The 25th anniversary of Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), predecessor of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), functions as a Homecoming ceremony for different generations of alumni.
The Anniversary was cohosted by the FSPPM and FETP Alumni network. From all corners of Vietnam, over 350 graduates and current students gathered to celebrate, representing as many as 24 cohorts, from one year diplomat training programs (starting from FETP 1 – abbreviated as F1) to one comprehensive two year master’s in public policy (current cohort is Class MPP2022).
The excitement lingered in the air many days before the anniversary as alumni gathered for class reunions, sharing their love and nostalgia for the school, changing their Facebook profile picture to the 25th Anniversary frame – even those currently staying abroad. Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh began his opening remark with these observations. He also noted that “most of us have experienced different educational settings, but we all agree it is hard to find a school with such strong bonds among faculty, students and staff like we have here at Fulbright. Chemists may struggle to explain the bonding chemistry within our community. What cannot be justified by science can only be felt by heart and that’s when we truly understand and cherish the Fulbright spirit and our values.”
Small but mighty
Dr. Tu Anh recalled that, over the quarter century it took for FETP to grow into FSPPM, the Fulbright School as it is dearly called by its alumni was shaped by deep seated values, academic rigor, and discipline. Today, these values have become the DNA that makes us at Fulbright, and that runs in the FETP & FSPPM family.
This was the vision of our founders. 25 years ago, leaders from both sides of Vietnam and the U.S. dared to dream the impossible and step forward for a bold idea: build the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a bilateral U.S.-Vietnam partnership project organized by Harvard University and Ho Chi Minh University of Economics. The decisions were made prior to the return to official diplomatic relationships between the former foes.
“To this day, I cannot help but admire the founders’ vision in building this ‘small but mighty’ school,” emphasized Dr. Tu Anh.
Professor Jonathan Pincus was Resident Director of FETP from 2008 to 2013, a time of critical transition for the program as it transformed from a one-year diplomat program in applied economics into a two year comprehensive master’s in public policy. Joining us for the ceremony, he added to Dr. Tu Anh’s words on the founding values of Fulbright, noting:
“The other factor that shaped the early days of the Fulbright School was the rise of the Asian economies, and the desire of Vietnam’s leaders to be a part of that historical shift in the economic center of gravity from West to East. FETP was a good idea that came along at the right time. Obstacles had to be overcome on both sides, and the founders needed persistence and courage to get from the chalk board to reality. We salute them for their foresight and perseverance,” said Dr. Jonathan Pincus.
Reflecting on 25 years of history, Madam Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam (of which FSPPM is the first academic unit), commended the strenuous efforts of the founders who turned the impossible into a tangible reality. What began as an educational partnership with Harvard University in a time when the Vietnam-US relations left many skeptical, led us to become a leading regional public policy school, achieving more than we could have ever guessed. FSPPM not only trains new generations of Vietnamese leaders, but also enhances open policy dialogue based on extensive research and sincere policy feedback.
“On such an incredible journey, we have overcome together many obstacles that felt unsurmountable. And so I want to convey my deepest gratitude to the generations of Fulbright members who have joined us over the last 25 years: Mr. Brian Quinn, FETP’s first director, Mr. Jonathan Pincus, Mr. Tu Anh, Mr. Xuan Thanh, Mr. Duy Nghia, the leaders, faculty, and staff of FETP who have worked tirelessly towards Fulbright’s educational legacy. Their unrelenting will and extraordinary dedication are the reason for our strong foundations, allowing for Fulbright University Vietnam to reach higher and fulfill our dream. One day, on those foundations will stand a world-class university in Vietnam, for Vietnamese people,” said Madam President.
3 critical decisions
The founders’ vision from those early days have since been realized into concrete action plans. After a quarter of a century, Dr. Brian Quinn reflected on some of the wisest decisions made at the time. As former FETP leadership and Harvard representative from 1995 to 2000, Prof. Brian Quinn recalled 3 important decisions that contributed to FETP’s rise. Firstly, the school would not focus its work on central government which already benefitted from abundant international aid and support. Instead, Fulbright would dedicate its resources towards increasing, through education, the economics and management capability of public officials operating at the local government level.
“In 1995, public administrators in local government in Vietnam were isolated, having limited connection to the world. We hoped that Fulbright could provide those provinces with opportunities to connect with the world,” said Prof. Brian Quinn.
Secondly, Fulbright would recruit students nationwide, making the school a national institution, not a regional one. A Fulbright cohort to this day remains composed of students from different regions and professional backgrounds, gathered from all corners of the country. Thirdly, Fulbright would be an institution for the Vietnamese.
“From the outset, we knew that Fulbright was not an American school. To be successful, it should stay true to its objectives as a graduate school in Vietnam. That is to say, we needed to invest in people, transferring teaching competency and management capacity to our Vietnamese colleagues. We saw this as the only successful path towards building a real school. Fast forward 25 years, and it seems we were right to make that choice,” shared Dr. Brian Quinn.
Indeed, Fulbright is now managed by Vietnamese administrators, setting the school apart from other foreign educational experiments in Vietnam. This unique feature was a deciding factor in FSPPM gaining accreditation and thus become one of the first ten public policy institutions in Asia – and the very first in Southeast Asia – to be accredited by NASPAA, a global standard for public administration, affairs and policy education.
One of the first Vietnamese faculty members to join FETP/FSPPM, Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, former Dean of FSPPM, also shared his thoughts.
“I am fortunate to be a colleague of the most devoted teachers on earth. It is indeed impossible to fully gauge the depths of their devotion. I have seen generations of tutors ready to skip lunch or even dinner to ensure their students understand the lesson and do their homework. I have seen many teachers stay up all night to support students, even staying up until morning to ensure dissertations were submitted before 8:20 am. I wonder if there are other places like our school, where teachers love to prepare tough and long problem sets, and then worry whether students can do it and submit it in time,” said Dr. Tu Anh.
More importantly, the proof of Fulbright’s success lies in the continued support of generations of alumni; the network which now counts over 1500 alumni has become the most valuable asset of the school. Dr. Tu Anh recalled an anecdote where Mr. Set Winnick, the United States General Consul in Ho Chi Minh city, said that whenever he went to visit the provinces, he could immediately guess whether that person was a Fulbright graduate, as if they carried Fulbright’s DNA with them. Seth Winnick even came up with the term “FETP Index”: if a province has a high index – meaning there are many FETP graduates in the province – that province will definitely be at the forefront of innovation and reform in Vietnam.
Prof. Jonathan Pincus emphasized that both the founding vision and a supportive environment were necessary to get Fulbright started. But the reason it has survived so long, and even thrived as it evolved from a teaching program to a full-fledged graduate program, is the quality and enthusiasm of the students. That enthusiasm continues after graduation, in one of the most active alumni associations in Vietnam.
“Wherever I go in this country, I meet Fulbright alumni who speak with great affection for the school, and who still enjoy a deep sense of attachment, even decades after their Fulbright experience. The sense of belonging felt by present and former students is a testament to the intellectual community that has formed around the school, and has supported its development over the years,” commented Prof. Pincus.
FUV President, Ms. Dam Bich Thuy extolled how Fulbright alumni continue to exemplify the Fulbright spirit: integrity, commitment to service, team spirit and mutual support.
“They are an invaluable asset that any school would be proud to call their own,” said Ms. Thuy.
Nguyen Phuong Lam, Director of VCCI Can Tho, Class of FETP 9 and MPP 4, said that the word “Fulbright”, colloquially known as “Fulbright School”, always brings forth great feelings of affection and a deep sense of attachment. Because the School has fostered generations of Fulbright School Alumni (FSA), talented people who have realized their great potential. Among FSA members, there are senior officials in the central government, leaders or managers at local governments, and successful entrepreneurs in the business sector. Others are pursuing their passion with community-based development projects.
“We heard many stories about life at Fulbright School, which create strong impressions both for those who have gone through it and those who have yet to do so. The hard work, the pressure of deadlines are such that people unfortunately do drop out of the program. Finishing homework at dawn is a normal pattern, reaching the deadline of 8:20 am is a regular race, and no student can do more than try their best every 24 hours. The most terrifying part of studying here is that there is fierce competition among students regarding their place in the score distribution. One would feel the risk of falling behind if he or she does not catch up in the race or fails to respect academic integrity. Nevertheless, Fulbright graduates all have a strong personality, positive thinking, and transparency in their actions. We share a bond, and a sense of responsibility to one another. The fact is that no one seems to be left behind when it comes to graduation! For me, as well as for many other FSA members, Fulbright is where we came into our own!”