At 8 years old, I was a hyperenergetic child that gave my parents a hard time pacifying. A short course of martial arts that was supposed to burn my excessive energy was counterproductive when I started “practicing” on my poor little brother. As a last resort to simmer me down, mom sent me to a guitar class. Unexpectedly, it was the beginning of my passion for music.
In just one month, I improved immensely. I appeared to have a talent for music, as I could practice new pieces with ease and enthusiasm. Music was what I enjoyed learning the most. Guitar had become more than just a hobby – I couldn’t live without it. After zealously performing at local shows and participating in local guitar contests, I accumulated a small collection of prizes. With the care and attention needed to tend a garden, I nourished my love for music. The more I practiced the guitar, the more I realized it had become an inseparable part of myself.
Experiencing outside the box
The freshman year of high school is an important milestone for everyone. With my desire to learn in a nurturing, dynamic and open environment, which is rather scarce in my hometown, Pleiku, I decided to aim for Gia Lai province’s only school for gifted students. I failed to get in the English-specialized class, so I chose chemistry instead even though I didn’t care much for it. This probably explains why I felt incomplete throughout high school, with the mediocre scores to boot. I was always yearning for more, as if something essential was missing from my life.
In the summer of 10th grade, the stuffy environment of Pleiku bored me out. There was no space for me to develop musically. Stuck in a repetitive routine and tedious extra classes, I felt like a bird entrapped in a cage, longing to break free and fly among the clouds in a boundless blue sky. I wanted nothing more than to learn more, experience more outside the classroom.
On one occasion, I hosted a couch surfer from the US. My hospitality and enthusiasm made us good friends and he invited me to come visit him some time in Sai Gon, where he was living and working. I was intrigued, as I had always wanted to explore this city, the cultural hub known for its vibrant music scene.
I asked my parents for permission to travel to Sai Gon, to learn from the best, to familiarize myself with the professional music world and hopefully build a network in this community. Moreover, I wanted to practice my English skills. Worried about my safety going there alone, my mother rejected this idea. Surprisingly, I earned my father’s support, who even provided me a small amount of money for my trip. Without missing a beat, I packed my things and hit the road.
The experience was way beyond my expectations. I visited my old friend in Sai Gon, who serendipitously had a musician friend from Berklee coming over – a prestigious music academy in the US. Despite my limited language proficiency at the time, I learned a lot from them. I could witness what a true musician’s life was like.
In those two weeks, I roamed the streets of Sai Gon with a borrowed guitar. I was introduced to the professionals here, and these encounters revealed a tempting yet challenging path as an artist. I also
reunited with an acquaintance from my guitar class in Gia Lai, who helped me define my goals in regards to music. With my horizon broadened, I felt more refreshed and energized than ever.
I was astonished with how much I was inspired and how much my musical skills improved. I became more serious with music. Normally, at first sight, I could appear somewhat distant and cold, as I am naturally reserved. I usually shy away from being the center of the crowd. Yet the guitar grants me with a “superpower” that allows me to forget about the surroundings whenever I play it. As I start strumming, I become one with the instrument. There is truly no other feeling as mesmerizing as being able to harmonize with a voice and reverberate with the audience.
Upon my return to Gia Lai, I was full of plans and participated more actively in my school’s music club as the vice president. I put my heart into organizing workshops and mini concerts as a way to bring a breath of fresh air to Gia Lai, the highland province where music life was rather underdeveloped.
The path ahead
For most students from a chemistry-specialized class, the seemingly obvious career choice is the healthcare industry. Yet, I wonder if most of us are making career choices of convenience, before actual exploration or inquiry. I believe many of my peers who followed higher education in medical or pharmaceutical majors were unaware of their career prospects, or forging ahead without much excitement.
I found myself standing at a crossroad: To pursue music professionally, or not. Should I apply to a music school, or just keep playing recreationally? Even though I had been trying to establish an initial launchpad for my musical career should I choose to follow one, I was reluctant. The only thing I knew for sure, was that I could never abandon music.
I once reached out to a music class, with the spontaneously audacious intention to apply to the Conservatory. Though it was risky, I put my hopes up for it. Yet the instructor rained on my parade saying there was no way I could improve my skills in time for the audition. The application form was put aside and once again, I chose a safer path. On my list of college choices, the Foreign Trade University and other economic institutions were on top, followed by Social Sciences and Humanities schools. Music did not even make that list. Even though the idea of studying abroad did cross my mind, I did not have the resources and qualifications to follow through.
Sometimes, happenstances come about without any anticipation. From a post on the Facebook page “Tony Buổi sáng”, I came to know Fulbright. Out of curiosity, I came to an admissions event, only to be blown away by the endless possibilities here. Fulbright was displaying with such vibrant colors: compelling, energetic, experiential and most importantly, liberating. The fact that you can pursue music alongside another major here was more than persuasive to me. That was exactly what I was looking for – an opportunity to keep exploring more options without having to leave music behind. The Original Piece of Work I submitted for Fulbright’s admissions application was my performance of “Romance D’ Amour”, the very first piece I had the chance to play on stage at age 8.
The first-year curriculum at Fulbright includes extensive core courses, which range from Natural science to Logic, Rhetoric or Vietnamese Studies. I also took part in various extra-curricular activities, like workshops and an entrepreneurship bootcamp. It helped me realize how none of those subjects seem to be the right track for me. I finally saw I had been beating around the bush and searching for easier routes all along, but I couldn’t dedicate myself thoroughly unless it was to music.
Ever since I was a child, I have always been stubborn and tenacious, doing things my own way without relying on or consulting with anyone. My parents neither forbid nor demand that I follow any particular direction, I have to figure out my own choices. Whenever I have to come to a decision on anything, I always spent a lot of time deliberating and pondering, and this time it was no different.
I was not born into a family of artistic tradition. My parents are under the common impression that art requires tremendous investments without guaranteeing a stable future. The fact that none of my friends who performed with me chose to follow music as a career was not to my advantage, either.
Without such catalyst, my road is undoubtedly more challenging. But I know where to start – by perfecting my technical skills, equipping myself with knowledge and ceaselessly searching for opportunities to study professionally. Although Berklee still seems to be quite out of reach, they do have promising exchange programs. Hopefully, one day I will be able to stand on a big stage and perform music to my heart’s content. One day, my original compositions will see the light of day.
My journey has just begun.
Nguyen Le Tien Cong – Class of 2023
A little-known fact about Ms. Le Thi Quynh Tram, Fulbright University Vietnam’s Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, is that she is an enthusiastic bird photographer. Having been to numerous national parks and wildlife reserves to capture rare birds, Ms. Tram aspires to show everyone the astonishing beauty of nature and help raise awareness about environmental problems and sustainable development.
She once held a small exhibition on Fulbright campus, titled “The Colors of Nature”, with photos taken from all around Asia. Apart from rare, endangered birds, she also captures more common, urban species. Some of the photographed birds are on the IUCN Red list, while others can be found within a small radius around the Fulbright campus. Tram intends to put her photos up for auction to raise fund for academic activities and projects at Fulbright that are related to art or nature conservation.
Among Tram’s artworks, some of the most breathtaking shots were taken on the Otowa bridge in the Tsurui-mura village, Japan. In the frosty morning air at -18 C, Tram and her fellow photographers had to get up at 3 a.m. to set up their equipment and patiently wait for the first rays of the sun to awaken the siege of red-crowned cranes.
Below is an excerpt from Tram’s journal:
“I have on me six layers of thermal tops, three layers of pants, two layers of socks and two layers of headwear, bolstered by warmers in my trekking shoes, gloves and jacket pockets to increase body temperature. Only while standing still for hours in this weather can one understand how cruelly the cold seeps in. My blood vessels are constricted, my fingertips and toes are numb and no matter how I try to warm myself up by running in place, it doesn’t help.
After just one night, the spindly, leafless branches of the trees are covered in a layer of white frost, like a scene taken straight out of a fairy tale. In the faraway river, the red-crowned cranes are sleeping, standing in a thermal spring that helps keep them warm.
Thin curtains of steam evaporate from the river surface. The break of dawn is the coldest time of the day. As the temperature is below dew point, the air is saturated and water vapor condenses into mist. The lower the temperature is, the thicker the mist becomes.
The dark sky starts to brighten, first to a deep blue color, then shifting gradually to a yellow-pink ombre. As the rays of light gently touch the frosted treetops, they sparkle. One by one, the cranes wake up. After hours of finding the right angles and adjusting the cameras settings, we start to get to work. Blissfully, the whole scene comes to life under the sun. The humans, the cranes and even the landscape are all livened up by the sunlight.
This ethereal scene only lasts a few ephemeral minutes. In order to capture such precious moments, besides the painstaking preparation of equipment, we must also hope for supportive weather, or as one of us jokingly says, the blessings of the “Photo God”. In this moment, we all forget about the cold, heated by our concentration and desire to take shots worth remembering for a lifetime.
At some point, I get carried away and take off my gloves in order to adjust my camera more quickly and precisely. I lose sensation the moment my skin touches the metal block that is my camera, seeped as it was for hours in freezing temperatures. I can’t help but keep going, despite the ruthless blizzard winds blowing at 85km/h.
The photos were the fruits of four hours on the Otowa bridge in the Tsurui-mura village. Although by the time we finish shooting, the cranes are yet to fully awaken and have not finished their morning dances, the glacial temperature and the marvelous sights are eternally engraved in my mind. Being able to witness such a breathtaking view of nature, I am forever grateful.”
Some other wonderful shots taken by Ms. Le Thi Quynh Tram:
Bill Hiss is the retired Vice President for External Affairs, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid and Lecturer in Asian Studies at Bates College in Maine, where he served for 35 years.
Twenty-two years ago, my wife Colleen and I adopted our daughter Jessy in Hanoi. At the time, I gave a talk at Hanoi Amsterdam High School on the architecture of American higher education: public, private, large and small, college or university, levels of competition for admission, and costs. In the front row of that audience of high school juniors was Ngan Dinh, who would come to Bates College a year later.
Ngan was the first student to come to us directly from Vietnam since the mid-1970’s, graduating with academic honors and double majors in Economics and Asian Studies. Today, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and years of business consulting and teaching experience, she is the founding Director of the Undergraduate College at Fulbright University Vietnam, and the principal reason that I am here as a volunteer.
Fulbright’s mission is better than admirable: it is noble. The first non-profit liberal arts institution in Vietnam, it offers a different kind of education to Vietnamese youth, and to students sometimes overlooked in their higher education. Some of Bates’ renowned alumni were from families where no one had ever dreamed of going to college: Edmund Muskie, an immigrant’s son who became a US Senator and Secretary of State, and Benjamin Elijah Mays, whose parents were born into slavery, the longtime President of Morehouse College and mentor to the young Martin Luther King. Fulbright in a few years will begin to graduate young people with similar vision and promise.
I first met with Ngan and her colleague Ben Wilkinson several years ago. Ben works with the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, the U.S. foundation that provides a way for Americans to support Fulbright with their gifts. Mostly by email, I began to offer advice from 12 time zones away.
In March of 2018, I came to HCMC for a month, by then a retired Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, to help with the design of the enrollment and financial aid processes. Having started my career in 1978, I could offer advice on the complex array of issues for a new Admissions and Financial Aid staff: How best to keep track of thousands of students with often partly similar names? How to fairly judge financial aid awards when there is no common tax document like the American 1040 to establish family income? How to evaluate students from wildly different backgrounds, from small towns in the Mekong Delta to the renowned “high schools for the gifted”?
This year, I am back for two months. Advising still, but also visiting schools and speaking at receptions about Fulbright. Explaining the wonderful strengths of the American traditions of a liberal arts education requires clarity and energy from the Fulbright Admissions staff, and careful consideration on the part of prospective students and their parents.
In those two months, I also decided to become a book donor, to help create a tiny part of a new library suitable for Fulbright undergraduates. One of my great loves is reading – anywhere, and broadly. I am a largely addicted devotee of libraries. I love history, religion, essays, politics, social ethics, some fiction, and a few newspapers and magazines: the New York Times, the Atlantic, Smithsonian.
Finding that most of Fulbright’s library books dealt with Public Policy for their graduate program, I went to two bookstores in HCMC, buying what I could find of the English language classics—Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Faulkner, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the beginning of an undergraduate library. I intend to send boxes more from my collection, with some of the great writers of non-fiction, science, environmentalism and essays, accumulated over decades of fond readership and a long and fulfilling career in university administration.
Indeed, over the last twenty-two years, over 30 Vietnamese citizens have enrolled at Bates, many with the financial aid packages that made it possible for them to graduate, earning me the nickname of “Santa”. The Vietnamese Bates alumni have since founded VietAbroader, built companies in Vietnam, earned Ph.D.’s and law degrees, become professors and lawyers and even won classical and popular musical competitions, gotten married, started families.
Dozens of other American colleges and universities have followed Bates’ lead, and thousands of highly talented Vietnamese citizens have benefitted from the adoption of a single baby over two decades ago, just like a single book can start a pile that grows to be a library. Now a team of dedicated Vietnamese and international citizens have founded Fulbright University Vietnam and offer a designed-for-Vietnam liberal arts education to support the country’s growth. I hope to return as a volunteer, and to find other volunteers joining me.
Fulbright is like a cozy home full of ‘‘kids’’ eagerly counting down to the first Christmas!
The librarian and the receptionists were undoubtedly the first ones to warm up the Christmas atmosphere around the Fulbright campus. At the beginning of December, they shaped a funny Olaf snowman from books on the reception desk, sticked cute Santa stickers on every bookshelf, hung colorful paper snowflakes and, of course, laid a glittering big pine tree near the library area.
‘‘Architects’’ from student-led Architect club followed up the Christmas enthusiasm with pinning the wool socks or tiny bells on the doors of classrooms. And the Tiny Campus Concert (co-organized by Event Hub club and Student Support staffs) truly spiced up the Christmas atmosphere as its sweet melodies of Noel songs made every Fulbrighter’s heart beat as one.
At Fulbright, adults seemingly had the biggest celebration of Christmas. A gift exchange day and several parties were held exclusively for Fulbright faculty and staff!
Luckily, our students were allowed to observe their gift-exchange games and excitedly witness the faculty’s thrilled facial expression while looking for their presents, the lovely freestyle dance of the security guard and the ‘‘nerve-racking’’ battle among ‘‘homies’’ in the Musical Chairs game. I
an proved himself a gentleman in every situation when he invited Tascha to sit on his chair in this ‘‘war’’ of ‘‘fighting for’’ chairs. And guess who cosplayed a Santa giving reindeer-shaped lollipop? Mr. Kiem – our technical staff!
Similarly, as the Christmas enthusiasts, Co-Designers’ spirit was like ‘‘Bring it on!’’ to all of the crazily fun challenges and activities during Christmas Challenge Week from the Event Hub club.
With the challenge of cosplaying other Fulbrighters or wearing twin clothes, everyone seemed hilariously ‘‘weird’’. For example, some girls had to ‘‘swim’’ in the boys’ super large shirt or one boy wearing a girl’s cat-printed headband looked so amusing.
Besides, we also set up a ‘‘movie theater’’ right in the classroom and enjoyed both the iconic Christmas movie and popcorn.
The most remarkable activity must be Secret Santa which was bursting with laughter and unexpected surprise! Guess who mistakenly received a frying pan instead of a tree?
Fulbright’s first Christmas has ended but its magic may never fade. Because the Fulbright family has received the best Christmas gift: LOVE.
Pham Nguyen Đan Tam – Co-De-sign Year Student