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Fulbright’s First Undergraduate Commencement: A Touching Milestone

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Nearly a month has passed since the momentous day of June 24, 2023, but the overwhelming emotions of the grand event still seem like yesterday. On that day, Fulbright University Vietnam held its First Undergraduate Commencement, marking a significant milestone in its mission to reimagine higher education in Vietnam. The ceremony was the culmination of years of hard work, dedication, and commitment from the graduates, faculty, staff, parents, and friends of Fulbright. 

A Day of Pride and Emotion: Recollecting Fulbright’s Historic Commencement

The early morning procession of students and faculty in Fulbright blue gowns with silky sashes around the campus was a sight to behold, as the wind blew across the Crescent Lake, moving and inspiring everyone present. 

Starting the ceremony at the Saigon Exhibition and Convention Center (SECC), Founding President of Fulbright, Ms. Dam Bich Thuy made a touching gesture. She guided the students to stand up, face their parents, and make a bow to thank them for their unwavering support throughout the years. It was such a beautiful moment, heartwarming for both students and parents as they looked back through the many ups and downs during the university years. Many tears were shed, and gratefulness in reflection filled the hall. 

Ms. Dam Bich Thuy recited back to the day Fulbright was first initiated like a fun conversation, perhaps one like our students may have late-at-night in their dorms: 

“In 2007, a not too far away time. Ben Wilkinson and Tommy Vallely visited me in Hanoi while I was still leading ANZ in Vietnam. Tommy, abrupt as he is, asked me about building a U.S.-style university in Vietnam.” 

In 2015, a proposal for the Fulbright University Vietnam Project was formally submitted to Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s delegation during a visit to the United States. The Investment License for the project was granted, and in 2016, former U.S. President Barack Obama announced the opening of Fulbright University Vietnam to the nation. 

In his speech, Associate Professor Nguyen Van Phuc, Deputy Minister of Education and Training, emphasized that education has always been the leading force to connect the two nations, Vietnam and the U.S. Following the Fulbright Scholarship program which has been around since 1992 and the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management was established in Vietnam in 1994, Fulbright University Vietnam establishing in 2016 was the next step. It is to offer Vietnamese students a top-notch undergraduate educational environment that combines the advantages of Vietnam and the United States, equipping them with the skills needed for the 21st century and contributing to Vietnam’s socio-economic development. 

Following his point, Ms. Susan Burns, US Consul in Ho Chi Minh City, recognized Fulbright University Vietnam as the fruit of the U.S.-Vietnam partnership. “Class of 2023, you are the testament of once unthinkable partnership between our nations. As we celebrate the anniversary of the comprehensive partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam, I can think of no better symbol of the friendship between our nations than the class of 2023 here today.” 

She later emphasized the power of a liberal arts education, which fosters critical thinking, problem-solving, and the ability to fully engage in society. It instills a passion for lifelong learning and equips graduates with the skills necessary to navigate our ever-changing world. It is one reason that American higher education is valued around the world. 

Liberal Arts in Vietnam: A new possibility for 21st-century learning

While the advantages of a liberal arts education are clear, it is the Vietnamese context that Fulbright wishes to inspire students to tackle and take the lead in making this world-famous education their own. Phan Thuc Anh, who majored in Economics and was the former President of the Fulbright Student Council, was chosen by her classmates as the student representative. She looked back at the start of her journey at Fulbright as a co-designer with a hint of humor. “We could have chosen a more conventional path, but we chose the vision of reimagining higher education in Vietnam. Unless you chose Fulbright with your eyes closed, that decision shows that we had the willingness to take risks, community-mindedness, and enough boldness to engage with a new concept that we thought could have a huge impact on others’ lives. What is even greater is that we did not simply endorse the idea, but we actually helped turn the idea into reality.” 

In order to root liberal arts education in the Vietnamese context, Fulbright students were asked to unwire their brains and unlearn everything. According to Thục Anh, they went through “transformative” learning, which involved shifts in ways of knowing and perspectives. They started to look at the world from not just one but from multidisciplinary perspectives. They began to ask fundamental questions like what is good, what is moral, and what is true. Even when they were sure about something, Dr. Kinho Chan, a founding faculty member in Integrated Sciences, would ask them, “Are you really sure?” 

Technology and Humanity: AI and Social Impact

Dr. Le Viet Quoc, AI and Machine Learning pioneer, and Founding member of Google Brain pointed out: “Your experience helping to build an institution that quite literally did not exist when you joined us five years ago will serve you very well in the unpredictable world we live in. It is why I am confident you will not only adapt to what the future holds, but will help to shape it.” 

He continued, Fulbright is dedicated to creating opportunities for young people who, like his young self 20 years ago, dream of finding new ways to contribute to humanity, whether through technology or in other ways, such as through public policy, entrepreneurship, or the arts. 

In his commencement speech, Dr. Le Viet Quoc narrated the emerging concerns regarding AI. He concluded: “A unique feature of AI is that it is a democratic field that is open to all players. […] This makes AI much more powerful as a force for good and for ill. In AI, you will have access to very powerful technology. I hope you can take advantage of AI as it is giving this generation, and countries like Vietnam, a new opportunity. And I hope my generation and the next generation will use it as a force for good.” 

A New Chapter: Fulbright’s Promise and Graduates’ Future

The highlight of the ceremony was the conferring of degrees, where graduating students walked the stage in their unique ways, whisking, turning, dancing, bringing paper fireworks, and throwing flowers to make their grand entrance to the world. Many of them bowed, thanking the dedicated faculty and friends who have accompanied them through the challenging journey. 

Guided the audience through various kinds of emotions from pride, happy, touching was the brilliant in-house talent choir band. They performed “All You Need Is Love,” “Across the universe,” the medley “I Have a Dream and “I am still standing,” and “Set It All Free,” spreading good vibes across the main hall. When “I have a dream” and “Across the universe” were sang, nostalgia filled the hall as the students were taken back to the days they first joined the university as co-designers and freshmen. 

Fulbright University Vietnam’s First Undergraduate Commencement marks a turning point in its mission to reimagine higher education in Vietnam. As Prof. Nguyen Van Phuc stated, “Seventy-two graduates will forever go down in the history of Fulbright University Vietnam.” As these graduates embark on their own journeys and make their mark on the world, they can take pride in knowing that they have helped lay the foundation for a young university with great potential to transform students’ lives with lifetime opportunities. 

Phuong Mai 

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Khoảnh khắc bạn đối mặt với nỗi sợ và dũng cảm hành động, đó là lúc bạn đã khai phóng bản thân. Đã có nhiều đêm bạn mất ngủ, đã có nhiều phút giây bạn nản chí. Nhưng, bạn đã không bỏ cuộc. Các bạn đã luôn kiên cường vượt qua những thử thách, những khó khăn trên chặng đường bốn năm vừa qua. Fulbright tự hào về các bạn. Hẹn gặp các bạn tại Commencement Day 8/6/2024, ngày chúng tôi tự hào giới thiệu với thế giới: Khóa 2024 – Class of the Fearless của Đại học Fulbright Việt Nam.

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