October 31, 2017

Hopping on a Plane to Ho Chi Minh City: Why I Joined Fulbright

October 31, 2017

It was very hard on my parents to watch me leave home and move across the world when I was still 14. During those years I saw my family only infrequently and it was lonely. 

 On my father’s first day of class, the professor cold called my father and asked him for his opinion on US trade policy. My father looked back at the professor startled and after a few seconds just barely mumbled out a sentence or two.

Then he looked on as his classmates debated the topic at a furious pace and intensity.This was my father’s first day at graduate school in the US and my father was floored. 

Back in Japan, my father was used to sitting in lectures where the professor would drone on, barely looking up from his notes. This was completely different. He was amazed at how his classmates brought so many different view points to the discussion and expressed them so persuasively.

At first my father struggled to state and defend his opinion in class. But over time he not only thrived, but became a convert to the American style of education. It taught him how to think 

When my family moved back to Japan, my parents decided that I should also get a US-style education.

While all of my father’s Japanese classmates who had studied abroad with him reassimilated back into Japanese society and sent their children to Japanese schools, my parents made the atypical choice and the substantial investment of sending me to a US-style international school. I was too young to understand the significance of this decision at the time.

When my parents asked me which school I wanted to go to, I told them I was more excited about the international school because it had a much larger playground than the local school near my house. 

Years later, I left Japan and attended high school and university in the US. My experience in the US, like my father’s, was transformative. But it came at a cost. 

It was very hard on my parents to watch me leave home and move across the world when I was still 14. During those years I saw my family only infrequently and it was lonely.  

Over time, as I established a community and a life in the US, I began to feel more at home in the US. I felt less inclined to return to Japan after graduation. My parents wondered whether their sacrifice had been worth it.

After university, I joined BCG’s education practice and spent five years supporting US universities and school districts as a management consultant. During one project, my team helped a university that was struggling with recruiting students and faced declining enrollments. 

On another, we worked with school district leaders to turn-around a district’s lowest performing schools. My upbringing instilled in me a deep faith in the importance of education as a vehicle for individual transformation (and subsequently societal transformation), and I wanted to play my part in sharing this opportunity with more children. 

Earlier this year, when my former boss at BCG told me about Fulbright University Vietnam, it immediately piqued my interest.  

Establishing Fulbright University Vietnam would allow thousands of Vietnamese youth – regardless of their ability to pay or where in Vietnam they are from – to pursue the US-style liberal arts education that changed my father’s life, and subsequently my own.

And Fulbright University Vietnam would enable Vietnamese students to pursue this education without making the significant sacrifice of leaving their families and moving across the world. 

I decided that I wanted to work for Fulbright and put the skill set that I had developed at BCG to good use. I offered to begin work as a volunteer, and a few weeks later hopped on a plane to Ho Chi Minh City.

 Kentaro Watari (Stanford Alumni)

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