Dr. Ian Kalman has been a dearly familiar name to the Fulbright community as one of the founding faculty members at the university, as well as his often raved-about course on Digital Anthropology, among many others. Every year, Ian has managed to bring new values to the school, from leading a Fulbright Speakers’ Series, initiating our first academic conference, to his recently published book, Framing Borders: Principle and Practicality in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Last week, we sat down with him to chat about his new book, his teaching philosophy, and his vision for the future.

From a local case study to a global phenomenon

While the topic of borders is not entirely new since it forms a fundamental part of political life, often is studied in historical or geographical terms: when, where, and how they were drawn. Ian, however, explores them through a perspective known as Symbolic interaction in sociology. “[It] is the theory that the realities that we live in are constantly being constructed through our conversations. The world that can be experienced is known and reproduced through dialogue, discussion, and interaction,” he explained.

His book, Framing Borders: Principle and Practicality in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, published in 2021 by the University of Toronto Press, addresses a fundamental disjuncture between scholastic portrayals of settler colonialism and what actually takes place in Akwesasne Territory, the largest Indigenous cross-border community in Canada and the United States. As a multi-sited ethnography, the mainstay of anthropological qualitative social science research, the book explores how border crossing represents a conversation in which different actors “frame” themselves, the law, and the space that they occupy in diverse ways. The blurb follows: “Written in accessible, lively prose, Ian addresses what goes on when border officers and Akwesasne residents meet, provides an ethnographic examination of the experiences of the border by Mohawk community members, the history of local border enforcement, and the paradoxes, self-contradictions, and confusions that underlie the border and its enforcement.”

Map showing the political geography of Akwesasne. Courtesy of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

Ian shared that he first became interested in indigenous border crossings when he was an undergraduate student taking a class in Federal Indian Law, where he learned about the border crossing demonstrations. In these demonstrations, Native American people would march, parade, and simply walk across the border without stopping or giving identification to say that the border did not exist. Because for them as original people of the land with their own political and cultural identities, to a certain extent, the border does not exist. This resistance in literature, or rather refusal, piqued Ian’s curiosity, and he went on a quest to answer the question: ‘what does it mean to deny a border?’ and to learn more about the nuanced complexities surrounding this political yet cultural act.

Day of the bridge celebration at the creation of a new low-level bridge connecting Akwesasne to mainland Canada. Mohawk residents were banned from joining the celebration on foot by a barbed-wire fence.

A lot of researchers spend a few weeks or a month in the place where they do research to focus on secondary sources, surveys, focus groups and such, they would come in and get all the data that they could. But Akwesasne is the place where the border is part of everyday life, so in order to understand the border, Ian decided to experience the feeling about everyday life there, embracing the field of anthropology and its emphasis on long-term fieldwork. He held: “You need to be there until it gets boring, because it is boring for most people most of the time, waiting in/on line getting asked the same questions over and over again.” Ian has spent over a year living at the border, and crossed it over a thousand times, to fully immerse himself in the experience of the locals living there, as well as to see through the lenses of the border service officers. “The officers knew me just like they knew the people who live there. And that was part of what made the research feel worthwhile.”

The book itself provides broader meanings than just the descriptive analysis of borders. In fact, as an ethnography, “[it] is an intensive study of a specific cultural context with a theoretical basis that has something broader to say about the experience of being human. It’s about one thing, and it’s about everything at the same time. Many border regions are inhabited by people who are ethnically, culturally, historically, distinct from the dominant group. So this is a global phenomenon through a local case study,” he said.

Dialogues that shape our world

Borders, in a way, frame specific ideas of how the world works, especially in citizenship identity. Referencing the work of Erving Goffman, the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century, Ian regards the conversations at borders as matters of framing, such that when we pose the same question in different ways, we will get different answers.

For a border officer asking someone: ‘are you American or are you Canadian?’, demands that those are the only two types of people that one can be. For most indigenous and ethnic minority people, many of whom are located at the borders of different states, their identities, who they see themselves as their language, their culture, their way of life, is not American or Canadian but is one that is challenged by the borders. “So the question then is: if borders are not just these lines on a map, but are something that comes into being through conversations, in which you give your documentation to a person, and they demand certain things of you, and you communicate with them, it’s worth paying more attention to what takes place in those sorts of interactions, the sorts of conversations that happen, and how people come to experience this political reality through dialogue.”

Bilingual wait sign created by Canada Border Services Agency to Inform travelers about wait times. It is worth noting that few Akwesasne residents speak French.

Picture of “the Border” between portions of the community legal in Quebec and New York State. Note the only signs of change are the sidewalk and speed limit sign in Kilometers rather than miles.

In his work, Ian argues that rather than using identity indicators like nationality, race, social standing, or gender, etc., we should look to context as a predictive measure of human interaction.  “Sometimes we pay too much attention to cultural differences while there are a lot of things that are pretty much shared across all human beings,” he contended. “We all want respect. We don’t want our time wasted. We want people to be nice to us. We want people to accept the identities that we put forward in the world. So if we start from that perspective and focus more on context than identity as something that determines people’s interactions, then it will give us a lot of flexibility. Because then, we can take a more proactive role in shaping the context.”

With the understanding and appreciation for the community, Ian has spent a few years making cultural training materials for border officers to help improve relationships. He also did policy reports for the Mohawk government, both related and unrelated to this border crossing matter, helped them do quantitative research and analyze data. Time after time, Ian grew very close with the community and he still goes back to Akwesasne now, not for research so much anymore, but “just because I genuinely miss it and I miss the people”. His eyes were sparked with joy as he shared about his memories there, about the time he officiated a wedding for two of his friends along the river, or simply just the nights they played Dungeons and Dragons together.

Throughout his academic research sprinkled with light-hearted jokes, we can find one overarching theme in the book: be nice to other people. The author elaborated: “It’s a different sort of call to action. This is not a book that preaches revolution, it’s simply a path towards treating people as people. And if you do that, you’re going to be more effective with your intended goals.”

Selfie taken by Dr. Ian Kalman at the St Lawrence River.

Good learning is playful

That theme about kindness and the writing style that incorporates a bit of playfulness into a theoretical text is just about an accurate reflection of how Dr. Ian Kalman is in real life. He strongly believes that it is important to enjoy the classroom experience, to learn through stories and through laughter. More important is the ability to connect things that do not naturally seem connected. Quality learning is not so much about knowledge retention because, in this digital era, most information can be found on the internet easily. It is all about creativity, making connections, and piecing together the world in creative ways. “I think that good learning is playful. And that’s what I bring into the classroom as a teacher,”  he affirmed.

Throughout our talk, Ian projected a calm yet funny persona. Sipping water from a Spiderman mug, he shared with us that he was born in the same part of New York as the friendly neighborhood hero. Growing up in such a culturally diverse city, Ian has long been nurturing an open mindset and keeping an eye out for inspiration from the daily moments of surprise. He was excited to share with us his upcoming project on comparative philosophy between Native America and Asia, which was inspired by the heightened exposure to Asian philosophy from his time at Fulbright.

Dr. Ian Kalman at a workshop on Digital Learning Through Social Media for teachers from all across the country at PEN 2020 (Pioneering Educators Network), held at Fulbright University Vietnam.

At the end of the day, Fulbright is going to be the biggest accomplishment I’ll ever lay claim to, not as a sole person, but as part of that. [Being a founding faculty member], I thrive on this sense of adventure and greatly enjoy the process of building something major. At Fulbright, there is this freedom to teach a variety of classes and work with amazing students, and I have wonderful colleagues beside me. I think we genuinely are providing something new and transformative, both for their lives and for Vietnam on the whole,” Ian said.

Bảo Trâm

Even to the Vietnamese ears, the name “Hoang Ha Thi” might sound a bit uncommon and quaint. The reason being the one who gave it to him – his mother –is a writer and teacher who inspired Ha Thi to develop an ethos of purpose and diligence from an early age. Originally trained to become a doctor, over the years Thi’s adventurous spirit has seen him spearheading a career in research that’s keenly dovetailed with entrepreneurship. Now the journey has taken him to Fulbright University Vietnam, where he joins as Lead Faculty for Entrepreneurship at the YSEALI Academy and Undergraduate Faculty Member in Integrated Science.

Hoang Ha Thi’s family left Hanoi for Germany when he was five. In this new land, both his mother and father had to give up their lifelong professions as a literature teacher and a physicist respectively, and adopted jobs whose hardships and struggles are no exception to any immigrant story. Having witnessed their tribulations first-hand, Thi aspired to “be good” in his own life. “I’m extremely impact-driven. The moment I feel I don’t do anything meaningful, I get really depressed. It’s like I don’t finish my bowl of rice and everything,” he says over Zoom one recent afternoon from Berlin. But before your mind might stray to the typical image of tiger parenting, Thi assures us that his folks let him do anything he wanted, nor do they ever tell him what to do: “They said to me ‘The world is your playground. But whatever you do, think hard on the effect it has on people.’”

And so, when it was time to choose, Thi decided to study medicine at the Free University in Berlin. It’s in a sense a familial trade as his grandfather was a descendent of Hai Thuong Lan Ong, an 18th-century physician celebrated in history as the “Father of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine”, while many relatives on his mother’s side also work in health care.  “[At the time], I got very much interested in the brain,” he says. “Because I somehow thought for myself that to understand humans, you have to understand the brain.” Yet, while working in the hospital, he became frustrated by the fact that understanding of many of the brain diseases is still frail. That was why he turned to research. At the University of Cambridge, Thi did his Ph.D. in Neuroscience & Molecular Biology at the world-renowned MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, home to 11 Nobel Laureates over the past 60 years. There, his discoveries have laid the foundation for novel drug discovery efforts by big pharma.

M.D., Ph.D. Hoang Ha Thi at his graduation from the University of Cambridge

“Going into it, I thought my work would cure Alzheimer’s disease, which was very naive,” he quips. “Then I realized how hard it is, and how disconnected and removed research often is from the actual patient.” Built on his previous clinical experience, Thi’s next move was a foray into business when he founded two biotech companies – one in London, now defunct; the other is in Austria and running well; which reflect the classic narrative of any entrepreneurs out there who embrace, learn and get up from their failures. “I wanted to carve out a niche in my career that would be at the intersection between research and application,” he says. “I didn’t just want to do research, but also translation of research into commercial products that ultimately created impact for the patient. That could be anything starting from a meditation app all the way to a drug that cures a disease.”

Harvard Medical School came after. As a research fellow, Thi was able to look into the potentiality of commercialization in research findings and projects, while consulting venture capital companies in Boston. “To be honest, oftentimes you don’t have to be very smart to do research, you just have to have a lot of resources that allow you to do things that others can’t,” he remarks. “But they also could be wasted on research that has no application altogether. Instead of being passive and waiting for things to happen, what you can do is to actually take an active role.”

That mindset was perfectly matched when he joined Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital company that builds world-changing biotech companies starting with revolutionary scientific ideas. Of many projects the company’s built over the last 20 years, it’s compelling to mention Moderna, best known these days for its vaccine against the coronavirus among other significant breakthroughs. “Flagship Pioneering brings scientists from all different disciplines together to brainstorm things that people would feel probably too stupid to voice in other scenarios, where we can just dream big even though it sounds naive sometimes,” he says. “But eventually, through this process, we came up with really great company ideas. I’ve contributed to the formation of two companies within that framework.”

The journey home

Looking back on his professional career, Thi admitted to a certain streak of unconventionality. While most of his schoolmates from medical school now have their private practices and a pretty stable life, he is embarking on a new adventure at Fulbright University Vietnam.

It wasn’t until 2019 that Thi went back to Vietnam as an adult. Growing up in Europe, he was used to the diversity and enjoyed the company of friends all over the world who brought out in him a fuller, well-rounded perspective on life, especially when compared to his family’s traditional Vietnamese mindset. “Back in the days, the Vietnamese student community in Germany was very much closed up and rarely opened up to other cultures, which was difficult for me to relate to,” he says. “As a result, I thought maybe I don’t belong there.”

The trip, however, rekindled a part of him that had been previously untapped but ever still, tethered to the land be it the spirit of the young people he connected to, or the way the Vietnamese language is spoken among fellow countrymen, or the delicious authentic food they shared. “I left Vietnam completely shocked,” he says. “Because I was so, in fact, in love with it. I was sitting on the plane crying like a baby when I left Vietnam. Passengers and the stewardess turned around to ask if I was ok.”

Since then, Thi has been working on projects that he believes are of meaningful value to Vietnam and its people. One is a scholarship called “Vietnam my homeland” for disadvantaged children to continue with school and/or study abroad. The other is facilitating collaboration between the Institute of Genome Research in Hanoi and a genome company in Seattle to construct genetic maps of rare disorders found in ethnic minorities in Vietnam. It aims for the country’s advancement of genetic research and in the long run, the development of new cures and treatments.

“Over the past two years, I’ve been thinking how I can possibly go back to Vietnam and reconnect to that part of my identity,” he says. “It’s just insane to me that the opportunity at YSEALI and Fulbright came up, which suits me professionally and also allows me to explore and add another puzzle piece to my identity.”

A playful approach

At Fulbright University Vietnam, Thi plans to divide 80% of his time to the YSEALI Academy, and 20% goes with undergraduate students. What he hopes to establish is a framework for teaching and learning in which processes are streamlined, preformed structures are challenged, and the curriculum is open to the broader public one day. Furthermore, the student-teacher relationship is one that’s developed from a place of listening to and empowering each other.

The idea echoes something he once shared: The best way to be innovative is by being playful and breaking things (and fixing them afterwards). “I’m the kind of person who questions everything,” he says. “You try out something, you break it. And if it fails, you laugh about it. You have to do that a lot of times to get to this one iterative idea – a concept that works out eventually. That’s where the playfulness comes from. You have to trust your gut and go for it.”

Thi believes the entrepreneurial mindset – of taking risks, venturing into the unknown, generating new hypotheses – can be the key to approach anything in life. In other words, one can’t learn just by watching YouTube or reading books. “It’s not what you need to know, but rather, you need to know how to learn it,” he says.  “I think I can do a lot in teaching students how to take risks and how to be comfortable with uncertainty. The world has become so complex, and it’s very important to navigate uncertainty in their professional lives, whether they do business or not. What essentially matters at the end of the day is how the students will lead their lives in the real world once they leave school.”

The YSEALI Entrepreneurship Seminar

As Lead Faculty for Entrepreneurship at the YSEALI Academy, Thi is overseeing the upcoming “Navigating the Startup Ecosystem” seminar, which is now open for applications and will take place in November. One of the highlights of the curriculum that he developed with the YSEALI team is a Hackathon, in which fellows will work in teams to present conceptual business solutions to the most pressing challenges of society. A panel of experienced entrepreneurs will mentor the teams during the Hackathon, which culminates in startup pitches and an award ceremony.

“The idea behind it is to have people work together in a playful manner, and hopefully bring those concepts into life in the future,” he says. “It would be a dream scenario if we have people from different Southeast Asian countries now becoming friends, forming a team to actually build a company based on the ideas they have for the Hackathon at the seminar.”

YSEALI Academy is also a place for Thi to learn. He views it as an opportunity to get to know the landscape, and build capacity for ASEAN to become the next Silicon Valley with companies that create their own innovation and intellectual property. “I dislike the fact that Southeast Asian countries are oftentimes viewed as manufacturing outposts only,” he says. “There’s so much human capacity to create our own proprietary products. I hope to find people with a disruptive mindset, to discuss and work with them through this seminar.”

As such, the ideal candidate that he’s looking for in the selection process is someone who’s open to new people and topics, and sees themselves as an agent that can move easily between worlds. “I don’t care so much about their past experiences, what they’ve been trained in or where they went to study,” he says. “I want to see someone who wants to do something meaningful. Why do you want to do entrepreneurship? It’s oftentimes because you care about a problem, right? If you can convince me that you care, then you’re really a good person to join the seminar.”

Bao Quyen

 “It’s hard to believe that when brilliant scholars come into the city, the first place they think of presenting in is an art gallery or a café, when we have this university with guaranteed academic freedom, amazing students and faculty, and a dedicated venue. I want Fulbright to be the first stop. We have so much to offer.”

Sitting by the beautiful waterfront across the Fulbright University Vietnam campus, we talked with Dr. Ian Kalman, resident professor at Fulbright, who initiated our first academic conference: “New approaches to university education in Asia”, held February this year. This was the biggest conference of its kind to take place in the region outside of Singapore, with 129 applicants from more than 20 countries. Ian also helped launch and led Fulbright’s Speaker Series, a (mostly) bi-weekly presentation from academic researchers from around the world on computing, psychology, history, coffee and linguistics, among others. We discussed his journey to Fulbright University Vietnam from New York City’s suburbs, his dedication to education, and Fulbright’s promise as an academic hub, fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and research in the region.

The quiet professor has a long track record as an initiative starter: “I love to build things and watch them grow. I was in student government everywhere, I was part of the effort to build up the conference at McGill for grad students, where we pushed to get funding. Now, it’s one of the biggest international graduate anthropology conferences in the world. The last time I was there, we had people from Hong Kong. If you push into your networks consistently, you’ll get talent from all over the place.” This made moving to Fulbright at the very beginning of the Co-Design Year, a great idea for three different reasons: it is an institution-building effort, a place of higher education, and maintains a “spirit of adventure.

Ian (front row) celebrating Teachers’ Day at Fulbright

“I think that we’re building one of the best student bodies I’ve ever worked with. I’ve taught all over the world, I’ve taught in multiple continents at all sorts of advanced and beginner University levels. And I can say without reservation I’ ve never worked with students this good, who excel both in content, and in their creativity and criticality using that content.”

A short introduction

Ian Kalman grew up in New York City from a Jewish household. Ian’s parents were the first in his family to go to college and encouraged him to pursue a more prestigious education. From public schools in NYC, Ian pursued a Bachelor’s of Anthropology at University of Chicago and was the first in his family to go to a graduate school. “My parents imparted to me the value of education for social mobility, and my university’s liberal arts focus brought me from being a pretty mediocre high school student to being someone who really cared a lot about their studies. To this day, the rigorous core education and the philosophy of lifelong learning I acquired there affect my life positively to this day.”

After graduating in 2005, he became a Peace Corps volunteer in China, teaching people in a small rural village. “I was already passionate about education, tutoring and providing literacy training on the south side of Chicago in 2004. I don’t think I was very good at it at first, but I wanted to get better. I spent the next three years in universities and private schools, from China to Ukraine and then Turkey.”

Dr. Ian Kalman, Faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam

In 2009, Ian pursued a PhD in Anthropology from McGill University, focusing on the interactions between border officers and Native Americans, and from 2012-13 worked out of the research office in a native American community, developing policy reports for them, and training materials for border officers servicing the region. At the intersection of culture, indigenous rights, and governmental institutions, Ian’s work is part of an emerging field of research, law and anthropology. “After my field work, I finished my thesis at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and helped them build their law and anthropology department. This was really exciting, the first years of a new field.”

Fostering multiple perspectives

Ian’s passion for education and his interest in interdisciplinary research seem to originate from the same source. At its core, it’s both a desire for better communication, and deeper understanding. “I love the teaching aspect of things. Back at McGill, I was adjuncting more than anybody else. And then I transferred to their political science department: people in policy and politics don’t necessarily read anthropologists, so I wanted to write to the audience that makes these decisions.”

Whether to offer quality liberal arts education, to engage with researchers outside of your field or country, or to sharpen your arguments and creativity, the benefits are endless. “Academia tends towards hyper specialization, which in evolutionary terms is not very good for survival, but in academic terms might be necessary. But I’ve always been proud of being more of a generalist. The fact that I’m able to engage with different theories, different methodological approaches, is I think a boon to a place like Fulbright.

This is how we work through our ideas and refine them, as well as how we disseminate them. I find it extremely useful at both in my own research and in interactions to talk to people from different disciplines, both because of what we understand, and what we don’t. Giving a talk to an engaged audience that ask challenging questions you never thought of or listening to someone’s insights and exploratory ideas from an entirely different place, is the absolute best way to refine intellectual discourse. In that aspect, the conference was a huge success, both in terms of academic topics and geographical diversity.”

Dr. Kalman having a conversation with Dr. Daniel Lee Kim (from Pelita Harapan University, Indonesia), who attended Fulbright’s 2019 Academic Conference

This is true for professors, from all around the world, who participated in the conference, but it is also doubly true for the students at our university, a major motivation for Ian. “Our visibility locally and in the ASEAN region opens doors for future cooperation, becoming an intellectual center for HCMC, for Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We can create an opportunity for students to see and participate in this cutting-edge research currently taking place at other institutions. It’s valuable for the students both as an opportunity to, for them to learn from the presentations, but also this form of modeling of what it is to think through a difficult problem and to come up with innovative ways to understand it. They ask good questions and they’re infinitely curious. This is what I love, you know: when the talk ends and a group of students and the public from beyond the university line up to talk with the speakers afterwards. That’s wonderful.”

Antoine R. Touch

Dr. Thai-Ha Le is the Director of Research and a Senior Faculty member of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, Fulbright University Vietnam. She holds Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and PhD in Economics from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where she completed her PhD study within two years. Prior to joining Fulbright University Vietnam, Dr. Le worked at RMIT University Vietnam as a tenured Senior Lecturer for 7 years. Her primary research fields include Energy Economics, Environmental Economics and Applied Economics. 

Dr. Le Thai Ha

Dr. Le is an active researcher who has published about 30 scholarly research articles in international and peer reviewed journals including many in top-field journals. According to RePEc (Research Papers in Economics) ranking of economists based on publications as of September 2019, Dr. Le was ranked 4thin Vietnam in all publication years and ranked 2ndover the last 10 years. She has consulted for Asian Development Bank (ADB) Headquarters, ADB Institute and Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). 

Dr. Le is also a recipient of multiple competitive research grants and fellowships such as The Pacific Trade and Development (PAFTAD) Fellowship for Young Scholars in 2013, the Public Diplomacy Federal Assistance Award by The U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s Public Affairs Section in 2018 and the National Foundation for Science and Technology Development (NAFOSTED) funds for research in social sciences and humanities in 2019 as the principal investigator. 

Dr. Le holds several editorial roles including being an Associate Editor for Journal of Economic Development, sponsored by National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF), an Assistant Editor for Singapore Economic Review, one of the oldest and most respected economics journals in the Asia-Pacific region and an Editorial Board member for “Springer New Monograph Series, New Frontiers in Regional Science: Asian Perspectives” by Springer Nature.

Dr. Bruce has a passion for technology development with a focus on empowering society through altering perception and perspective.

He holds a B.A.Sc. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Waterloo, an M.A.Sc. in Materials Science & Engineering from McMaster University, and a Ph.D. in Chemical and Biological Engineering from the University of British Columbia. This varied engineering education has taught him to view our world through a multifaceted lens.

Dr. David Bruce.

He has studied and worked in the alternative energy field for 15 years in a variety of disciplines, with industrial experience in both large tech companies and start-ups. Dr. Bruce is keen to share his understanding into underlying physical science and how to use it to actualize engineering and bring innovation from conception to production.

Dr. Bruce is an avid sculptor, painter, and photographer and he hopes to pioneer integration of fine arts with engineering at Fulbright to help examine what serendipitous discoveries can be found through these combined fields.

“I am excited to join the Fulbright community and I look forward to seeing the world again through your eyes and dreams”

Dr. Kevin Hart has joined Fulbright University’s undergraduate faculty team.

He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego, his M.A. in English Literature at Fordham University, and his B.A. in English Literature at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. 

Kevin has taught courses on rhetoric and narrative theory, the history of the humanities, and U.S. and European literature. 

Dr. Kevin Hart

His research focuses on the modern novel in Europe and North America, popular and experimental fiction, and the political implications of theoretical discourses ranging from language studies to architectural, biological, and psychological theory.  He also works in translation theory and explores the auto-translation of authors writing in Russian, English, and French.

He was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City during 2018-2019, and he volunteers as a teacher for underprivileged children in Ho Chi Minh City and Ben Tre. 

Before beginning his graduate career, Kevin was a mental health social worker in Seattle, Washington.

“I am delighted to be joining the community of Fulbright University Vietnam.  The opportunity to build a university from the ground up is unique.  But the fact is that Fulbright already has an impressive foundation. 

My new colleagues, the co-design cohort of students, and administrative teams have laid strong foundations of transdisciplinary rigor and engagement, and the innovations in liberal arts education that are happening here are exciting.  I’ve already begun talking with students, colleagues, and administrators about the work we might do together, and I’m eager to get started in earnest.  It’s a privilege to be joining Fulbright for its inaugural year.”

While microscopes are her favorite, pen and paper characterize another aspect of Raj.

The road to the lab

In a house tucked among Mysore’s iconic palaces and temples, a young girl was bending over, trying to breathe life into her portrayal of a lotus – her hometown’s traditional flower. This scene, far from being an anomaly, soon became a signature of the house, leading the girl’s parents to be confident that their daughter would pursue art.

The girl, now in her twenties, finds herself indissolubly linked to biology, a discipline whose embodiment of artistic creativity often proves elusive to many.

Born to a pair of doctors in Mysore, a royal city steeped in Indian tradition, Professor Samhitha Raj enjoyed a happy childhood alongside supportive parents. That probably explains her undaunted advancement towards the male-dominated field of science in a country where academia is still ridden with discrimination on the grounds of caste and gender.

“My parents didn’t discourage me from going into science,” Raj said, her eyes sparkling with pride and gratefulness.

Raj’s enthusiasm for science, particularly mathematics and biology, was spotted early and nurtured all the way through university as she opted for a degree in Bioengineering. Yet, it was not long before she realized she had a propensity for scientific thinking, at which point she decided to follow the calling of biology in the next phase of her life.

“I got my undergraduate degree in Bioengineering because I like biology and I love math, so I wanted to combine the two. But then I realized I didn’t think as an engineer. I thought more as a scientist,” Raj said.

This momentary insight led to a career of longevity. From that moment onward, Raj dedicated herself to understanding the core of biology, which, for Raj, began at themolecular level.

Professor Samhitha Raj

During her six years at the University of Michigan, where she worked as a graduate student, Raj conducted research into the role of thyroid hormones in modulating DNA methylation in the development of the vertebrate brain, a topic that has enthralled her ever since.

Albeit guided by her burning passion, Raj’s career path was no bed of roses. Raj recollected falling victim to sexual harassment during her stint at an Indian research institute, which hindered her from focusing wholeheartedly on her project.

“I felt no gender-based disparagement in terms of opportunity,” Raj asserted. “But the inappropriate behavior of some male colleagues at that institute reflected badly on my experience as a female scientist.”

Beyond the lab

A scientist by profession and an artist by instinct, Raj was also a journalist, though for only a while. Upon graduating from JSS Science and Technology University, she made her foray into journalism by attending a few courses that spanned a total of one year. Reminiscing about this unique endeavor, Raj concurred that adding the journalism chapter to her all-science storybook was a wise move.

“My whole pursuit had been science, so I wanted to try and see what journalism was like. As part of the practice, I had to redefine what I had done previously to make science a topic understandable to everybody,” she recalled. An ability to communicate sophisticated scientific findings to the layperson was what Raj acquired from those journalism courses, extricating her out of the ivory tower that isolates researchers from the outside world.

Take a look back at Raj’s history, and none should be surprised that when she talks about writing, she doesn’t solely mean writing on paper. Since university, Raj has tried writing into space, and now considers bringing it into her classroom.

“During my years at college, I choreographed classical Indian pieces,” revealed Raj. “I’ve talked with Jill about the possibility of a class that combines yoga and Indian dancing. We will see.”

In the wake of her cross-field experiences, transdisciplinarity appears to have permeated Raj’s life and mediated her choice-making mindset. Last September, from the other half of the globe, Raj traversed oceans and fields for a job interview in Vietnam.

The interview turned her life, as a scientist, upside down. She was co-opted onto the team of Founding Faculty Members at Fulbright University Vietnam, the country’s first non-profit liberal arts institution.

While the term ‘liberal arts’ brings music to the ears of creative artists and social scientists, it, in the conservative’s eyes, is a curse on the career prospects of natural scientists. Hanging in the air is the question of how a natural scientist may make a mark in a university where the laboratory goes by conspicuous absence, and education is interpreted as an integrative project rather than the in-depth exploration of any predetermined discipline.

This problem, however, doesn’t seem to demoralize Raj. The lotus in the lab remains optimistic about what the future holds in store for her, possibly because she sees transdisciplinarity as a vehicle for scientific fluidity.

“The university will support me in whatever ways it can. And personally, I have to make a choice. I made the choice that to me, teaching science is a little bit more important than doing research work,” Raj smiled. “I love collaborating with other faculty members here to get different perspectives, and the transdisciplinary learning is really what I’m looking forward to.”

In Module 5 of the Co-Design Year, Raj instructs the Grand Challengescourse with KinHo Chan, a Fulbright neuroscientist. Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous century, the course strives to harness a common ground between disciplines in identifying, analyzing and tackling pressing issues ranging from climate change to genetic engineering. So, instead of experimenting with microscopes, Raj is having fun experimenting with the big wide world. 

Dang Thi Hoai Linh

(Student of Co-Design year)

  • Photographer : Nguyen Nhu Phuong Anh

Dr. Yooil Bae’s book (South Korea’s Dual Local Democracy: Ideas, Institutions and Varieties of Decentralization) has been selected as the Best Book Prize winner by the Korean Association for Local Government Studies on February 15, 2019.

Dr. Yooil Bae’s co-authored journal article (with Yu-Min Joo, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy), titled “The Making of Gangnam: Social Construction and Identity of Urban Space in South Korea,” has been published (online first, 2019).

In this article, Dr. Bae and Dr. Joo attempt to explain why a particular urban place, the Gangnam area in the city of Seoul, Korea, has come to symbolize the rich and the powerful.

Who better to help launch the first liberal arts university in Vietnam?

At her high school in Hanoi, Vietnam, in spring 1997, Ngan Dinh’ 02 listened intently as an admissions expert from the United States explained the concept of the liberal arts and described the college he worked for, Bates.

The ideas that the Bates expert, now-retired Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Bill Hiss’ 66, put to the class of high school juniors that day-studying in a residential academic community, taking courses across disciplines, and working closely with professors – diverged sharply from Dinh’s understanding of what college would be like in Vietnam, where higher education still followed the old Soviet Union emphasis on training and information, not critical thinking and creativity.

It was, Dinh, recalls, all about “everyone encouraging you to listen to your heart and go for it.”

 Two decades later, Dinh is a key figure in the creation of Fulbright University Vietnam, the first university to bring the liberal arts experience to Vietnamese students.

“What we want to do here is to create this univer-sity to be just like Bates, and build relationshipsso that students can learn to explore themselves,” says Dinh, the university’s founding director of undergraduate studies.

Dinh’s experience with the liberal arts and her desire to bring it to her home country began with Hiss’ presentation that day at Hanoi – Amsterdam High School. Hiss and his wife, Colleen Quint ’85, were in Vietnam to adopt their daughter and decided to do some recruiting along the way. He found that the students were “anxious to hear about American higher education and what the options might be,” he recalls.

At the time, such options were new for Viet-namese students. Just two years earlier, in 1995, the U.S. and Vietnam had normalized relations, 20 years after the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon to end the Vietnam War. As Hiss recalls, those first students “did not know Bates from an engine block. But they were real clear that the windows were just beginning to open, and American higher ed was where the action was.”

For Dinh and other children of parents who had fought for North Vietnam in the war, “the idea of going abroad and going to study in the U.S. was very, very new,” she says.

But when she applied to Bates her senior year and was accepted — the first in a strong contingent of Vietnamese students to attend the college since 1998 — she found that, in her family, it was a much-welcomed idea.

“My dad was in the war, fighting against the U.S.,” she says. “I remember the moment he said, ‘When the father was 18, he was fighting against the Americans, and when the daughter was 18, she was getting all the kindness and generosity from the Americans to go to the best university in the world.’”

For Dinh, the best part of “the best university in the world” was Bates people. She made friends with roommates, Associate Dean for International Student Programs James Reese, and Den staff alike.

Dinh’s propensity for connecting with people influenced how she approached one of her majors, economics. For her, the discipline is “not just about numbers.

“It’s not about money. It’s not about demand and supply. It’s really about people and people’s behavior. It’s about learning about the world, how things happen. It has stories. It has a lot of imagination.”

Dinh adopted that approach for her honors thesis, looking at the wage gap between China’s rural migrants and urban workers and concluding that discrimination against migrants was the reason.

Her Bates mentors included Jim Hughes, Thomas Sowell Professor of Economics, and Margaret Maurer-Fazio, Betty Doran Stangle Professor of Applied Economics. In her thesis acknowledgements, she thanked Hughes for being “my problem solver” and “my best friend in America,” and Maurer-Fazio for “thoughtfulness, care, and intellectual inspirations.”

Their support went above and beyond, Dinh says. “It was like coaching, mentoring, showing me possibilities that I never imagined.”

With majors in economics and Asian studies, Dinh graduated magna cum laude, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and won the Ralph J. Chances Prize as the outstanding economics major. She went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and worked in economic consulting in Boston for several years.

Dinh often thought of returning to Vietnam to work and contribute to her country. “But I didn’t know when, and how,” she says.

She began to find her answers during a year back at Bates as a visiting faculty member, in 2007–08.

Living in Boston at the time, she stayed with Maurer-Fazio during the school week. Watching her former student teach for the first time, Maurer-Fazio saw Dinh’s embrace of people, especially how she routinely invited experts and other practitioners into her classroom.

“The way she found new materials and set up the course and brought in people who could address the issues they were talking about in class was particularly creative,” Maurer-Fazio said.

And in her students, just a few years younger than she was, Dinh saw herself — “full of questions, [thinking] ‘I don’t know how this works,’” she said. “Economics is one way of looking at the world, and it’s really fun to share that piece of how you look at the world.”

Dinh recognized that students in Vietnam could benefit just as much as their counterparts at Bates from an education that encouraged questions and creativity. “I loved the Bates students,” she said, “but I also thought, if students in Vietnam got a chance to do this stuff, what would it be like? What would it be like if I go back and teach economics in Vietnam?”

The next year, Dinh accepted a faculty position at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, established in 1994 as a partnership between the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City and the Harvard Kennedy School to teach public policy and other fields to Vietnamese civil servants and leaders.

Dinh — who earned a doctorate in development at the University of Cambridge as she taught — saw government officials and others use her lessons to affect the lives of Vietnamese citizens.

For example, the head of a provincial Poverty Reduction Office might be charged with doing a survey of household wealth in his community, but he wouldn’t know that statistical errors can crop up in such surveys. Guided by Dinh’s expertise, the head could “go back and implement changes right away in their office.”

“The economics departs from being a textbook story and becomes real life.”

In 2010, Maurer-Fazio and a colleague, biologist Pamela Baker ’69, visited Dinh in Vietnam as part of their Bates Fall Semester Abroad program, based in China.

Maurer-Fazio’s husband, the late Ron Fazio, joined the group in Vietnam. He had served in the army during the Vietnam War, earning a Bronze Star in combat, and it was his first trip back to the country since fighting there.

Dinh made it possible for Fazio and her own father, a veteran of the North Vietnamese army, to tour the country together.

When Dinh has ideas, “they’re new and creative, and things come out of them,” Maurer-Fazio says.

Dinh had ideas about higher education in Vietnam, and in 2016, she was tapped to bring those ideas to one of the country’s first private nonprofit universities, Fulbright University Vietnam, as its first director of undergraduate students.

A trifecta of experiences and qualifications makes Dinh perfect for the job, said Bill Hiss,whose 1997 presentation first sparked Dinh’s interest in liberal arts education.

“She is passionately devoted to Vietnam and to bettering its young people’s prospects and their ability to contribute to Vietnam as a country,” Hiss said. “She has seen more styles of education than most people in Vietnam, and she has long experi-ence as a classroom teacher.”

With support from the U.S. State Department and Congress as well as Vietnamese sources, the university will offer an English-language, Ameri-can-style liberal arts education to undergraduate and graduate students.

Students will work closely with their academic advisers, they’ll have opportunities for off-campus and experiential learning, and they’ll live in dorms, eat together in dining halls, and play sports.

And one element of Fulbright University Vietnam is fundamentally Bates. The university is test-optional — students don’t have to take the Vietnamese college entrance exam or any other standardized test in order to apply, making the university more accessible to students from poorer areas of Vietnam.

“We really want students from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Dinh said.

For the last year, Dinh and her staff — which, for a month in the spring, included Hiss as a volunteer consultant for admissions and financial aid — have introduced the concept of the liberal arts to potential students, explaining everything from interdisciplinary learning to study abroad.

“We’re telling stories — what it is like to go to the dining hall, what it is like to choose a major,” Dinh said.

This fall, the first 50 Fulbright University undergraduates are taking part in a “co-design year,” where students and faculty will develop the curriculum together.

Dinh said she hopes Fulbright University — and other liberal arts colleges that might be established in the future — can offer Vietnamese students in Vietnam the same experience she had to go to the U.S. to receive.

“What we can do is to show them what’s possible by changing your mind and looking at things in life with a different attitude, with a different light,” she said. “Fulbright can be among many other people and places, to plant the seeds in young people.”

By Emily Mcconville (Bates Magazine – Fall 2018)

Dr. Skultip (Jill) Sirikantraporn is a founding faculty of Fulbright University Vietnam. She used to be a licensed clinical psychologist in California and New York with research interests in trauma, resilience, and positive psychology in the context of cross-cultural and international psychology. Fulbright focuses on her story at our campus:

Her smile pierced the thickest of souls. Her laugh sang like a melody. In the child’s presence, Dr. Skultip Sirikantraporn (Jill Siri) could not help but be seduced.

As part of her university studies in Bangkok, Thailand, Dr. Siri decided to work with sex workers and their children. That course altered her trajectory, inspiring her to work in clinical psychology.

“I saw these families’ incredible amount of resilience and hope they displayed despite the accumulated stress and discrimination they faced,” she said. “It planted a strong seed in me that grew into my own personal and career development.”

She then worked in various mental health settings: a nursing home where she designed treatment to foster holistic healing, inpatient psychiatric hospitals where she served people with severe mental illness and substance abuse disorders, and an outpatient counseling center where she worked with Asian Pacific Island clients.

Now at Fulbright University Vietnam, Dr. Siri is leveraging her experience in clinical psychology to lead the university’s Wellness Center. With her research on trauma and resilience across cultures, she is shaping the university’s approach to ensure mental health is a pillar of student development.

“Most of the time wellness, especially mental wellness, is something thought about later in university settings, and it takes a lot of work to integrate it,” Dr. Siri said. “Academic success cannot be taken out of mental and psychological growth. We at Fulbright are in a leading position in that we are incorporating mental wellness as a major element of who we are as a university from the get-go.”

The Wellness Task Force comprises faculty, staff, and members of Safe Haven, the student psychology club.

“Everyone on the team is motivated purely by their desire to support our students. Their dedication for student wellbeing motivates me and inspires many of our efforts,” she said.

Based on the Task Force’s feedback on existing needs, Dr. Siri has provided Mental Health First Aid training to Student Life staff, Residential Advisors, and Peer Mentors with plans to expand this training to the entire Fulbright community.

Going forward, Dr. Siri envisions Fulbright’s Wellness Center playing a pivotal role in creating a campus culture that supports psychological growth. Initially, it will design and execute prevention, intervention, and crisis management activities for Fulbright’s community. In time, the center will partner with grassroots and non-profit organizations to serve the larger community.

Dr. Siri has already started gathering insights from local psychiatrists, psychologists, and students in Vietnam to ground the center in the Vietnamese context. She stressed the importance of the center operating as a research hub that works with local resources and existing knowledge.

“Most of the existing theories in clinical psychology were developed in the West,” she said. “It is important to understand those theories, but we should not assume that we can or should adopt their methodologies to Vietnam.”

She outlined two emerging themes from her initial conversations in the medical community. First, the mental health profession in Vietnam is in a nascent stage with needs regarding licensing standards, increasing access to mental health services, and educating the public to destigmatize mental illness. Second, the profession needs to strategize for its own expansion and change.

“With Vietnam’s rapid development, strong mental health and wellness policies will be essential to enable people to fully participate in the socioeconomic development of the country,” she said. “At Fulbright, I am energized by the idea that we can support practices and research that aid Vietnam’s psychological and emotional growth alongside its economic growth.”