The convocation ceremony of Fulbright University Vietnam’s undergraduate class of 2020-2024 is the third of its kind since the establishment of our institution. Emotions ran high for those attending the event both physically and virtually. While retaining its traditional rituals, special moments on this Convocation day touched the hearts of all participants.
This was the case when the visually impaired first year Tran Viet Hoang headed up to the stage and shared with the audience his extraordinary journey to Fulbright, as well as his message: “enjoy the good things even during hard times.” Just as memorably, the keynote speaker Thanh Bui livened up the room with the inspirational story of his life and his call for courage in difficult times.
The highlight of the ceremony began when close to 200 freshmen read out loud Fulbright’s Honor Code, marking their official initiation as full members of the Fulbright community. The recited text exhorts faculty, staff and students alike to strive for a common goal: “learning together, growing together.”
Facing the complicated Covid-19 situation, the event was adjusted to smaller gatherings for a safer environment. The parents and families of new students joined the convocation virtually while those present at the event were required to wear masks and keep a certain distance from one another. However, the inconveniences did not stop new students from enjoying inspirational moments and experiencing rituals that mark the beginnings of a new journey.
“We are very lucky to be here, with our families and friends, old and new ones, with university leaders, faculty and staff, to experience this convocation together. Across the world, many students are unable to enjoy this exciting moment together on campus. Many are even unable to attend classes at all. I hope you feel as lucky as I do, but more importantly, I hope this will inspire you and your commitment to the personal pursuit of knowledge,” said Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies in her address.
“Enjoy the good things even during hard times”
The students of Class 2020-2024 come from different parts of the country, have different backgrounds and beliefs. Furthermore, while most had decided to begin their studies in Vietnam, some of our newest cohort are visiting students who could not continue their studies abroad due to the Covid-19 outbreaks and were lucky to continue their education in their home country despite the disruption.
Among the new students is Tran Viet Hoang, who comes from a poor rural village in Ha Tinh Province in central Vietnam. When Hoang turned five, his eyes gradually lost vision. His mother worked extremely hard and left no stone unturned to find the money to treat his illness. After dozens of checkups at various hospitals and four surgeries at the Hanoi-based Central Eye Hospital failed, his eyesight finally degraded completely. For a poor boy raised by a single mother of two, life seemed to turn dark.
But Hoang did not let himself wallow in sorrow and pain. Instead he chose to overcome adversity. He attended Braille training courses at the Association for Blind and Visually Impaired People in Ha Tinh before getting back to a normal school. He scored good grades in his primary, secondary and high school education, and always remained among the top performers of his class.
His strong will and extraordinary qualities were indisputable to Fulbright school’s admission team. Hoang was admitted with full financial aid for four years on the condition that he spends one year studying English until he qualified.
When Hoang headed to the stage and recounted his life story in fluent English, his voice sometimes shaking with barely contained emotions, the room turned silent, of a silence reserved to shared wonder. Some audience members even shed tears. This will remain one of the most memorable moments in all of Fulbright’s convocation ceremonies.
But Hoang’s story was not that kind of tear-jerker. He did not expound on the difficulties he faced as he grappled with a diminishing sight and the new realities of a life with a handicap. Instead, he recalled the peaceful memories of his childhood.
“I remember the afternoons when I played football with my friends – the balls were made of plastic, straw, paper, or a ripe pomelo. I remember the afternoons when I sneaked outside to go fishing, flying homemade kites on the rice paddy fields. Because I believe we can still enjoy the good things even during hard times.”
In his closing remarks, his message to his peers at Fulbright school was clear: “If there are any obstacles, please believe in yourself. Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Have courage in a chaotic world
It was a fascinating coincidence that the speeches delivered by guest speaker Thanh Bui, student representative Tran Viet Hoang, US ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink and Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan had one thing in common: the message about courage.
“The first piece of advice is key to everything else you do in life and is perhaps the hardest thing to do. HAVE COURAGE,” emphasized guest speaker Thanh Bui.
Thanh Bui is now an accomplished entrepreneur, singer songwriter, and educator. But as a 17 year old, what he now recalls as the “most defining moment” in his life, he summoned the courage to tell his parents that he wanted to pursue a musical career rather than studying to become a doctor or a lawyer as they wished.
“They said that it was impossible to make a life of music in Australia because I was Asian. The deafening silence of that moment still vibrates in my ears,” he told the audience.
He decided to make a deal with them that he would finish university within three years and at least earn a University degree before pursuing his passion.
What followed was an intense four-year degree, a Bachelor of Business/IT from Swinburne University, compressed into three years before he auditioned and was chosen for an Australian boyband called North.
In 2008, he made it to the Top 8 of Australian Idol. He also composed hundreds of hit songs before he decided to take everything he had learnt in Australia back to share with the people of Vietnam. From a singer, songwriter, and music producer, Thanh Bui now operates a music school in Ho Chi Minh City he is developing into an arts education and entertainment empire.
“We all want to see people demonstrate courage, but when it comes to ourselves in those difficult moments, courage may be hard to summon. This is because having the courage to make difficult decisions or to hold firm in situations where others question what we are doing involves risk, and automatically raises the specter of failure,” he explained.
In his address delivered through the podium video screen, Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink also told students not to be afraid in a time when Covid-19 has challenged us all to adapt to a new normal.
“You had to leverage technology and innovation to study and connect with and learn from each other. You had to figure out how to keep our communities safe while making sure school goes on,” the Ambassador observed.
“…don’t be afraid. The world has gone through tough times before — famine, disease, war, poverty. Think about the challenges your parents and grandparents had to face. With each crisis we faced, we came out stronger, usually because a new generation, young people like you, learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better,” he further asserted.
That message also echoed with Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan’s message to the new Fulbrighters. “I would like to ask you to actively contribute to this process any way you can – be bold, take risks, face challenges like you never have before – the way you would do to rebuild the world one day,” Dr. Ngan told students in her closing remarks.
Environment for creative education
As you may know, Fulbright draws on the American liberal arts model and puts students at its center. Undergraduates of liberal arts education institutions are equipped with flexible, transferable skills to quickly adapt to changing work environments and demonstrate outstanding creative thinking skills.
Thanh Bui mentioned in his address the goal of creative education is to create the best educated and most fully integrated students who can be successful in a world that is increasingly complex and uncertain.
Quoting his much-respected English teacher as saying there are only two questions that really matter in life: “What?” and “So what?”. He then elaborated on the meaning of creative education.
“What?” is important because the answer gives you the information you need, the facts. But the real question, the KEY question, is, “So what?”. Now that you have the facts, why do they matter? Automatically you will find that you are forced to move beyond memorized facts or rote learning,” he argued. “You enter a world that requires you to think, to make judgments, to weigh ethical issues, to balance different views and to understand complex situations. Creative education! There you are.”
This interpretation of creative education is also the commitment of Fulbright school – creating an environment in which questions are more important than answers, in which ideas are highly appreciated and each student is encouraged to explore and grow into the best version of his/herself.
In Dr. Ngan’s on words: “Each of you has your own voice, ideas, and skills to contribute to the world we are living in. I hope at Fulbright University Vietnam, we can help you find that voice, ignite that idea, sharpen that skill so you can create a healthier, better future for everyone everywhere.”