Dr. Bill Hiss, endearingly called “Bác Bill” (Uncle Bill), has been a close friend of Fulbright University Vietnam since its establishment. With over 35 years serving students across the world in their journeys to conquest knowledge, now a retired Vice President for External Affairs, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid and Lecturer in Asian Studies at Bates College in Maine, USA, Bill has been volunteering his time and expertise to help construct solid and sustainable Admissions and Financial Aid processes at Fulbright.
Flying to Vietnam this time, Bill carried two suitcases, like a normal traveler, except, inside these suitcases were barely any clothes or personal items, but rather filled with books to donate to the Fulbright University Vietnam’s library.
Last Thursday, we sat down and had a chat with Bill about his “Santa” mission.
How did you first start this book giving ‘tradition’?
This is my third visit to Fulbright as a volunteer advisor to the Admissions and Financial Aid. The last time I came, I noticed that the library had almost no books except for the graduate books in Public Policy. So, I went to the bookstore in the mall, and I started buying books. I gave 15 or 20 to the library, mostly English language classics—Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Faulkner, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and the cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
And this time you come back from the United States with two suitcases of books?
I got this idea from a friend. He said we could check in two suitcases for each flight, so if you put all your stuff in one suitcase, you can “smuggle” books in the other suitcase. That is such a brilliant idea! So this time I traveled to Vietnam, I brought this much [merely any] clothes and about that many books. You should have seen me holding the suitcase standing on the scale in my bathroom, looking to see that it was 48 lbs. If it were 45 lbs, I’d put in two or three more books.
This is a photo of two unlikely “book smugglers”. Andy and I were students at Bates College at the same time. Here are these two old guys in Saigon, their arms around each other’s shoulders a couple of years ago. It was Andy’s good idea to bring suitcases of books. And we are looking to take this to the next level, where Andy can help me ship cartons of books in his business’ containers of lumber from the US to Vietnam a few times a year. Right now, we are trying to figure out how to work with Customs to make this all official. And if things check out, there would be a giant supply of books coming into the Fulbright library, for free.
How do you curate books for students?
The books I brought this time were books written by some of the very best English writers, E. B. White, David McCullough, etc., those who just write beautiful prose. Most of them were nonfiction rather than fiction. Reading history, essays, politics and other things, Fulbright students can get a feel for good prose in English. They can explore different styles of writing in English.
About half the books that I brought this time, the two suitcases, half of them were from my personal library. The other half were books that I got for a great deal from a book sale at a local public library, books that people donated to the library.
I have degrees in Literature, Theology, and Intellectual History. I think I know a good writer when I see one, so I can be responsible for the quality, but I won’t be responsible for what categories. Everyone reads differently, and for different purposes. The faculty, the Deans, and the students themselves will know exactly what they need, and they would be the main curators of the library. They would have to tell bác Bill which books they want.
Do you ever worry that the readership of this young generation now differs very much from your generation or maybe just twenty years ago?
Indeed, I have raised this question to Ngan (Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies). The question is if books are, in fact, a 20th century form of learning and no longer very applicable. Ngan said: “No, I don’t think that’s true.”
I can only say these are not only questions of information transfer, but there are questions of understanding cultural literacy. To hold a biography of Steve Jobs, all 600 pages of it in your hands, and read through it, that is a different kind of learning experience than going to Google to search ‘What’s the gross economic output of North Korea?’. The historical novel that I have brought is written in a style of 1760s English, a little more ornate. But Fulbright students read Shakespeare, right? They might be puzzled [by the old language] I’m sure, but at the same time I know how smart they are, and I trust that they would figure a way to enjoy these old reads.
At the student fair last week, I was delighted to see there’s a student support group for the library.
Thank you, Bác Bill, very much for sharing your thoughts with us, for all the books, and for everything that you have done! We truly appreciate your kindness. We wish you a safe trip back home and we look forward to welcoming you back again, maybe next time, we’ll chat in the new Fulbright library, much filled with books that you donated.
* Read more about Bác Bill’s story here: https://fulbright.edu.vn/volunteer-advisor-santa-bill-hiss/