Unlike most Vietnamese universities, where work experience is usually required only in the last year of study, Fulbright students’ ambition to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a real context led many to seek opportunities right after their first year. A core pillar of liberal arts philosophy, experiential learning contributes greatly to Fulbright’s robust and integrated education.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it would be how much uncertainties the future holds; and it has definitely changed the way our world functions. Careers that have never been thought of will emerge, and old careers will be transformed. So to prepare for a future of uncertainties, the young generation needs an education that equips them for success and allows them to design their own future. This is where liberal arts education comes in.
As Vietnam’s first liberal arts university, Fulbright focuses on cultivating a strong sense of social responsibility, along with solid yet transferable intellectual, soft and technical skills. The interdisciplinary and critical approach helps prepare students to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. Fulbright students are allowed to take their time to explore many different areas of interests before committing to any particular major.
Similarly, with the support from the Career Development service, they are inspired to consider various career options, have multiple internships and projects in different professional industries before deciding their own path. Students can arrange to meet with a career coach to review a resume, prepare for an interview, or discuss broader career aspirations.
“I think there is something indescribable about the moments that we’re in. Vietnam is in this stage of rapid development… we need people who can actually think critically and have a breadth of knowledge, who will have exposure to different experiences, encompassing different cultures and different academic areas. That is why a liberal arts education is very important, because it demands both breadth and depth,” says Vincent Pham, Fulbright’s Manager of Partnership Development. “Students here spend two years exploring academic courses, so why can they not do a similar exploration with professional industries and fields?”
This is reflected in one of our students’ internships this past summer. Vu Nhat Huy had just completed his first professional working experience at Vulcan Augmetics, an engineering startup specializing in creating robotic prosthetics, dedicated to empowering the amputee community. Despite not having prior experience in the field, Huy was willing to step out of his comfort zone and immerse himself in Vulcan’s ambitious mission. Huy shared that from the very beginning, even at the interview, he could already sense liberal arts in action, “It encouraged trust, clear communication, and equal opportunities for every employee to be creative, fail, work and learn across departments.” In return, Huy’s willingness to “take on new challenges and unusual assignments, which requires a lot of creativity and courage” is highly praised by his employer Trinh Khanh Ha, Vulcan’s Co-Founder and General Manager.
To tailor a meaningful experience
Finding the right fit for students to intern at can be a challenge, especially when “internship culture” is still a rather new concept in Vietnam. Right off the bat, they have to be on the same page about various aspects of the internship – what the student is capable of, what skills they wish to develop, what the company expects from them, and so forth. The Career Development department at Fulbright facilitates this conversation, so that the internship can be rewarding to both students and employers.
With a quick Google or Facebook search, one can easily find a myriad of job or internship proposals that range across almost every field and position. However, for students with little to no prior work experience, they might struggle to land a suitable spot. Based on feedback from this year’s interns, Fulbright is developing a comprehensive protocol that would help students navigate job offers, set certain standards for future internship hosts, and create a stronger alignment of expectations between employers and students.
According to Vincent Pham, to make sure the experience is meaningful and constructive, establishing an environment of mentorship and ownership is essential. As mentees, students get to observe the finest practices in the industry and receive guidance to improve their work and themselves. On the other hand, they need to have enough freedom to respectfully raise their opinions, make their own decisions and step up when they are ready.
At Mark Your Wall, a creative start-up with a passion to tell stories through wall art, Fulbright student Truong Vu Anh Thy had a memorable internship. Although Thy had a rough start where she had to familiarize herself with a professional work environment, the whole experience ended up exceeding her expectation. Not only were Thy and her partner, another fellow Fulbright student, able to enrich their portfolio with an art project of their own, her communications and collaborating skills were also enhanced.
“My expectation about the internship was mainly that I was going to be an assistant to help other staffs. And this can be a chance to learn and understand how everything works. But it turned out differently. We got to do the project ourselves, we got to decide the theme based on a brief from our supervisor, Ms. De Geer. The project was mainly done by us, with Ms. De Geer as the advisor. It was a back and forth process of prototyping and feedback, resulting in a final product that both sides agreed on,” Thy reflects on her internship. “After all the feedback, we started to grasp what the company wanted, and applied our understanding to the project. Through this opportunity, I have gained experience on how to work efficiently as a collaborator, a staff.”
Adrienne De Geer, Mark Your Wall’s founder fondly appreciates Thy and her partner’s efforts. “A very positive and creative process, with a high level of flexibility and focus on learning for the students.”
Cultivating an ecosystem of support
At Fulbright, both the Career Development department and the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) have been leveraging their resources to prompt internship opportunities for students. While the CEI has a specific focus on entrepreneurial and innovative startups, Career Development provides connection to an extensive network of partners, from art, media, technology to education and non-profits, accommodating a diverse student community with varied interests and strengths. Especially for a new university like Fulbright, these partnerships are a substantial asset in the long run.
On a broader scale, Fulbright’s initiative is setting a precedent for other universities and higher education institutions in Vietnam, to design and promote valuable experiential learning programs, as well as foster a healthy internship culture. Nowadays, neither theoretical nor practical knowledge is sufficient without the other. According to a recent BCG report, 1.3 billion people globally have misaligned competencies for their job. It is thus necessary for all students, not just those pursuing a liberal arts education, to get exposed to the labor market early in their academic journey. From businesses’ perspective, this is a catalyst for them to further discussions with the education sector. With them getting more involved in finetuning the curriculum, it will better cater to each industry’ demands and employers will be able to recruit the most competent students as soon as they graduate.
Nguyen Dai Hoang, one of the two Fulbright students currently interning at Zing News says, he enjoys working in a friendly environment with supportive coworkers. “I struggled in the first few days at work, but quickly realized that the approach of ‘fast failure’ that is introduced and promoted at Fulbright can be applied everywhere. I started to think of the tasks I did not complete successfully as the practical lessons that gradually enhance my performance, instead of taking things personally and getting upset about failed tasks,” Hoang recalls.
Hoang’s supervisor, Mr. Nguyen Thanh Tuan, Assistant Managing Editor at Zing News expresses compliments for his two journalist interns: “Their professionalism, dedication and versatility really impressed me. Both are eager to learn and open to new assignments – new and challenging ones.” Such positive testimony gives hope for more long-term, fruitful collaborations on the horizon for the Fulbright community.
Anh Thư – Bảo Trâm