of transcending boundaries – be it the boundary between his small-town, public high school and the private, liberal arts education at Fulbright; between creative and cultural disciplines; or between generations of writers, artists, and art academics in Vietnam.        

“It was the sheer force of curiosity and that feverish desire to learn, as a rookie resident of the city of Saigon, that prompted me to visit every museum, attend all gallery shows, and partake in any art projects looking for volunteers,” he says. “Naturally, I’d considered myself an outsider, with little to none understanding or connection to this esoteric world known as contemporary art.” 

Views from the “Illuminated Curiosities” exhibition. PHOTOS: Nguyen Art Foundation

Tam attributes his first big break to work with the seasoned echelons of Vietnamese art to Dr. Pamela Corey, Fulbright faculty in Art and Media Studies. On her recommendation, in 2021, he became part of the research and editorial team for an upcoming book project about Nhà Sàn Collective, an independent artist collective in Hanoi, and their storied, undulating history of spearheading performance art, experimental exhibitions, as well as the careers of emerging avant-garde artists in Vietnam since 1998.    

“In a sense, it has always been the faculty members at Fulbright who introduced me to new heights of intellectual rigor,” he says. “What we’ve learned or any skill we’ve developed in class can easily be translated into hands-on experience and real-life practice. The lecturers at Fulbright, in particular [former faculty] Dr. Aaron Anderson [of contemporary literature and cinema], and Dr. Pamela Corey are the ones whose dedication to their fields of research, not to mention their eloquent and captivating manner of speech, have inspired me towards a career in art and writing.” 

“Terms and Conditions of Writing and Publishing Art in Southeast Asia” is a series of workshop where Tam met the future curators of “Illuminated Curiosities”

Late 2021, Tam Nguyen applied for and got accepted into “Terms and Conditions of Writing and Publishing Art in Southeast Asia” – a series of virtual workshops organized by Afterall, a Research Centre of University of the Arts London, located at Central Saint Martins. One of its key goals was to “experiment with diverse or new forms of art writing and publishing among researchers, artists and writers across the region”.  

It was through this program that Tam got to know fellow Vietnamese participants – independent art researcher and curator Ace Le, and independent translator/curator Duong Manh Hung – who would eventually invite him to become part of the curatorial team for the “Illuminated Curiosities” exhibition. “This stream of opportunities has been truly invaluable for a newcomer such as myself,” he says. “I’m honored to be able to call these established figures in the art community my friends and colleagues.”   

Memories of art as signposts for the future

For “Illuminated Curiosities”, Tam spent the bulk of his time conversing with artists in order to draft the exhibition’s catalog, which details descriptions and concise dissections of the featured artworks. While the assignment played into his love of writing, it was also under the auspices of Bill Nguyn, Director of Nguyen Art Foundation, that Tam learned how to write for the casual observers, the newly-initiated art enthusiasts.  

“There’s always that temptation to employ big words, intellectual jargon, obscure references, whenever we write about art,” he says. “Bill Nguyn has an instinct for the kind of writing that’s not only faithful to the artists’ vision, but also of clarity to the general public. It’s also the same lesson that Dr. Pamela Corey has been imparting to us at Fulbright, whenever we’re assigned to write a curatorial proposal, exhibition essay, or artist statement in class.”           

Tam Nguyen, second from right, together with Fulbright students and faculty members at the ‘Illuminated Curiosities’ exhibition.

With all the experiences harbored through Nhà Sàn Collective and the “Illuminated Curiosities” exhibition, Tam Nguyen soon developed a research interest into the past and current state of archiving contemporary art in Vietnam.  

“Through those opportunities to meet with artists across generations and periods, I’ve come to realize how fragile, scattered and ephemeral the memories of Vietnamese art are,” he says. “Most of the time, those memories are stored within the artists themselves. We still lack proper systems to document and preserve their stories and their art. I think artists are voices of history, of critical thoughts and social justice. As an aspiring art researcher and writer born in the 2000s, I want to be the bridge that can mend this gaping hole still present in our collective memory.” 

Writing as Art 

Tam Nguyen also considered those conversations he had with artists as one of the rare rewards of being an “art laborer”, a “cultural worker”. For as much as they revealed to him the inspirations and underpinnings behind an artist’s individual practice, they also act as a frame of reference that helps Tam reaffirm how and why artistic expressions mean so much to him.  

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist, writer, or art researcher, once you come across that one thing that you’re hopelessly passionate about, it’ll grow into an interest, even an obsession, that you find yourself holding so close to your heart,” he says. “Gradually, it’ll become something that defines who you are and how you see the world.”  

Dryland Literary Magazine – a publication located in the heart of Los Angeles, where one of Tam’s works was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2021

Two years ago, that “one thing” that Tam stumbled upon was poetry. And as a testament to his laudable talent, Tam’s English poems have been published in journals and magazines such as Heavy Feather Review, Softblow, diaCRITICS, MAYDAY, Overheard, and Dryland. The acclaimed Vietnamese author Khải Đơn, who joined Tam in a recent poetry reading event at Fulbright University Vietnam, describes his works as an infant cocooning in his mother’s womb, whispering about his father’s sorrow, the breath of his hometown after half a century of dropped guns and muted bombs.

Indeed, a familial anguish; the ruminative threads that alert a son’s sense of self to the resigned psyche of his poverty-stricken parents; the collision of political forces that grieved the world; the unresolved tensions of an unforgettable summer romance – these are some of the themes you can find in Tam’s creative writings. “Since 2019, I began to read and write incessantly,” he recalls. “I’d discovered the power of writing to help me speak to the world in a truthful yet immediate manner. Poetry, for all its subtleties and astute permutations, is a medium that can transcend all boundaries to touch you at the core of your soul.” 

Tam Nguyen in a poetry reading event at Fulbright University Vietnam

Tam cites the American writer Maggie Nelson, and Kaveh Akbar, an Iranian-American poet, among his chief influences. While Nelson’s genre-defying body of work reflects his own desire to weave poetry, memoir, letters and essays together in his writings, it was through a long period of reading everything he could of Akbar that Tam learned how to thread a sense of personal narrative throughout his poems.  

“I consider poetry as a form of art. A string of words, when it’s lovingly and carefully put together, can result in velocity of emotions and expressions,” he says. “Whenever I sit down to write, and this is a practice that I learned from Akbar, I love having a stack of books in front of me and spending an hour or so glancing through them. I would note down the bits and parts that really speak to me, then try to play around with words, experimenting with different combinations. Sometimes, just by swimming along the subconscious of dreams, the result can even surprise me.” 

Quyen Hoang

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 breathtaking campus

Academic experiences

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.

My classmates on a field trip to Joo Chiat

Fieldwork at a nail salon attended by Vietnamese marriage-migrants in Joo Chiat

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.

Student life

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.

Decorating our suite to welcome Lunar 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. 

Saga Dining Hall

One of my dabao dining hall meals

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 (^^).

A shiok meal in a hawker centre

Celebrating a lovely friend birthday


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.

The eco pond on campus

Sunset from my room

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.  

Fond memories of the semester

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.” 

1988 in Dr. Mariano’s home in the Philippines: “That’s me (left), my dad (center) and my brother (right). It was around this time that I discovered the wonder of computers and how to code them.”

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”. 

Internship at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, Pittsburgh 2002. This was where Dr. Mariano saw university ideas and expertise get turned into products.

“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.”

Dr. Mariano: “There is this kid inside of me that doesn’t want to grow up. I love making and teaching robotics for kids” – 2021 in Vietnam.

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. 

Dr. Mariano: “I enjoy watching kids discover the joy of coding. This 8-year-old kid learned Python by himself.” – 2020.

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.”

Bao Quyen

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.”

Map showing the political geography of Akwesasne. Courtesy of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

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.

Day of the bridge celebration at the creation of a new low-level bridge connecting Akwesasne to mainland Canada. Mohawk residents were banned from joining the celebration on foot by a barbed-wire fence.

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.”

Bilingual wait sign created by Canada Border Services Agency to Inform travelers about wait times. It is worth noting that few Akwesasne residents speak French.

Picture of “the Border” between portions of the community legal in Quebec and New York State. Note the only signs of change are the sidewalk and speed limit sign in Kilometers rather than miles.

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.”

Selfie taken by Dr. Ian Kalman at the St Lawrence River.

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.

Dr. Ian Kalman at a workshop on Digital Learning Through Social Media for teachers from all across the country at PEN 2020 (Pioneering Educators Network), held at Fulbright University Vietnam.

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.

Bảo Trâm

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 UdayaJournal 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.” 

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, in collaboration with Phunam Thúc Hà, Gil 145, Ngô Đồng, & Jason Huang, Proposal for a Vietnamese Landscape #2: Independence and freedom, Gil, your hair back into place [Độc Lập Tự Do, Gil, Tóc Luôn Vào Nếp], 2006. Oil on canvas, 180 x 120 cm. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Photograph by Phunam Thúc Hà, courtesy of the artist.

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.”  

Dinh Q. Lê, I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes, 2009. Bicycle, steel, mirrors, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, PPOW Gallery, Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

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.” 

Pamela Corey interviewing artist Tor Vutha in Battambang, Cambodia, in August 2011. Photograph by Kristina Wong.

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.”   

Book launch of Nguyễn Quân’s book Mỹ thuật Việt Nam thế kỷ 20, with Nguyễn Quân, Ngô Thị Thùy Duyên, Pamela Corey, and Nguyễn Kim Ửng, April 2011. Photograph by Ngô Thị Thùy Duyên.

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.   

Quyen Hoang

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.

Huynh Trung Dung – Public Policy Faculty Lead of the YSEALI Academy cum Lecturer at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management

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 at a social event in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore 2008

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.

Huynh Trung Dung and FSPPM faculty at Harvard, 2018

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.

Huynh Trung Dung in a Q&A webinar for YSEALI Academy

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.

Huynh Trung Dung and his colleague at RAND, 2017

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.

An Bình

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.

Last weekend, Friar Nguyen Chinh Luan was ordained to the priesthood.

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.

Nguyen Chinh Luan and a patient with leprosy at Van Mon Leprosy-Dermatology Hospital in Vu Van Commune, Vu Thu District, Thai Binh Province

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.

Nguyen Chinh Luan and Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Dean of the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management

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.

Nguyen Chinh Luan and FSPPM faculty member Chau Van Thanh

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.

Nguyen Chinh Luan and MPP2022 students

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.

Nguyen Chinh Luan and MPP2022 students during a field trip to Thua Thien-Hue Province in April

Thuy Hang