In life, adolescent crises are inevitable. Each of us has their own journey, in which we seek to turn our worries into hope, to find our purpose and life values. This Fulbrighter’s story is one many may relate to.

I.

My outstanding primary school records accidentally turned me into the neighborhood’s “superstar”. A good student at school and a good child at home, my parents couldn’t be prouder of me, and so was I about myself. Being raised in a household of Chinese ancestry, who always taught their children to put pride above everything, I was unavoidably obliged to be excellent for the rest of my life.

Yet everything turned upside down when I entered secondary school. I was no longer the best student in class nor the exemplary child. It was as if I was living someone else’s life. Trouble came as I hit puberty before my peers, who started to see me, a big tall quiet guy, as a target for bullying. Empathy was unfortunately nonexistent to secondary school kids.

Chenh Hung Phat – Class of 2023

It started as gossips, devolved to insults and spiraled. They verbally attacked and manipulated me. I was ridiculed when a girl from my class got mad at me and unapologetically exposed my intimate secrets, causing the whole class to burst into laughter. Thirty people seeing me as a hysterical joke was just too much for me to handle.

I was hurt. With my fear of being judged, I built walls around me and developed an inferiority complex about my bulky figure. My classmates’ teasing constantly grating my nerves, building my mental scars. Every night before going to bed, I visualized an alternate reality in which I was still the shiny protagonist of the story and the pride of my parents. I harbored the desire to redeem my reputation.

II.

When my school announced an English eloquence contest, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me as English had always been one of my strengths. I practiced rigorously, but when came the time to stand in front of a crowd of thirty people, my stage fright got the better of me.

A second chance came in the form of a running competition. This time, my physique was an advantage, along with my training sessions with my dad. I was the best sprinter at school and had the chance to compete on sub-district and district levels. I was temporarily off the hook, some classmates even congratulating me on my athletic achievements.

By finishing in the top 3 of all preliminary rounds, I was chosen for the provincial running team. Yet the experience could not be any worse. The guys on my team somehow knew about my humiliating mishaps and ruthlessly made fun of them. I was too depressed to focus on training. At the provincial competition, I had to compete against formidable opponents and came back empty-handed. This huge disappointment brought me down one more time. My embryonic hope for redemption was shattered. I became so insecure about myself that I refrained from wearing handsome clothes and accessories, refrained from doing anything remotely unusual just so I could blend in as much as possible.

After my numerous failed attempts to fit in , I stumbled upon League of Legends. I soon became addicted to the game and could not separate myself from it in the following eight years. I found myself escaping from the depressing real world and took shelter in my virtual identity. By defeating and insulting other players, I felt better about my own insecurities. Mistakes in the game are not recorded, hence with each game I could start over with a clean slate free from other people’s judgments or opinions. Somehow, this virtual world mitigated my distress, even if I lacked the courage to resolve it.

What I had not realized was that I gradually became a different person. In the game, I never had to control my rage and tantrums. I could take it out on whoever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to, and it eventually seeped into real life. One day, the cleaning lady who comes to our house took a day off, and my mom asked me to lend her a hand with household chores. I helped her, unwillingly, muttering expletives as I did so. My mom was shocked, calling out my uncharacteristic behavior – rude, mean and vulgar. At that moment, it dawned on me how my sense of achievement, fed from the game was not real. My problems could not be solved if I kept hiding myself in it. Once again, I felt disappointed in myself.

Chenh Hung Phat and other Co-Designers

During these dark days, I befriended a girl. I don’t even remember how this friendship began, but one thing was clear: we remained friends because our lives were equally miserable. She was the black sheep of a dysfunctional, turbulent family. Every time she had suicidal thoughts, I was there to comfort her and talk her out of it. We bonded over miseries, and at least I felt like I was worth something to someone. We barely had any energy to look forward to the future, because the biggest goal I had then was to prevent my friend from killing herself!

III.

I had no doubt my life was ruined beyond repair. Only a miracle would help me turn it around, I thought, so I could not be more surprised by the changes brought about by a little hamster and a slow-selling book.

In the summer of seventh grade, my mom bought me a little hamster. The first pet I ever owned was my companion for the whole summer. However, as soon as summer’s break was over, I had to focus on schoolwork and it was neglected.

Yet no matter how badly I treated my hamster, whenever I put my hand in its cage, it would always crawl on my palm and patiently wait to be petted. It offered me comfort and peace amidst a messy life’s and hostile game opponents.

Sadly, the hamster paid the price for my negligence. It got sick, with a tumor growing under its chin. My mom was terrified and demanded I get rid of my pet at once, in fear that some infectious disease would spread to me. No matter how I begged to keep the hamster, my mom persisted. As my hometown did not have any vet, there was no other way but to release the poor little guy into the woods.

As I watched my pet take its first steps into the wild, tumbling and toppling over shrubs, I was heartbroken. It obviously had zero chance of survival out there – it might starve to death, freeze to death, or even worse, end up in the stomach of some wicked cat. These gruesome scenarios brought me to tears, as the fate of my beloved pet would forever remain unknown.

Later, during my ninth grade, I was asked to write an essay about my favorite animal. For the first time in my life, I wrote without the help of sample essays, a flood of emotions about my hamster pouring out on the pages. Surprisingly, my literature teacher was impressed and encouraged me to keep writing more seriously.

Her encouragement was the small nudge I longed for. I wrote more and more enthusiastically; writing became my way of self-expression. One time, I wrote a poem to tease my teacher. Instead of getting mad or punishing me, she was amused and submitted it to the school’s year-end magazine editor. It was published and before I knew it, I earned myself a spot in the school’s literature contest.

After the English eloquence contest where I stood paralyzed in front of a couple dozen people, this time, I faced a crowd of hundreds of students. I was lucky enough to have supportive teachers and friends who helped me overcome my stage fright. On the night of the show, still shaking, I managed to control my voice and gave an impressive presentation. One thing led to another, and I was signed up for the English competition, then became the host of a computer science gameshow, and so forth. Slowly, small victories helped me triumph over past insecurities, one activity at a time.

During this evolution, I found another major source of support in a book discovered in the sell-off shelf of the bookstore near my school: “The Magic of thinking Big”. It did not make such a great impact right away. I spent two years strolling through its 500 pages and by the time I finished it, the only takeaway I had was this image: A guy standing on a pool’s diving board, terrified. He was so scared of jumping and falling, but as soon as he jumped, his fear disappeared and he was embraced by the refreshing, soothing water.

I realized I had been playing safe for too long. I had too many opportunities to jump, yet I didn’t. I was anxious about my appearance, the English eloquence contest still haunted me, but I decided to take a leap of faith and try again at the literature contest. It paid off. I finally knew what the water felt like. The miracle came as an ordinary hamster and a humble sold-off book. Like the butterfly effect, these two things initiated a chain reaction that enabled me to break free from my burdens and live a more comfortable, fulfilling life. The bullying and teasing became a thing of the past I could look back on and laugh about.

IV.

If you thought my life would only go up from then on, you were wrong. My high school years were saddled with a new burden: the National High School Exam. Every student strives to have high scores in this exam, in the hopes of securing a spot into one of those top-notch universities, some without guarantee of a good education. I did not know what I was striving for nor what my future would be.

I spent days going to school like a robot, not thinking about anything. I was about to take a gap year when out of nowhere, my best friend mentioned a recently opened international university, “something shiny and bright, ah, Fulbright!”, and urged me to apply. Fortuitously, I was accepted. The Co-Design year offered me a chance to experiment, get lost, fail and learn from my mistakes, which was exactly what I needed.

However, my biggest regret to this day is wasting the Co-Design year. In short, I got cocky. Getting admitted to a groundbreaking institution like Fulbright, I became a sensation at my small hometown. Parents wished their children would grow up to be like me, kids looked up to me.

But then you realize how ludicrous that was. Being so full of myself, I turned my life into a sarcastic comedy: The protagonist, me, thought he was in the lead and allowed himself to look down on others, while he was in fact far behind everyone else.

On the last day of the Co-Design year, we had a chance to reminisce about what we had achieved. I realized, the only thing I did that entire year was stroking my own ego and pouting at opportunities to learn and grow. That night, while my peers were celebrating, I found a quiet place to sit and reflect on myself. I wrote an email to one of our founding faculty members, Dr. Andrew Bellisari, told him about how foolish I felt and asked him for advice.

Writing back, he said maturing means recognizing your mistakes and correcting them. He also said the most important thing is figuring out why and how to develop yourself and become the version of yourself that you want to be, though this realization never comes easy.

Phat attending the Co-Design Year Convocation

I decided it was high time I changed, starting with a new and better attitude. The last thing I wanted was to make the same mistakes twice. Instead of making myself the center, I started to focus more on people around me and how I could make them shine.

There is one thing I cherish about Fulbright, that is the environment where you can not only learn for yourself, but also be an integral part of a larger community and learn from each other. I deliberated on Mr. Bellisari’s advice. Life is not about outperforming everyone else. I then wanted to learn as much as I could and support others in every way I could. My experience also helped me realize I no longer feel the desire to live up to expectations, to be in the spotlight or to satisfy people’s opinions about me. Living a happy, meaningful life is more important than any of that, and it is achieved first by wholeheartedly giving, no matter how small the gift might seem.

I sincerely hope you, whoever is reading this, will find my story helpful. Maybe you will be able to learn from my mistakes.

Chenh Hung Phat – Class of 2023.

“Reactor School planted the seed of our startup journey, and we’ve continued to leverage their support ever since.”

We often hear of incubators and mentors helping accelerate a startup’s growth. For Jing Jie Huang, engineering student turned entrepreneur and now CEO and co-founder of Novocall, this was Reactor School. Reactor School is a vocal entrepreneurial education (EntreEd) group based in Singapore, designing programs for students aged 13-24. YCombinator finalist Novocall is a conversational sales automation software based in Singapore. Today, they supply their  technology to more than 2000 companies in 42 countries. 

Reactor School will be debuting in Vietnam with EntreCamp, their flagship 3-day bootcamp. EntreCamp will be delivered in partnership with Fulbright University Vietnam at their new Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) on November 8-10, 2019. (more information at the bottom of this article)

Catalyzing a passion for entrepreneurship among students

In 2017, Jing Jie Huang and Amos Choo, then 22 years old, were pursuing their B.A.s in Electrical Engineering and Information System and Technology Design at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). There, they attended a workshop facilitated by Reactor School at SUTD’s Entrepreneurship Center.

Engineers in training, neither of them felt equipped nor ready to start an entrepreneurial journey. Little did they know that this workshop would be where they laid the first foundations of what was to become a very successful company. 

“At the time we were very clueless about entrepreneurship. I was expecting a bunch of theory, but it was actually a very hands-on approach. We brainstormed ideas using sticky notes, had these same ideas challenged during critique sessions, and learned to build a very early minimum viable product (MVP). Reactor School also introduced us to the startup scene and its inner workings.”

Shortly after Reactor School, during an internship at Singtel, the largest telecom company in Singapore, Amos realized that the typical customer service experience was often a frustrating and irritating affair: Wait times were excruciatingly long, and the technology powering the experience was archaic, complex, impersonal, and inefficient.

”One of the main takeaways from Reactor was the mindset of problem solving and building, which really made starting a business a possibility to consider.” Jing Jie and Amos felt that this was a problem worth solving, and knew that entrepreneurship was the way to do so. They developed a marketable software solution called a Visual Interactive Voice Response, a support platform that guides inbound callers to a web-based support experience. This attributes calls with minimal input, improving responsiveness and user experience.

Novocall — Lift off

In our early days, we pitched our solutions to big organisations and enterprises, and got rejected by all of them. This happened because we were fresh graduates, and yet we wanted to build an enterprise level solution. We lacked the credibility to justify our ability to deliver to enterprises at scale. So we got back to work.”

Although they faced challenges, Jing Jie and Amos drew upon the lessons they learned from Reactor School to plough ahead with Novocall. 

“At Reactor, we learned the tenets of a Minimum Viable Product. This taught us how to focus our efforts, and how to iterate fast. We quickly realized that we needed to change our strategy. So we pivoted, and began targeting small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs).” Jing Jie and Amos were still passionate about issues with traditional and outdated phone calls but knew that they had to target a new type of client. Their Reactor School training provided them with 3 important steps: validate customers to identify their needs, build a minimum viable product, and iterate quickly. 

And so they spoke with many SMEs in Singapore, to find that their original Visual IVR solution was not suitable for their needs, as it is typically only implemented in larger scale companies. Instead, SMEs they interviewed were more concerned with engaging more directly with prospective customers, identifying a clear need for shorter response times on the part of the business.

Armed with their experience designing automated call systems, they focused on capturing website visitors, prototyping click-to-callback plugins, before improving on user experience and functionalities.

Jing Jie and Amos’ system became a highly automated call platform, helping SMEs personalise, schedule and qualify calls, incorporating traditional phone calls into the digital journey, reducing response times and drastically increasing conversion rates. Novocall was born.

“The theory we went through was very applicable. Looking back, all the things that we learned at Reactor kept us moving forward. But more than that, the ongoing support Reactor has continued to give us to this day has been invaluable.”

A program that keeps giving

Reactor School aims to not only provide early entrepreneurial education, but most importantly to build a strong ecosystem of startups, founders and investors. They accompanied Novocall on their journey and continue to help them through each stage of their company’s life cycle.

“Ideation and iteration is crucial early on, but then the focus shifts to introductions to lawyers, construction crews and venture capital firms, fundraising, among others. Access to Reactor School’s network of professionals really helped us scale up our company.”

Last year Novocall made it to the final round of interviews for Ycombinator, the renowned seed accelerator that invested in Airbnb and Reddit, among others. “This would not have been possible if not for Reactor School’s introduction to another YCombinator founder, who shared his experience of the process and helped us prepare.”

Novocall is the current recipient of the Singapore Founder Grant (~$22,000), as well as the Business Improvement Fund from the Singapore Tourism Board. Recently, Novocall launched a crowdfunding campaign on a software listing platform, Appsumo, in a bid to market their product overseas. The campaign was a major success, raising more than $150,000 in revenue. 

After going through an acceleration program by fintech accelerator “The Finlab”, the company is also incubated with Singapore Management University’s Business Innovations Generator (BIG) and National University Singapore’s “Block 71”.

“Reactor School is bridging a gap within the start-up scene, the lack of support and exchange, locally and regionally, whether through mentorship or information sharing. The startup scene in Singapore is active, but, perhaps similar to Ho Chi Minh City, tends to be too superficial, limited to fixed networks within the confines of coworking spaces. Reactor was instrumental, continuously providing us with introductions.”

For more information on EntreCamp: http://bit.ly/ReactorInfoDeck

To sign up for EntreCamp: http://bit.ly/ReactorRegistration-Open 

For more information on Novocall: http://www.novocall.co

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.

“Santa” Bill Hiss

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.

Bill Hiss met students at Fulbright Admission Fair in Hanoi

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.