As one of the few female C-Suite leaders in the United States, Sheryl Sandberg has a surprisingly down-to-earth persona. On March 5, she dedicated her time for a conversation with Fulbright community about her take on the importance of education and preparing for a future of uncertainty post-pandemic.
Known as a leading executive, Sheryl shared that she is a big fan of liberal arts education for a number of reasons, one being its nature of interconnected and multidimensional training across trades. Moderating this insightful discussion was Mr. Cuong Do, Senior Advisor and former President of the Global Strategy Division for Samsung Group, member of Fulbright’s Governing Board.
The importance of well-rounded education
Ms. Sandberg started the conversation with an old adage: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” As Sheryl emphasized the importance of liberal arts education, it is not a coincidence that amongst all Vietnamese educational institutions, she chose Fulbright to pay a virtual visit.
Resonating with Fulbright’s vision of reinventing higher education for Vietnam, Facebook’s COO exclaimed: “I’m just a big fan of liberal arts education, because I think it teaches you to think, and it teaches you to think hard. It teaches you to structure ideas and make arguments.” Rather than continuing the traditional vocational education that has helped Vietnam to pick up the economy post war’s devastation, higher education must be reimagined with transformative core values, aiming to nurture foundational skills, critical thinking, and lifelong learning ability for creative breakthroughs, which are essential for the 21st century. That is the core pillar of liberal arts education and is also the profound mission that Fulbright University Vietnam carries.
Mr. Cuong Do reminisced when he was Sheryl’s senior, after she first joined McKinsey & Company, he was impressed with her ability to lead and work with people. Sharing her approach to leadership, Sheryl strongly advocates for the educational environment that Fulbright fosters, where the questions are more important than the answers, where all ideas are valued, and every student is to freely explore and progress to the best version of themselves. She added, “not only did liberal arts education teach me to critically think, but it also taught me the importance of hard work, discipline, being open to new ideas, and knowing that you are always learning.”
Recalling the trajectory of Facebook, Sandberg stressed that the learning and growing piece is one of the key components in a well performing team, that “we have to learn to think and think again.” Echoing her close friend Adam Grant in his new book Think Again she mentioned, “intelligence is generally thought of as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world there are other cognitive skills that may be more important: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”
Curious about how Sheryl has grown through her career path, Ninh Quynh Anh (Class of 2023) asked Sheryl to share what she would regard as the most important skills in her development. Upon reflection, Sheryl identified the hard skill to be communications – how to get ideas across clearly, how to write effectively yet simply – and the soft skill to be empathy – how to share compassion with others.
Breaking the glass ceiling
As the moderator applauded her for being “a beacon of light supporting women in the workplace and at home,” Sheryl addressed the obstacles that women still face in the 21st century. Although there are many differences across cultures, there is one thing that exists everywhere in the world, some places prominently, some more subtly: the glass ceiling. “We are culturally biased against female leadership… The word ‘bossy’ and its equivalent are used in every country in the world,” Sandberg asserted. She explained that girls are often called out as ‘bossy’ and ‘aggressive’ while boys are praised for their ‘leadership skills, and that happens everywhere.
This cultural stereotype against female leadership still exists because women do the majority of caregiving. Sheryl’s foundation, Lean In, published a survey in October 2020 reporting that 25% of women were considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce due to burnout. The pandemic threatens to undo decades of progress that professional women have made.
Answering Nguyen Thuy Linh’s (FSPPM student) question about how to conquer gender-based obstacles and break the glass ceiling, especially in traditional Asian societies like Vietnam, Sandberg advised students to be explicit about being ambitious and to earn their seat at the table.
A message to aspiring young minds
From Google to Facebook, Sandberg is known to have a keen eye for spotting “rocket ships”. When asked by Jack Nguyen Lam (Class of 2023) for tips on how to recognize “rocket ships”, Sheryl shared that a “rocket ship” can mean two things: one is the personal value – you must truly believe in the company’s mission and its impact, and second is the potential to grow. “For me, I’ve always wanted to work on things that would actually impact a lot of people,” Sheryl confessed.
As the pandemic came sweeping in, the whole scene of working is changing more rapidly than ever before. Jobs and skills that are in demand now may be obsolete within the next few years, and many future jobs do not yet exist. Vu Hai Truong (a graduate student in Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management) asked Sheryl what skills she would pinpoint as crucial for students to focus on building in preparation for this dynamic environment. The COO answered: “Don’t try to plot your career out. Because if I tried to plot my career when I was your age, I could never be here, because there was no internet and Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school. So, don’t plot it out. Instead, work on critical thinking skills, writing, communication, math, etc. Those are the things that really help us.”
Sandberg encouraged Fulbright students to find their own “rocket ships” in the green space, contending that it is impossible to find a “rocket ship” by following somebody else who has already done it. Mr. Cuong Do added: “If you want to grow, you have to make things happen, you have to create it. If those things didn’t exist, just apply the critical thinking skill I mentioned at the beginning and make it the ‘rocket ship’ you aspire it to be.” Both quoted their favorite poet Robert Frost, encouraging young minds to take ‘the road less traveled ’. Sheryl credited liberal arts education for cultivating entrepreneurial spirits, in which students are empowered with the requisite interdisciplinary skills for success in the fast-paced, unorthodox work environment.
Mr. Cuong Do concluded the chat with a heartfelt remark: “There’s nothing so great in the world that cannot be solved by people with great will. At a university like Fulbright, we are not training followers. We are not training people to go and pursue the path that has been created by someone else, we are training the future leaders to go and solve big problems in the world. So, go and do the hard things, because they need to be done. Don’t do the easy things.”
Rewatch the conversation:
Co-founded Misfit Wearables, a technology start-up that was acquired for $260M in 2015, and now Alabaster investment funds as well as Arevo 3D printing company, Mr. Sonny Vu and Mrs. Christy Le are ideal role models for many young people. Not only are they successful entrepreneurs, but both of them also have admirable educational backgrounds. With great passion for learning, Sonny and Christy spent some time last December to sit down and do an “If I were you” fireside chat with Fulbright community to share their inspirational stories about lifelong learning.
Buckle down, study, and enjoy it
‘One in eight of the Forbes 400, which are the 400 richest billionaires in the US, are college dropouts’ is one of the many headlines that have been floating around the internet, stirring the idea that a college degree is not necessary to become successful. People malign on and on about how college is a waste of time and that what’s learned in these programs are rarely relevant to the actual job. Invigorated by the stories of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a number of students decide to not invest in their higher education but instead go straight into the workforce, or following their entrepreneurial spirits. However, Mr. Sonny Vu deliberates that they might be missing the point: “College education is about having an environment, we have the time, space, and peer learners that will enable you to focus on learning and building the habits and skills for learning that you’ll have for the rest of your life. So enjoy it, savor it, don’t drop out and do that startup, don’t leave to learn something more practical, you will regret it.
“The foundation for lifelong learning is more satisfying than any money or status could ever give you… Start early! Start now! Because the reward of learning is like compound interest, it multiplies over time,” Sonny expands.
But learning is not easy, it requires grit and takes a lot of work to really excel in it. Even as a Valedictorian and a Legatum Fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management, with Double First in Economics from Oxford University (Bachelor of Arts and Master of Philosophy), two of the most prestigious institutions in the world, Mrs. Christy Le admitted that she, too, hit stumbling blocks to her academic career. Christy confessed that she once studied just because her mom told her to do so, or in hopes that it would help her make a lot of money in the future. She assured that those are not strong enough reasons to get you through the rocky roads of the learning journey. “It is difficult, boring, and painful. If you have the root, the true reason that ‘if I know that I can do more things and become a better person, contribute more to society,’ then the journey will be way more interesting and pleasant. Trust me, the difficulty level is still the same, but at least you will do it with joy.”
Researches confirm that intrinsic motivations lead to the most positive outcomes because you would be driven from within, doing things for ‘all the right reasons” instead of following money or status like extrinsic pushes. Mr. Sonny Vu also agreed that these pretentious motivations would never last, so “Let’s feed your curiosity now! If you’re curious and wondering let’s dive into it. You are students, you’re in college, you can take all sorts of classes, it’s amazing… Learn many things, be a generalist for sure, but also allow yourself to be obsessed about some topics, be a specialist with passion.” This resonances with Fulbright’s liberal arts approach to education in that Fulbright students do not have to decide their major right of the back, but instead, they are encouraged to explore different fields before finding one to commit to.
Emphasizing the importance of college education, Sonny said: “If I had one piece of advice, I could go back in time and tell my 18-year-old self, it would be to buckle down and study. Even though it sounds really contrarian, I would tell myself to sit down, study, and enjoy it.”
Always be hungry for knowledge
Learning isn’t just a shared passion between the two co-founders of Alabasters but also amongst the millionaires of the world. Surprisingly, the one thing in common of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger aside from the fact that they all have billions of dollars is that they all know quantum physics. That is not to say quantum physics is the key to success, but being able to sit down and spend time to really learn something is how one advances in life.
But the concept of being a learner has shifted. With the fast pace at which industries, business, and technology evolve, modern careers become nonstop conveyor belts — you need to keep moving and learning no matter what the stage of your career. Being content is a mindset that puts us at risk. Mrs. Christy Le reiterated: “Over time you realize that learning skills will become one of the most important skills in life because that’s how you grow. It never ends, you don’t stop, you keep going.”
The question is, how to keep that fire of desire for knowledge in you burning? While many people think that financial circumstances could pose a hindrance to the learning journey, Christy begged to differ. She reasoned that when people settle to be on a good track of their careers, it is way harder to be curious than when they are materially deprived. “The time that people usually learn the best, is when they don’t have enough, when they’re hungry. To keep going when you have enough, is usually unusual. And by the way, even when you are trained for trade, it may not be the trade that you will work on. You will learn so many things, you have plenty of time to learn, try to be curious, and feed that curiosity for a long time. That’s what will give you the most happiness of learning.”
Both Sonny and Christy believe the ability to learn is a gift that everybody has. The reason people don’t learn is mainly because out of fear, or because of lack of inspiration – people are afraid of failing, of trying new things, of pushing beyond their limits. Say, learning to swim is scary, but you just have to overcome that fear, jump in the water, get soaked up, and only then you learn how to swim. Mrs. Christy Le made a comparison: “To me learning is just like going to the gym, you have to do a lot of exercises, and you become really good at learning, then learning becomes a skill. And the better you are at learning them, the more you can learn, and the more you will enjoy learning.”
Reflecting upon the experience of changing her work environment many times in the past five years, Christy said that she learned new things from each place. While she could have stayed as the CFO and COO of Misfit, she decided to venture out and take executive roles at tech companies including CEO of Facebook Vietnam, Fossil Vietnam MD, and VP of Operations for Fossil Groups, CEO of GoViet, etc. Christy shared: “It was scary at first. And it’s a lot of work because you don’t build on something that you are familiar with. But trust me, coming out of that experience, you learn way more than you would otherwise do.”
Echoing the love for learning, Mr. Sonny Vu wished he would have the superpower to learn anything. “With the power to learn, you can build marvelous things, experience the full range of human conditions, meet incredible people you probably never have the chance to, and see the wonders of the world. And you can understand yourself and others in profound ways. Like Gandhi said: ‘live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, learn as if you’re going to live forever’.”
Looking at his heroes of learning: Bill Gates is 65, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger are in their 90s, yet they spend all day learning. So, there is no reason for us to ever stop. “Learning one of the greatest and most satisfying, deeply satisfying gifts that we can give ourselves and to our friends and our children,” Sonny exclaimed.
Make technology serve you, not the other way around
We have seen more crises and unexpected events in recent years than ever before, and parts of that are due to the high speed of technology development. The rise of social media and digital platforms has revolutionized our way of life. And as a respected entrepreneur and founder of many successful technology companies, Mr. Sonny Vu professed that it is incredibly easy for these outlets to consume your time. In order to save time and focus on learning, Sonny shared with Fulbright students a few tips to be indistractable: turn off most notifications (only leave the emergencies), timeboxing social media out, and timeboxing learning in. Also, having a physical space associated with learning is important – a desk, a comfortable chair, with lighting. “Make a ritual out of it, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, start from there and build on it.”
Given how much information is out there every day, especially when we mindlessly scroll through Facebook or TikTok, with information flashing, we need to create a system to absorb information wisely via multiple layers. To learn in a fast-changing world like this, we have to be picky about the things we learn. “Learn something with substance that would give you the opportunity to think, to wonder, to ponder, and to draw some conclusion. So choose things to learn wisely to help you adapt and create impacts in this ever-changing world,” Mrs. Christy Le added.
In the digital age where everything is available online, people can learn anything like science, arts, history and so on. Resources are easily accessible on many platforms such as YouTube, Khan Academy, Coursera, etc. It can be for beginners with no prerequisites, for example, it can take you through intro to algebra to calculus and advance to number theory. There is even an entire MIT education for free on OpenCourseWare, all it takes is commitment – people just have to make time for it and put in the hours to do the diligence.
Sonny believes that nobody is incapable of learning. Definitive “I can’t” or “I will never” statements are often self-fulfilling prophecies. He advised the students to nurture a growth mindset, embrace challenges, change and critique on the way to learning goals. People should accept that skill acquisition requires effort, that improvement is possible and that obstacles and others’ success are not reasons to stop your progress. “It also requires a certain attitude: humility. Who cares if a 12-year-old genius is smarter than you, just get started. And the most important thing is persistence – don’t ever stop learning,” Sonny concluded.
A day in mid-2007, in the office of Ben Wilkinson, Harvard Vietnam Program representative of Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP), a candidate for a part-time librarian position was waiting for a job interview.
The candidate was Truong Minh Hoa, a bachelor’s degree holder from Library and Information Science Faculty of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. Hoa’s experience was still limited; having only worked as a full-time librarian at Van Hien University, HCMC.
Hoa looked anxious and nervous as he had never talked to a foreigner before, while he was the third candidate to be interviewed for this position. Much to his surprise, Ben spoke fluent Vietnamese; it made the interview much more comfortable and warm. Hoa wanted to be polite and called Ben “Sir,” making the latter laugh. Ben corrected him immediately: “I’m not that kind of high-ranking officer!” It turned out to be Hoa’s first memory about FETP.
Hoa got accepted for the position. In the library inside FETP’s small campus on Vo Thi Sau Street, District 3, his desk was set next to that of Ms. Mai, the full-time librarian. It was beyond his expectation that he would work here for 13 years, in a small library where he experienced the most exciting days of his work life.
For the pursuit of knowledge
Although the library of FETP was not home to a vast collection of books like those of old universities, it took Hoa by surprise in his first days of work. The library welcomed anyone seeking information, even if they were not FETP students. They could access all kinds of books, including the rare ones. Later on, Hoa realized it was part of Fulbright school’s culture: a student-centered approach for the pursuit of knowledge.
It was totally different from what Hoa experienced at other libraries, where books were strictly kept and the distribution of books to library users was restricted. Therefore, Hoa felt very pleased with FETP and quickly fitted in this new environment.
According to Hoa, FETP’s library also had a different approach towards its users compared to other libraries. Traditionally, students in Vietnam keep a certain distance with librarians; they feel reserved and uncomfortable when interacting. When they talk to librarians because they wish to borrow a book, librarians are addressed as if they were superior.
“They might think librarians are grumpy and unfriendly. But here at FETP, students could search and look for the books they wanted themselves, in a totally open library. They just had to sign up with the librarian if they wanted to bring the books home,” Hoa recalled.
The open library gradually grew the bond between Hoa and the students. Their interactions and mutual support formed a friendly and comfortable academic environment at Fulbright school, where the relationships between faculty and staff, library officers and students were more akin to a big family.
“FETP completely changed the way I think about my work, the way I interact with my colleagues and students, and made me understand that librarians can contribute to building the culture of “serving for the pursuit of knowledge,” Hoa emphasized.
A turning point in his career path was when Ms. Mai resigned from her position at FETP. Hoa became the full-time librarian, working very hard to keep up with all the responsibilities by himself. He classified the books, labeled them with barcodes, put them on the shelves… He settled into a routine in which he found excitement and inspiration.
After a while, he found the perks of being a librarian were not just helping students find the information they needed. It brought him endless opportunities to learn, immersing into knowledge in the wonderful academic environment of Fulbright.
Founded in 1995, FETP, which has now become Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), was a partnership between the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). IT was initially designed to teach applied economics for Vietnamese policymakers, with the curriculum “imported” from HKS. Books and other documents used at FETP were updated constantly by HKS.
“In an attempt to build the academic space at Fulbright, we bought a huge volume of books on modern economics and market economy, including macroeconomics, microeconomics, econometrics, development economics, and a vast literature reviewing economic development in East and Southeast Asian countries and in the world,” said Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thanh.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon had just began operating internationally, and it was not easy to source books for FETP. Imported books were also subjected to strict censorship before entering Vietnam. HKS supported FETP in accessing the latest books and other economic documents from abroad. FETP translated these books into Vietnamese for students, mostly public officers from various cities and provinces across Vietnam who came to FETP for public policy study and had limited mastery of English.
Since the early 2000s, the bilingual library of Fulbright school has been home to a vast collection of newly published books on modern economics, something you may not find in other libraries across Vietnam.
True to a student-centered approach, there was a close connection between faculty members, academic affairs officers and the librarian at Fulbright school. Hoa actively assisted faculty members to find documents and prepare for translations. Sometimes, Hoa would go out himself to source the books students could not find in Fulbright’s library.
“The Fulbright environment changed me completely, from someone who just sits passively waiting for students to borrow books to an active, multi-tasking librarian,” he reflected.
It was not just the books that consumed Hoa’s time and efforts. The librarian was also heavily invested in building and maintaining OpenCourseWare, an important online platform for FETP’s teaching and learning program built in the early 2000s. At that time, Vietnam’s internet landscape was dominated by internet cafés all over the big cities. FETP began to publish its teaching and research materials online.
Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare Initiative (OCW), FETP, and now FSPPM, publish course syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists, assignments and case studies online. Both teachers and learners can access these resources and freely download documents.
The OpenCourseWare requires constant updates on a yearly basis, from majors, lectures to assignments; for cases studies, updates are more frequent. For more than one decade, Hoa has kept a steady course at the helm of OpenCourseWare, a unique legacy for those learning and working in policy-related fields offered by Fulbright school.
Nowadays, the booming development of technological platforms allows easier access to knowledge. But Hoa still dedicates his time and efforts to the platform, with a systemized approach and in accordance with copyright laws.
“FSPPM’s OpenCourseWare is up to date and hits over 1.5 billion page views each year, not just from FSPPM students and users inside Vietnam. We also have users outside the country,” Hoa added.
In 2008, FETP shifted from a one-year training program on applied economics to a complete Master in Public Policy. Hoa actively helped students find statistics for their research and graduation theses, though it was not part of his job. As students came from various cities and provinces and their graduation theses covered different areas, the statistics they required differed greatly. Each year, Hoa would contact the Bureau of General Statistics of Vietnam and the statistics offices from cities and provinces across Vietnam, collecting data from statistical yearbooks. So far, FSPPM has owned a collection of statistical yearbooks from all cities and provinces, providing a comprehensive compilation of statistics on social and economic conditions and activities at local level with constant updates.
“The collection of figures and statistical yearbooks has been a very interesting experience for me at Fulbright. In my first days here, professors taught me to search for official data from the databases of international organizations such as the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, Economist Intelligence Unit and more, all for the research and reports on macroeconomics; at that time, the data was not widely available online like today. That experience helps me a lot when I am assisting lecturers and students with their research and learning,” he explained.
Dang Thi Manh, former MPP2 student, remembered how busy she was in 2011, juggling her graduation thesis and a new job. Her thesis compared public finance models in Da Nang and Binh Duong provinces in relation to a socio-economic development model. She needed figures regarding the two provinces’ budget, revenue, and spending, and turned to Hoa.
“The collection of statistics became a burden for me given the pressure and time constraints. I deeply appreciated Hoa for his care and his willingness to help me gather the data for my thesis. I remember waiting for the release of the 2010 Statistical Yearbook to get the updated figures. As soon as the yearbook was available at the library, Hoa called me. Thankfully, I managed to use the figures to finish my thesis on time,” she recalled.
Hoa experienced memorable moments both bitter and sweet with the students of FSPPM who share the motto “Work hard, play hard.” He remembered the students of MPP4 class usually gathered to eat sweet soup after lunch under the tamarind tree when the campus was located on Vo Thi Sau Street. One of them would enter the names of all students present in an Excel file and use the Randbetween function. The random number indicated the person numbered would have to pay for all the sweet soup servings that day.
FSPPM students said they always remembered the 8:20 a.m. deadline to submit their daily assignments. Hoa was tasked with labeling the assignment papers as “Late,” in red letters, if they missed it.
Former students like Manh said they cherished the moments spent together and thought of Hoa as a sincere, warm-hearted, and dedicated person.
“He knew very well the topics that we were interested in and recommended books related to those topics to us. Whenever the school or each class hosted an event, he quietly held the camera and sneaked into different corners to take photos for us. When we had free time or took a rest, he always talked to us. During the lunch breaks under the tamarind tree, we chatted about our studying, our life, our family and our hometowns. Hoa became close to us. Looking at the number of former FSPPM students who attended his wedding, many people were so surprised and asked how come that young librarian had so many friends!” Manh recalled.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diep, a student of LM2020 class, also shared her warm feelings for Hoa, ‘the guy with the unforgettable smile’. “I wonder how he managed to finish so many tasks in such limited time. He has a lot of work to do, and many of us ask him for help, but he always smiles.”
“After the graduation ceremony on August 6, Hoa wrote a note to say goodbye to us on his Facebook page; he made me cry. I think our students may forget this or that person in school, but Hoa is always remembered. Thanks to him, I realized that a humble job done wholeheartedly is really valuable. The way Hoa is doing his job each day, the way he is serving students is a pillar of Fulbright,” she added.
Xuan Linh-Doan Hang
In June 2019, Master of Public Policy (MPP) Graduate of 2019 Phan My Dung and Dr. Bae Yooil attended a seminar in Korea on the topic of public governance. Together, student and professor introduced their research findings on young Vietnamese career choice motivation between the public and private sectors, a deep look into the millennial workforce in Vietnam’s emerging economy.
What originally began as Phan My Dung’s MPP Master’s thesis under the direct guidance of Dr. Bae Yooil eventually earned the first prize for the best Master Thesis of MPP 2019 and will soon be published in an academic journal. The work was appreciated as a quality contribution to research, and for its practical applications for the policymaking community in Vietnam: if young Vietnamese graduates overwhelmingly choose to work in the private sector, what are the implications for governmental workforce replacement?
Through a fruitful collaboration between professor and student, the scope of the research was expanded, destined not only for internal dissemination within the Fulbright community, but also for a broader distribution through the extended academic network of Dr. Bae Yooil, and finally presented at a policy research seminar in Korea
Phan My Dung recalled how anxious she felt on the trip as she had to present her findings in English. She was afraid that her command of the language would not reach the standards expected by her Korean and international policy research peers. But Dr. Bae Yooil’s encouraging words, his continued assurances so she may remain confident, and his determination to see her complete her task left a vivid impression on the newly minted researcher.
“After the lecture, I came to thank him. He just hugged me and said: ‘I see you as family’. He told me how much he recognized my efforts, ” shared Phan My Dung.
Mentoring a New Generation
Dr. Bae Yooil has worked at The Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) for the past two years as a senior lecturer, researching and teaching comparative politics, public policy, public management, urban and local political economies, and international development assistance. The professor joined the FSPPM faculty at a critical juncture, just as the school transitioned from the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), under the University of Economics and with the cooperation of Harvard Kennedy School, to become its own academic institution, Fulbright University Vietnam.
After 10 years working with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy as a Postdoctoral Fellow, and at Singapore Management University as an Assistant Professor, Dr. Bae had decided to further his academic career in a deeply international environment. Leveraging his strong academic background, Dr. Bae had set his sights on public policy education institutions in developed countries, interviewing for posts in multiple European countries, including the UK and Finland, in Hong Kong, and Korea. Dr. Bae only applied to one university in a developing country: FSPPM, Vietnam.
An interview with Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh at the end of 2017, then Dean of FSPPM, convinced him to seriously consider joining the faculty. For Dr. Bae, it quickly became evident FSPPM was shaping to become a strong player in the field of regional public policy analysis through a combination of a unique historical background, academic heritage, and bold vision.
“The school already had a strong legacy in FETP. Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh shared his ambition to build up public policy programming in Vietnam, nurturing this institution to be a leading research and education institution at the center of economic development and modernization. I believe this is true. Together with other FSPPM faculty, we can nurture students for the future of Vietnamese society and governance,” recalls Dr. Bae.
As Dr. Bae explains, public policy schools are currently experiencing fast growth around the globe. Policy programs in Asia in particular are garnering much attention, with fast growing schools such as Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, KDI e-Globe Institute in Korea, or the Public Administration Program at Tsinghua University.
But FSPPM possesses some unique advantages. On an interpersonal level, Dr. Bae Yooil describes a tight-knit community of students and researchers, current graduates and alumni that share a common enthusiasm for new knowledge, conducive to academic collaboration. FSPPM faculty are also determined to guide and closely advise student research, while the varied profiles of FSPPM students provide a trove of practical insights and experiences to better serve policymakers at every level, whether in the public or private sector, from local authorities to the central government.
On an institutional level, FSPPM is uniquely positioned to fulfill its ambitions as a regional hub of policy research. “FSPPM is celebrated as the best policy hub in Vietnam, and our links with global and regional organizations are quickly growing,” says Dr. Bae Yooil.
Building on Global Research
Dr. Bae Yooil first discovered Vietnam with his family in 2015, when a sense of kinship was impressed upon him by cultural elements familiar to his Korean sensibilities. But Dr. Bae’s eye for public policy also saw a strong potential for development in a country placed at a synergistic juncture of Eastern and Western influences.
As the professor explains, public policy research is crucial to Vietnam’s development, harnessing other countries’ experiences to limit pitfalls – or avoid them entirely. If properly adapted to Vietnam’s unique social, political, and economic landscape, developed countries hold valuable lessons that can help Vietnam keep its rapid, sustained pace of development. According to him, one of the biggest misconceptions in development research is to try and impose “recipes” from one country to another.
“Strategies that were successfully applied in developed countries are unlikely to bring about the same effect in Vietnam. In fact, each development stage of a country has its own characteristics and is governed by countless different factors and variables,” emphasizes Dr. Bae Yooil. This is why FSPPM plays a crucial role. As Vietnam’s foremost policy research center, the institution has much to offer, namely research and practical experience in public policy, public management and economics based on global knowledge, rethought for the local context.
As a foreign lecturer at FSPPM, Dr. Bae said one of the biggest challenges for him is socio-cultural differences. After a lecture on cultivating creativity and innovation in business, he received feedback from students that although the lesson was very good, those concepts were difficult to apply in workplaces in Vietnam. At that time, the professor likened how ideas change the world to falling snow: “If one snowflake falls, it melts. But repeat the process enough times and there is an inflection point where suddenly the entire landscape changes. In the beginning, your changed attitude in your organization doesn’t make any big change, but if you continue, your neighbors and co-workers will be influenced by what you practice. In the end, your organization’s entire culture gets changed. That’s the power of an idea.”
In the classroom, Dr. Bae Yooil often explores innovative teaching methods. When he realized that students needed to build their skills in conveying their message to the public, he developed a presentation format based on press conferences. Students were assigned to produce a 4 to 7-minute video presenting a given topic as if they were conducting a real press conference and post it on YouTube. Recently, Dr. Bae Yooil also started to introduce design thinking principles, placing participants in the shoes of their study subject to observe and handle situations.
At FSPPM, graduates come from many different fields and careers, sometimes with very different personal opinions. This contributes to a diverse learning experience, giving students the opportunity to exchange and see from new perspectives. To balance the flow of opinions in a group is not easy, especially with seasoned professionals, but Dr. Bae Yooil hopes the experience will assist the students in becoming wise leaders, developing their ability to assess problems from many angles, whether in the public or private sectors.
“If everyone really has completely different experiences and practices, I think academic institutions cannot play their role. Yes, we should try to reconcile differences and accept diversity, but at the same time we must acknowledge and understand historically proven, factual truths. We are living based on the accumulated experiences of our ancestors. That means we have to sort through information, even if seemingly contradictory, to find the common patterns.”
This does not imply that this accumulated knowledge should be taken at face value. Indeed, the professor always exhorts his students to think critically, no matter how authoritative the source seems, always reaching for both better factual understanding and better modelling. This is similar to his approach to international development: development theories from America and Europe were lionized while their countries of origins experienced unprecedented growth in the 1950-60s. But they did not necessarily correlate with success in the countries that subsequently adopted them. Dr. Bae emphasizes nothing should be taken at face value.
“When I teach development policy, I introduce students to development models of several countries, and then we discuss what were effective policies and how the country can develop from there – everything from public services to infrastructure. With specific issues such as urbanization, public health or public welfare, I always ask questions such as ‘what’s the challenge here?’, ‘what can we do to deal with it?’… My principle is that we shouldn’t be afraid of the big names, like Elinor Ostrom, or Robert Putnam for example. I am a supporter of Karl Popper’s philosophy that there is no perfect theory, only theory closer to the truth. That is why I often encourage students to ask ‘why’ questions and never believe too much in a certain opinion. Just never stop questioning,” Dr. Bae Yooil commented.
Nguyen Thi Xuan Huong, a former student of the Master of Public Policy (MPP) course of 2020, shared that Dr. Bae Yooil’s teaching style helped her form necessary comparative thinking skills. For example, regarding gaps in the management of land use rights in Vietnam, participants have to answer a series of questions such as ‘Do other countries have a similar problem? ‘,’How have they solved them? ‘, or ‘What can we learn from those solutions, and how can we apply them to domestic problems?
“Professor Bae Yooil would lead us through the steps, thinking through difficult problems so we can find our own solutions. His strict standards have made my graduate research more professional and comprehensive. But what I treasure and admire the most about him is his kindness, patience and tolerance,” confided Xuan Huong.
Do Minh Tam, enrolled in MPP2021, shared that Dr. Bae Yooil’s classes help her not only gain theoretical knowledge, but also form the ability to see the problem from a multi-dimensional, and multi-level perspective. Thanks to selected, regularly updated case studies “localized” to suit the Vietnamese context, she gained a deeper understanding of the development problems facing the country.
“Dr.Bae always brings to class a professional demeanor and carefully prepared lesson plans. Even in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, his Public Management class went smoothly both online and offline because he always tries his best, redoubling in effort to deliver quality lectures. Whenever I need help, he always answers in detail, opening up deeper avenues of analysis,” said Minh Tam.
“At Fulbright University Vietnam, we believe in education being accessible to all, and in ensuring the success of all our students. This is only possible in a diverse and inclusive learning environment, where students thrive through each other’s unique contributions,” said Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam.
A 2016 UNICEF study found out there are 6.2 million people with disabilities in Vietnam, accounting for 7% of the country’s population. Meanwhile, although children with special learning needs or disabilities share the same curriculum as their peers, only 2% of primary schools and secondary schools in Vietnam were found to be suitably equipped. This problem continues through tertiary education, with only 0.1% of Vietnamese youth with disabilities attending college.
Since its early design, Fulbright University Vietnam’s Crescent campus was intended to be wheelchair accessible – from the visibly flat floor plan and Crescent Plaza’s elevator access, to smaller details such as softer rugs that allow for better wheeling. But as a growing “start-up” university, Fulbright must continuously strive to improve the educational experience of students with varied learning needs. As we prepare to receive our first visually impaired students, activities have gone into full swing to prepare for their arrival.
“To refine and perfect our renovation efforts, I contacted several visually impaired people working or studying in Vietnam, from visually impaired students graduating from RMIT to visually impaired people working at Sao Mai Center for the Blind, Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind, a Disability Rights Officer at Hanoi’s UNDP office, and more. We have also received invaluable feedback from our new students as they attended the Bridge program. It was important to get their perspective and discuss how to create a truly inclusive teaching and learning environment for visually impaired students,” explained Hoang Thi Nhat Tam, learning specialist at Fulbright.
This process mobilized many facets of Fulbright’s organization. Under advisory from Tam, Fulbright’s Facilities Team implemented braille signage throughout our Crescent campus and Waterfront dorms. Fulbright even prototyped an embossed map of campus to their peers with orientation.
On the 5th floor, our student center is further undergoing major renovations to thoroughly enhance the student experience. There, Fulbrighters will benefit from a variety of services, from learning, career and counselling support to wellness amenities, or registrar and student life offices. The student center will incorporate tangible improvements for disability access, such as guiding lines along the wall, rounded corners on furniture, and improved wheelchair accessibility, under guidance from Student Life and Learning Support.
Inclusiveness involves a multitude of factors, with varying degrees of synergy; although it is possible to find an ideal height to affix door signage so it can be both read comfortably by persons in wheelchairs, and touched by the visually impaired, facilities will include flexible as well as inflexible chairs to ensure the safety and comfort of students with varying needs. Most importantly, the center will feature an accessible study room.
Indeed, beyond ensuring our students can safely and comfortably get to their intended destinations, it is critical to establish an environment where learning happens as seamlessly as possible. Our IT Department collaborated to implement technical by equipping Fulbright with assistive technology, such as the screen reader Jaws, but also high-performance computers, large screen displays, a braille display machine, low vision lamps, headsets, and more.
Tam further ensured our professors were briefed on how to create digital materials accessible to all users and provided guidelines on inclusive teaching, with more virtual workshops coming at the end of this month, followed by student inclusiveness workshops come September. Those guidelines involve every aspect, from course design to document formatting, testing, and establishing a class climate that fosters belonging for all students. For example, handouts should always be in accessible PDF format, not scanned from documents, and provided as early as possible to offer time for visually impaired students to read at their own pace. Guidelines can also be shared with sighted students on how best to collaborate with their visually impaired peers.
“Our design philosophy always demands we strive for the latest advances in education research and technology. Accessibility and inclusiveness are 2 core pillars of this design. This is what we strive to exemplify in the very infrastructure we inhabit, but also in every aspect of campus life, from staff training to course design, education technology and student activities. In this way, inclusiveness requires of us exactly what it will of our students: empathy, cooperation, problem solving, and ultimately growth,” concluded Dam Bich Thuy.
Huynh Minh Trang was accepted by three different universities in the U.S.; she was hoping to start her college life in America this September. But like so many other students who planned to study abroad this Fall, she’s stuck in Vietnam because the Covid-19 pandemic has left her in limbo. Trang is among 190,000 Vietnamese students who put their overseas study plans on hold due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Yet, that was the situation a few months ago.
In July, the pandemic still shows no sign of abating and borders still remain closed. In the U.S., California’s two largest districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, recently announced that classes would be online-only in the fall. School administrators elsewhere are increasingly unwilling to risk crowding students back into classrooms until the coronavirus is fully under control. This uncertainty has left many Vietnamese students scrambling to find a solution for their upcoming college aspirations.
The Uncertain Future
Most students who plan to study abroad this year applied to their university of choice before COVID-19 started. Now, they have to face the reality of not knowing whether or not they can attend university this Fall. As universities around the world struggling to decide when and how to reopen, the feeling of bewilderment looms over all international students. For them, the uncertainty poses frustrating questions of logistics and how such disruption drastically alters their academic futures.
With the international borders remain closed for the unforeseeable future, first-year students find themselves in precarious situation of not being able to travel to their universities abroad or find proper accommodation for the next coming years. To complicate the already difficult situation, the second wave of outbreaks adds another level of difficulty and anxiety for international students and universities all over the world.
To help ease such anxiety, some universities are planning to offer a hybrid of in-person and online classes come fall, while some plan to move all their classes online. Although remote learning can help students stay on their academic track, it may come with some major drawbacks. One of the main reasons for students to pursue higher education overseas is for them to live in a new culture and the college life in addition to the education programs. Devoid of such fulfilled experience, the online program becomes less attractive for some students.
Time difference is also a problem for Vietnamese students if they have to take online courses this Fall. For example, if Vietnamese students take online courses which will be taught in America, they have to stay up during the night to attend classes. The time difference would be difficult to overcome.
Pham Hoang Boi, a freshman at University of Minnesota, shared: “My university offers online courses, which they encourage me to take. I took an online course during my quarantine when I first came back to Vietnam, and I think it i\was alright. But to me, it lacked human connection, so I procrastinated. I also encountered other issues: internet connection problems, time zone difference, and difficulty in teamwork.”
For parents, there exists a different type of anxiety: while facing the pressure from the people and even the governments, universities may be forced to open their doors to students sooner than may be advisable. Combined with the unique circumstances that the pandemic has created — including scarce flights, closed borders, and the elevated risk of getting infected, the prospect of sending their children off to a different country becomes much tougher for parents.
“Our entire family and Minh Quan himself agreed that he should stay in Vietnam. The fact that America is suffering from major damage from the pandemic, as well as the ongoing political turmoil make us believe he will be safer here,” explained Dao Minh Son, a father whose son got accepted to Clark University this Fall.
With so many uncertainties and no clear instructions, universities, students, and parents alike have been left with no other option but to hold their breaths and hope for a more comprehensive plan to be announced in the near future.
And the Alternatives
Once the pandemic is over, students will continue to travel abroad for their studies. However, according to many health experts, that time will not come any time soon. As their lives turned upside down, rather than endure a year online with little to no on-campus interaction, some students are choosing to take a gap year to work, learn a new skill or add experience to their resume.
Yet, in such culture as Vietnam, taking a year off is not traditionally done. Many students, such as Huynh Minh Trang, as well as parents, still prefer an uninterrupted education, even in light of a pandemic. These students have begun assessing other options, some closer to home. However, not all Vietnamese students, who planned to study abroad, are eligible to enter public universities in Vietnam. Local private universities, with flexible admissions cycle, became the destination of choice for these students. It is also notable that, for students and parents who decide to change their plans, the most important factor is the quality of the academic experience.
“Our family supports Quan’s decision to apply to Fulbright because we know Fulbright is a university of international standards, which also receives recognition and support from the Vietnamese government. Hopefully, our son will be able to absorb all the precious knowledge that Fulbright has to offer. We also wish that he would have a special experience at Fulbright and enjoy the school’s extracurricular activities,” added Dao Minh Son.
Fulbright University Vietnam, nevertheless, does not have flexible admissions cycle. Yet, Fulbright takes pride in our co-design spirit and our ability to “build the plane while flying it.” That was why the University decided to launch the Visiting Student Program in June, with the original deadline for application being July 06, 2020.
“Although our Spring admissions cycle ended and Fulbright definitely does not encourage students to give up their opportunities to study at top international universities that they have worked extremely hard for, Fulbright understands and empathizes with the concerns of many Vietnamese families. We are deeply aware of our social responsibility to help find solutions to this crisis, including assisting students affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s why Fulbright launched the Visiting Student Program, even though it means that the University would have to expand its resources significantly,” shared Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam, last June.
Now more than ever, Fulbright understands the precarious situation Vietnamese students and their parents are in. Once again, the University stayed true to its co-design spirit and announced the deadline extension for the Visiting Student Program to July 31, 2020. Students who did not meet the previous deadline can now have more time to apply to this program, if they wish to.
To address the concern most visiting students have regarding their academic credits at Fulbright, Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies, advised: “Fulbright University will strive to work with international universities where students have been accepted, to make sure they can transition smoothly and have fulfilling learning experiences.”
“Among international universities in Vietnam, Fulbright’s program is the closest to that in the US. I hope I will be able to transfer my credits here to my school in the US. An international education is what I am looking forward to. I believe the Visiting Student Program will be beneficial for me and help me prepare for my studying abroad later on,” shared Huynh Minh Trang.
“Fulbright understands that the Visiting Student Program may not be ideal for all Vietnamese students who now have to face such an uncertain academic future. However, as an institution committed to provide Vietnamese students with a world-class education, we strive to provide them another option to consider,” added Ms. Le Thi Quynh Tram, Fulbright’s Director of Admissions and Financial Aid.
“It can be extremely frustrating for students to come out of University with a degree and then find out that it’s not as applicable to the workforce as they thought it was. The way Fulbright enables students to gain experience within some of the best companies in Vietnam is really, really valuable.” Toby Scregg, Managing Director at Eve HR.
Eve HR is one of eleven partners to our Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s (CEI) Venture Fellows Program (VFP), a program that aims to address the delicate transition between school life and employment through quality, well-planned internships and continuous support.
On Saturday July 4th, 2020, Fulbright University Vietnam and our CEI celebrated the successful launch of the first VFP through a congenial “Summer Party”. The event gathered management and executives of some of Vietnam’s leading companies in digital technology, from innovative software solution start-ups such as Eve to established videogame corporation VNG, together with the participating students currently interning at their companies. Organized at the halfway point of the internship program, the summer event was the perfect opportunity for our students to connect with key actors in the entrepreneurial space. It was also a chance to share first impressions and assess the successes of a groundbreaking initiative that aims to deepen the link between education and the private sector in Vietnam.
Building the talent pipeline
“Vietnam is just now picking up on the trend of internships, but it is a crucial component linking education and the private sector. They are extremely important for workforce development, connecting future – or recent graduates with employers through a ‘talent pipeline’,” explains Ken Watari, Director of the CEI.
This talent pipeline should provide young graduates with better career opportunities, while addressing an increasing need for a highly skilled workforce. As Toby Scregg explains, “Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. What does that mean? That there’s a massive demand for good talent.” Recent research conducted by Fulbright University Vietnam and the American Chamber of Commerce further confirms Vietnam suffers from an “Employment skill gap”: employers overwhelmingly lack confidence that education institutions in the country will equip the future workforce with the necessary skills to thrive in tomorrow’s labor market.
VFP addresses this problem by bringing both sectors into a collaborative partnership, where students can learn more about professional expectations while exploring their career options. Employers on the other hand are involved more deeply in educating the next generation of talents as they adapt to the demands of the real world. Where a classroom or an incubator tends to isolate student projects, internships force students to confront very real issues, such as how high the bar is for results, how hard it is to sell, or how difficult compromises can be.
Le Lan Chi, Managing Director of VNG’s ZaloPay Division, also understand the mutual benefits of tighter collaboration, saying, “the program allows employers to understand the value of Fulbright students. This exposure to the students helped me convince my company that this is such a great university for us to have a long-term employer relationship with. And for students who have that exposure, they understand what it’s like to be in a workplace environment and they go back to school and understand what skill set they have to build during the time in school to better prepare them for the future.”
As Le Lan chi explains, long-term partnerships would also foster better channels, allowing students to find productive internships more easily in the future. “I thought that as a first-year student, it would be difficult for me to go out and look for internships that would be really useful for myself, because students like us lack a lot of working experience. But VFP changed that,” says Venture Fellow Minh Tu.
CEI’s Venture Fellows Program also aims to lead by example to foster a culture of productive internships, as not all internships are created equal. Mismatching expectations or poor planning can hamper growth, especially in a country that is only beginning to adopt this model. As Ken explains, “the culture of talent development in Vietnamese companies is mixed. In a place like the United States, internships and how they are done is well established. People know you need a manager to support interns, you need to have a plan, you need to give them a concrete piece of work, provide them feedback and room to grow. That culture exists in some companies here, but other companies are still figuring out how to do that.”
“I had a terrible prior start up experience, so I would not have normally considered a start-up for my internship. But I applied because on top of the exposure to entrepreneurship, the VFP offered a scaffold to the learning experience, a plan for what would benefit us as interns and the partner organization in welcoming us, and continued support through the program,” relates Venture Fellow Phuong Thao.
Preparation is the name of the game
In the short amount of time students had to prepare, the CEI focused on some core skills that would help students adapt to their temporary work environment.
“We worked on two individual projects. One was data analysis, the other deep-dive research. We got divided into teams of 2-3 people, to eventually come up with a mock memo intended for a CEO,” remembers Phuong Thao. The self-led projects aimed to familiarize students with a combination of skills. The data analysis memo involved a variety of skills from project management to selecting and making sense of information, and presenting it in a compelling manner. The deep-dive research project drove students to learn detailed information about their partner company and reflect on their goal and place in their business to propose a mock strategy.
After practicing the core skills that would accelerate their integration into their partner organizations, our interns also received coaching on how to conduct themselves in an interview, a skill that was put to the test through several rounds of interviews, which were organized to find the best fit for their aspirations and skill-sets. The results showed.
“I look for three things in employees. One is logical thinking, two is clear communication, and three is a very good attitude. And I think that Fulbright students exhibit all three of those things. Even during the interview process, all the candidates greatly impressed me because they were so well-prepared with their research and they very clearly communicated in the interview process. If I could take all of them, I would,” asserts Le Lan Chi.
One step at a time
At their varied companies, students discovered many quirks of adapting to a workplace environment, and all found individual growth. For some, the hardest part was to shift in how they communicate information, from essay to emails, reports and presentations. Others felt embarrassed to ask for help or instructions. “The first week, I was told to install all this software to work on a project, but I couldn’t find much documentation on the process. I was afraid that if I asked for help people would judge me, so I was effectively out of options. Thankfully, my senior checked in on me and imparted to me that I should just ask if I don’t know, and it’s ok,” remembers Venture Fellow Nhat Khoi.
Finally, some students discovered that even small things can lead to bigger projects. “I am a very independent person, and I’m very used to doing more personal projects in smaller groups. It was a challenge for me to work in a bigger team. When working at VNG, it is a big company, so it was paradoxically difficult for me to start small. I had to learn to follow instructions and fulfill my responsibilities. I learned that working small problems is essential, and how small missions add up to something bigger,” reflects Venture Fellow Tung Lam.
Indeed, for Tung Lam, maybe the biggest lesson of all is to realize that tackling the issues of the world starts one small step at a time: “At Fulbright, we are encouraged to think of the bigger picture, and the larger forces at work. My experience as a Venture Fellow gave me a better idea of how we can have an impact and improve things. Big issues are only big before they are broken down into smaller steps.” And for the Venture Fellows Program, this is only the first step.
“The most important goal of my undergraduate classes is to impart to students that Economics is a framework. It is not just playing with math models and answer hypothetical questions and what ifs. It’s about thinking through the bigger ideas, discussing real world issues. I want them to have a better understanding of how the world is a system, how that system works, how we can think through it and affect it.”
Dr. Graeme Walker, Founding Faculty at Fulbright University Vietnam, recently concluded an undergraduate course, titled “Doing Economics”, preceded last quarter by a primer class on Statistics. Those closely related subjects are often seen as a specialist field, but at Fulbright, both courses were open to all undergraduates, not necessarily future economics majors. As Graeme explains, “Concepts from economics have a much wider range of applications than you would think. Providing students with those tools can help them with their decision-making process for potentially all their lives, and it is a key component of course design.” We sat down with Graeme to discuss his unique approach to this staple of international education, and its place in the Fulbright model.
Return to the original foundations
As first-year courses, “Doing Economics” and ‘Statistics’ are evidently introductory in nature. But as Graeme remarks, “we shouldn’t expect to make all participating students into economists. Many will choose to specialize differently.” In a liberal arts college such as Fulbright, this variety of profiles, recombination of interests, and flexibility in specialization is not only expected, it is actively encouraged, further enriching the student’s thinking and adaptability. This also means Graeme had to rethink the basics of introductory economics courses to answer the question: what is the best way to approach this wide subject that lays the groundwork for future specialization, while remaining immediately applicable?
Firstly, whether in Graeme’s statistics or economics class, the goal was not to develop statisticians and economists. It was to get students comfortable with making sense of numbers and graphs, as well as gain a better understanding of the decision-making process of policymakers and governments. As the professor explains, “students who come through Fulbright are taught to think critically, to feel they can make sense of the world around them so they can form their own opinions, and make informed and constructive contributions to society. This can only happen if they have an idea of what’s going on, but you don’t have to be a classically trained technocrat for that.”
This approach doubles as a return to the true foundations of economics as an academic discipline. Simply put, “Economics is only a framework to think through the world’s big problems.” Where most introductory courses will first present key concepts, such as supply and demand graphs, Graeme’s “Doing Economics” began directly with a model of COVID-19, allowing students to truly think through trade-offs the world is now grappling with. What are the outcomes in terms of lower numbers of infected, vis-à-vis the negative consequences of longer social distancing and lockdown procedures? By first introducing students to a tangible problem, Grame makes apparent the fact economics is not composed of predetermined sets of problems. Rather, it is a systematic way of thinking, driven by need and experimentation, for which empirical, mathematical tools have been developed.
As a future economics major, Phuoc Tuong “could really get a sense of what thinking like an economist would be like. It was a great combination of practical, human issues and the hard numbers that go with it. This course really showed me that natural and social sciences are inextricably interwoven.”
As Phuoc Tuong also expresses above, economics is both a natural science and a social science, from hard numbers to behavioural psychology and ethics. For our professor, students first needed to grapple with the larger themes, like inequality. As she explains, “it is one thing to understand what the numbers mean, but you need to know what you want to do with them.” When students strive to explore and explain practical and ethical issues is the best time to introduce the tools or methods of analysis that economists use to find answers.
“I was given a chance to place myself in the role of both a writer of economics reports, but also its intended audience. Numbers are not the finishing line. We must organize those numbers in a logical way, but also a compelling way, so they convey meaning that can be understood,” explains Minh Phuoc, who studied Statistics.
From preconceived notions to multifaceted understanding
“I feel like students coming into the class have a certain notion of what socialism, capitalism, or communism is. I thought it would be interesting to have them react and respond to contrasting opinions.” Graeme presented students with graphs comparing the growth of countries with ‘capitalist’ or ‘communist’ economic models. This included American and European economies as well as Asian tigers. “Students can point out that communism and capitalism can be practiced in many ways. Independently from fundamental differences in governance, communist countries can have open markets. Capitalist economies can be beset with rising inequalities, such as in the US or the UK, but it is not so in others, such as the Netherlands or Canada.” Graeme always strives to challenge students to think beyond labels, which serve only to limit the depth of analysis.
“At first, I thought Economics was a dry, rigid subject in which every concept was fixed. I believed our job was to follow guidelines and good practice. However, we were shown how hundreds of external factors play complex roles in determining final results. Graeme really cultivated our ability to look at the world from different angles,” reflects Pham Hoang Lan, who studied ‘Doing Economics’.
In Statistics, looks were also shown to be deceiving. Exercises for this first year class does not require a deep understanding of complex math. Instead, Graeme strongly emphasizes maintaining a critical eye on data. From the way it was gathered, to the way it is organized, the class opens important questions, such as: where does the data come from? “I don’t think it’s necessary this early to delve into the intricacies of regression analysis or simultaneous equation. It’s much more important for students to start feeling comfortable looking at a graph and understand how it can be understood, as well as think critically about how it was produced and how credible it is,” says Graeme.
As Phan Thuc Anh shared of her experience with Statistics, “since we are heavily exposed to facts, news, and information, a majority of which is communicated via numbers and statistics, we need to have the ability to take them with a grain of salt. Stepping into this class, we were constantly challenged to doubt the credibility, preciseness, and accuracy of statistics. That thinking process was so well injected into my mind that it remains a habit even when the course has ended.”
Among the problems posed to the students, Graeme always strive to keep to relevant, contemporary examples. Some examples were particularly familiar to our students, such as when ‘Doing Economics’ participants were tasked with analyzing Fulbright’s “business model”. Students were encouraged to critically engage with the nature of their university as a nonprofit, opening complex discussions regarding fairness. “I remember growing up not really understanding how government and institutions decided things, how they could afford things. And I get the sense that our students are like that as well. It was very interesting to see them work through our own model, and have to answer some tough questions: Does Fulbright have to profit from some in order to be able to subsidize others? what does a financially sustainable model for an institution like ours looks like, when we get down to numbers? How does it afford to fulfill its mandate?”
“All the exercises were not taken out of any books but from the up-to-date reality surrounding Fulbright students. This helped a lot in understanding the concrete concept of economics, especially for beginners, as they will find extremely familiar cases, not just purely theoretical lessons,” says Minh Phuoc.
Confined, but continuously learning
Online education, during confinement, can be a challenge for student and professor alike. From the start, Graeme took full advantage of resources available online. Of note, the Institute of New Economic Thinking provides a variety of free resources, from exercises to data sets, making possible to study contemporary issues such as COVID-19 through a treasure trove of data.
But one of the biggest struggles facing Graeme was more human in nature: the lack of feedback he would receive from blank screens, or voice only conferencing when students felt shy – or just scruffy. Cameras into private spaces can feel invasive, an uncomfortable projection of professional life into the intimate. Graeme, together with his students, found several workarounds, continuously improving on the course setup over the weeks.
Hence, our professor reorganized the class. On Fridays, students would be assigned to watch, in their own time, a lecture or research seminar video relevant to the lessons. Graeme’s group sessions would then take the shape of a 40-minute conversation with students, in the style of a podcast. “On the one hand, it allows students to reflect upon what they’ve learned and try to capture this in a way that they can share with everyone in the class. It also allows me to sort of see what their takeaways are, and importantly, whether they are understanding things correctly. It becomes a forum, with a surprising amount back and forth,” reflects Graeme.
To further ensure constructive feedback, and open opportunities for improvements on the next iterations, the class implemented an online, shared learning recapitulative document. Students would share one key concept they took away from the lesson, and one element they are still confused about. The first incentivizes students to reflect on important aspects of the lesson, helping with memorization and perspective. The latter allows a triple synergy: our professor identifies areas of improvement for the course, while the document functions as a collaborative peer-learning space where students answer each other. Meanwhile, Graeme can monitor that students understood correctly. “This makes it far easier for me to gauge and respond, but also to identify which area of the course requires special attention,” explains our professor.
Alongside the feedback from students, the document also embodies the co-design mindset prevalent at Fulbright. Indeed, students are aware Graeme will utilize this information to improve future iterations of the class. In this way, students take ownership of not only their learning, but the future education of their peers. This introduces them to a constructive mindset that will serve them in all aspects of their careers and lives.
As Graeme concluded, “students have contributed in so many different ways, and the have realized that co-designing is real, that it does impact the courses we are creating. Beyond that, it also invites students into the ‘gray part’ of the world. Students in general tend to think the world is very black and white, that some book exists with all the questions in the world and their answers, and their job is to find that book. By inviting them into the designing and implementation side of the course, they realize that there is no right way, only a better way that requires thinking on your feet and solving problems. This is true in our classroom, but this is also often what the world is like, and what future jobs will feel like. Getting students that experience as their professor is a great way to prepare them, not to ask “what is the right question? Or the right answer?” But rather, “what is an effective question to improve on the answer?”
Built on the academic foundations laid by leading professors at Harvard University over two decades ago, the Master of Public Policy (MPP), Policy Analysis concentration (PA) is the longest standing and most established program at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM). As the first MPP program in Vietnam and the only one in Southeast Asia to be accredited by NASPAA, Policy Analysis is a pragmatic and up to date program, providing learners with a solid background in both economics and policy analysis.
Two years ago, Nguyen Thi Xuan Huong was hesitating to apply for the Policy Analysis concentration at Fulbright School. With her background in journalism, Xuan Huong was overwhelmed with the long list of quantitative and econometrics courses in the curriculum. After careful consideration and multiple recommendations assuring Fulbright is the best place for an education in public policy, she took the risk and submitted her application.
“The curriculum, heavily focused on quantitative and economic courses, was something I initially feared. But it turns out to be what I am most appreciative of in the program. I have been rewarded for taking the challenge. Indeed, there are some demanding courses for those from humanities and social sciences, such as Macroeconomics. I am impressed and touched by the Fulbright lecturers’ dedication and enthusiasm. Academic discipline was established from the beginning, and we are committed to put our greatest efforts in learning. In such manner, our passion for knowledge gradually grew. We are now frequently engaged in heated debates and deep academic discourse with lecturers and classmates alike,” said Xuan Huong.
To be eligible for the Fulbright program, Xuan Huong as well as other candidates without an economics major had to take some preparatory courses. After two semesters at Fulbright, she realized that quantitative courses are not intimidating to social sciences students alone.
“In my class, even students with a mathematics background sometimes struggle with the tougher concepts in the syllabus. We encourage each other, and to be honest, this is the most difficult challenge I ventured myself into. On the other hand, the demanding curriculum indicates the quality of the Fulbright program and I am motivated to step out of my comfort zone. After two semesters at the school, I am more at ease and confident to continue my academic journey in economics research, realizing quantitative tools introduced in the curriculum are particularly useful and necessary to evaluate policy impacts.” shared Xuan Huong.
In last February, she defended her graduation thesis investigating the relationship between the government and the press in Vietnam, and how national policies shape domestic journalism. This is among the most outstanding theses of MPP 2020, and is slated to become a case study for future classroom use at Fulbright.
Solid knowledge background
The Master of Public Policy, Policy Analysis concentration at FSPPM is a full time program lasting 15 months. The curriculum of the program is inspired by a similar Harvard Kennedy School program, and keeps pace with the most advanced trends in international institutions regarding public policy education, all the while staying in tune with the local context here in Vietnam.
Lecturer Nguyen Xuan Thanh stated that “one of the benefits of the program is eligible candidates are not required to have background in economics or public policy. Fundamental courses in economics at Fulbright are said to match in quality with those offered by specialist schools yet remain of great relevance to our candidates’ careers. With their profound practical experiences, Fulbright faculty help non-specialist students quickly build up a fundamental understanding of economics. After one semester, students have acquired the necessary background knowledge to continue their study in applied economics. Upon the completion of the program, learners possess a solid knowledge in economics.”
Therefore, the program is suitable for candidates wishing to develop a solid background in economics together with an analytical mindset for better decision making, whether they are working in the public or private sector. Similar to other MPP programs in the U.S. and other developed countries, PA students are required to attend a 15-month full time program to accumulate as much knowledge as possible in the shortest time so they will be ready to utilize this knowledge in their workplace.
Attending a full-time program is a trade-off for employees in public organizations and business corporations; however, this curriculum design helps students to take full advantage of the academic dynamics at Fulbright. Ho Quang De, Class of MPP2, Deputy Director of Finance Department at Phu Yen Province, explained:
“I have attended many training programs, yet Fulbright remains the most vivid and fond memory. Of note, first is the academic integrity and discipline that Fulbright instilled in me. I am impressed with each classmates’ passion in finding the solutions to challenges offered by faculty. My classmates and I spent hours together debating and discussing to find out the most effective solutions. Some even pulled all-nighters for research and study. We are all motivated by the devotion faculty has demonstrated to research and study.”
Highly pragmatic program
Do Minh Tam, Class of MPP 2021, disclosed she was astonished with the amount of learning materials provided at Fulbright. In addition to foreign reference materials, required readings also include published articles in prestigious journals and Vietnamese case studies prepared by FSPPM faculty. These case studies hold special significance for learners, as they illustrate best how economic theories play out in our immediate, contextually relevant reality. This also serves to consolidate the learners’ understanding of various aspects of domestic public policy.
“Learning materials incorporates textbooks as well as required and optional readings carefully prepared by Faculty through strict selection criteria and updated on OpenCourse Ware. Digital libraries at Fulbright are constantly updated with the latest academic research and books.”
Besides core courses which are compulsory, students can customize their learning path with a variety of electives. Lecturer Nguyen Xuan Thanh affirmed that Fulbright courses are grounded in economics but very practical and ready to be applied in the workplace.
Students from any sectors can find courses suitable to their own development in the program. For instance, public sector officials can register for Public Economics, Law and Public Policy, and Development Policy. Business managers can sign up for Financial Analysis or Project Appraisal. Local leaders may be interested in Appraisal of Public Investment, or Regional and Local Development.
“My favorite course is Research Methods. Although it is quite an abstract course and does not count towards the final GPA, I find the course especially useful for my study at FSPPM. Economic theories and study skills from this course have honed my ability to search for and assess scientific information, problematize with concise and objective research questions, guide analytical arguments and conduct experiments that confirm or reject the research hypothesis,” said Do Minh Tam, Class of MPP 2021.
Lecturer Nguyen Xuan Thanh elaborated that the objectives of Master of Public Policy, Policy Analysis concentration are not to award students with a higher degree only meant to broaden career opportunities. Graduates from our MPP program can confidently proclaim that they participated in an internationally acclaimed public policy program. More importantly, the program provided learners with an advanced and complex understanding of economics, embarking students on a lifelong learning journey.
The Master of Public Policy at Fulbright is built upon the model developed by Harvard Kennedy School and is continually adjusted to reflect domestic dynamics. This is one unique and distinctive feature Fulbright faculty strived to achieve with the program.
Fulbright pioneered more than a decade ago how to incorporate and utilize case studies as a tool for learning. Since then, many Vietnam universities have introduced this approach using both paper-based and multimedia cases. However, lecturer Nguyen Xuan Thanh noted that, inheriting the valuable stockpile of case studies from Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, Fulbright School can tap into both international and regional experiences.
Professor Nguyễn Xuân ThànhThese global cases are supplemented with practical cases in Vietnam by FSPPM faculty who are leading economics experts in the country. The “mix of international and local knowledge” helps learners realize the differences between Vietnam and the world, so that they can apply theoretical knowledge in a more flexible and creative way.
Dr. Terry Buss, senior fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and former Dean of Carnegie Mellon School of Public Policy, Australia, was the senior consultant for Fulbright School in its endeavor to obtain international accreditation.
Working closely with Fulbright over the course of 18 months, he explained Fulbright is highly appreciated by NASPAA reviewers for the consistent input from renowned foreign experts in public policy and management. The constant efforts have supported the school on its journey to adopt the best practices and strategies to strive towards becoming a leading institution in the region and the world.
“Among the efforts to internationalize the program, Fulbright faculty are motivated to access to latest trends in public policy and management; for example, how to design and utilize case studies set in Vietnam background with teaching approach from Harvard University,” said Dr. Terry Buss.
Furthermore, NASPAA accreditation is an opportunity for Fulbright to expand its research networks to leading institutions around the globe. For Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Dean of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, joining the NASPAA network opens new possibilities for Fulbright faculty and students to connect with advanced knowledge. Combined with local understandings, Fulbright can derive valuable lessons and policy implications for Vietnam and the region.
On June 22nd, 2020, Fulbright University Vietnam held a ceremony on campus grounds for the reception of the second round of funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The ceremony was attended by H.E. Daniel Kritenbrink, US Ambassador to Vietnam, Michael Greene, Director of USAID Vietnam, President of Fulbright University Dam Bich Thuy, as well as student and faculty representatives. Following a successful first round of funding in 2017, the new grant amounting to US $4.65 million will further support Fulbright as we continue to develop our educational programming, both for undergraduates and executive programs, expand training opportunities, bolster our administrative capacity, and prepare for the international accreditation process of our undergraduate program over the next two years.
“We know that trusting a university like Fulbright, at such an early stage, is not an easy decision. We appreciate the trust the US Government and USAID place in us. We will continue our efforts to create a rich and innovative learning environment for Vietnamese students,” said President Dam Bich Thuy.
Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink emphasized in his speech the unique position of Fulbright University Vietnam in the Vietnam-US bilateral relationship as a “cornerstone of our people-to people ties.” As both countries prepare to celebrate the 25th anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations, USAID’s investment in the development of our university holds special meaning, demonstrating the US government’s long-term commitment to Fulbright university Vietnam, a flourishing education sector, and a bright future for Vietnamese society more broadly.
“FUV is helping Vietnam respond to an undeniable thirst for modern education,” the ambassador explained, “this university is growing as an educational laboratory, testing new ideas about institutional independence, academic freedom, autonomy, admissions criteria, the relationship between students and teachers, research and development, student life, citizenship, communications, and technology. The success of these experiments will translate into success for Vietnam’s education system, people, and society.”
In addition, Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink congratulated Fulbright’s leadership in overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis quickly and effectively. Phan Thuc Anh then took the stage on behalf of our student community to share her experiences during this turbulent semester. As the pandemic continued to affect those around her, Thuc Anh’s desire to contribute her efforts in dealing with the pandemic led her to choose subjects outside of her majors. With the support of her professors, Thuc Anh drew on knowledge in epidemiology, policymaking, economics, proposal writing and more to conduct a pilot study, researching the effects of social distancing on virus transmission in Vietnam.
For Thuc Anh, “this is the beauty of Fulbright’s transdisciplinary approach and educational innovation: gaining a well-rounded understanding of the problem to create something meaningful.”
“When the crisis comes knocking on our door, helping students become true contributors and leaders in times of challenge demands much more from education than theoretical knowledge, skills, and attitude. It requires principles and a sense of mission, the ability to cope with negativity, to do hard things even when there is no one to praise us. But we would rather take on these challenges. We cannot afford the young’s inability and inaction as we take on the responsibility to face future crises,” Thuc Anh concluded.
Fulbright student Phan Thục Anh
After the ceremony, Ambassador Kritenbrink dedicated his time to an informal discussion with the Fulbright Young Diplomat Club. Our students drew on the ambassador’s decades long career in diplomacy and foreign affairs as he answered questions on the role of diplomacy, the value of trust, mutual understanding, and cooperation in building and maintaining relationships that benefit both countries.
Fulbright will welcome 180 new students this school year of 2020-2021, bringing the total number of enrolled undergraduates to nearly 300, an important milestone in the development of the university. Our university will take full advantage of USAID’s essential support to accelerate our efforts towards redefining higher education in Vietnam, fostering generations of leaders ready to overcome the challenges of tomorrow.