All the things that are happening in the world of technology are directly impacting education and learning systems.Technology has a profound impact on today’s youth. Educational Technology (edtech) is modernizing the entire student experience but could pose many challenges if not implemented with carefully crafted plans. As a pioneering institution to reimagine higher education for Vietnam, Fulbright University co-hosted the inaugural EdTech luncheon with EdTech Asia and InnoLab Asia to bring leaders of all fields in and discuss the future of edtech. In the opening panel on “Acceleration of Digitization in Higher Education in Vietnam,” discussing how universities should change to adapt in a world transformed ever since the pandemic. Here, with the wisdom of esteemed panelists and the participation of curious attendees, many intriguing questions and ideas were sparked.  

By the numbers

As social distancing prolongs worldwide, the disruptions of education for students across the globe continue. In fact, the numbers are astonishing: according to UNICEF, over 1.5 billion children’s education was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and will continue to be throughout 2021. Luckily, education was able to continue despite the disruptions thanks to the vital support of technology. As more and more educators lean into technology, we are presented with the opportunity to reinvent education.

Amidst the chaotic waves of Covid-19 in the last year, the education technology sector received a major boost as many institutions shifted to remote learning. Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu, CEO of IEG (Innovative Education Group), quoted a new report from Temasek Holdings, Google, and Bain & Company that “40 million people came online for the first time in 2020, pushed the total number of internet users in the South East Asian countries to 70% of the population.” There was also a spike in the amount of new registered users on massive open online course (MOOC) websites, particularly Coursera alone received 20 million new users and had over 35 million new course enrollments in just half a year since mid-March. These numbers may seem overwhelming and the virtual learning space may come as a new thing to many of these new users, but it was not born yesterday. Edtech has been around for quite a while already, the pandemic just brought it to light.

Although edtech has been made more common during Covid-19, it is still underestimated. Mr. Charles Lee, Founder of Coder School, remarked that “When you think about the impact of technology, on education, and across all industries, I think historically, people always underestimated the impact technology would have.” There is tremendous potential for the entire edtech space to be explored and yet utilized. What we have seen in the past year with remote learning, Zoom classrooms, and online courses are only a scratch on the surface of what edtech is.

The edtech space also includes learning assistant tools like AI analytics, AI-assisted grading; all sorts of content, ranging from online content, multimedia content, to interactive content; many learning mediums, which come with classroom aids and learning management systems like Blackboard and Canvas, to name a few. Forbes projected the digital market for learning and teaching to reach $325 billion in 2025, and this prediction was made before the coronavirus happened. It is the quickest growing market in the education industry (900% growth since 2000 according to a research by KPMG), and with the pandemic bringing more attention to it, the market is thriving at an unprecedented rate.

Efforts invested and the road forward

Dr. Hieu explained that “so far, we’re only focusing on increasing the accessibility and the flexibility of remote learning and have yet to tackle the quality metrics of higher education going online.” With the uncertainty as to when in-person teaching will resume, it’s important for us as educators to accept that hybrid learning will be here to stay, and we should start to explore the benefits technology can provide in developing the skills of tomorrow. In a world where technology is shaping every corner, education must take an evolutionary leap for students to thrive in our digital society. And that requires institutions leaders to sit down and figure out some way to move forward.

One of Fulbright’s many initiatives to bring world-class education to Vietnamese students is collaborating with international institutions. In 2020, Fulbright has signed 2 MoUs with Princeton University and Dartmouth College to offer digitally-enabled co-learning environments, namely Princeton’s Global History Lab and connected courses with Dartmouth, so that Fulbright students can participate in the most forward-thinking pedagogical initiatives globally. President Dam Bich Thuy has noted that “COVID-19 has clearly shown, for better and worse, that our world is connected like never before. We are in this together, and we must solve this together. In a time of uncertainties, I am proud to see Fulbright University Vietnam embrace this vision for international collaboration, further enriching the academic dialogue between our countries, as well as educational opportunities for our students.

These collaborations also expand some blended learning models, in which students learn at least in part through online learning, with an element of self-control over time, place, and path. The more prominent blended learning models become, the more they move education away from the ‘one size fits all approach’, offering students the opportunity to go at their own pace, thus reducing stress and improving retention for both fast and slow learners.

Initiated by Fulbright and IEG Foundation, Pioneering Educators Network (PEN) workshops have been introduced as an effort to promote innovative teaching methods, updated educational trends, cutting-edge pedagogical practices, and the liberal education model in Vietnam as well as in the region. Among these seminars was one about digital learning and teaching by Dr. Ian Kalman, a professor at Fulbright, to share some theoretical perspectives as well as some practical strategies to approach e-learning for educators from across Vietnam. His lecture and presentation opened up many dialogues about how to effectively engage students in virtual classrooms because just as digital technology offers new possibilities for teaching and learning, it also poses many constraints that need to be addressed. “There is also a material and infrastructural need when it comes to digital accessibility, which is not equal among the students. Digital teaching can reduce, but also reinforce inequality,” Dr. Kalman assessed.

Additionally, as we push edtech further and everything becomes artificial intelligence and machine learning, there stances a threat for education to focus more on the ‘superficial’ than on deeper conceptual understandings. Without careful implementation, edtech’s role in ‘making assessment more effective and efficient’ may lead to a disregard for creativity and critical thought. On that note, Mr. Thanh Bui, Founder of Embassy Education, posed a thought-provoking question: “What is the picture of universities in the future? Right now, we have an opportunity to reconsider not just edtech, but also reimagine the higher education systems and how it would progress in our very different world post-pandemic.”

Edtech that connects

If new models for both teaching and connecting emerge in the wake of the pandemic, they will be put to an even greater test in the years ahead: preparing students for a labor market rife with inequalities that have only worsened during the recession. With the rate of everything becomes digitalized very quickly, in 20 years, everything will be automated and as cliché as it may sound, the most critical skills for this young generation to focus on developing is actually human to human interaction.

The question then remains is how do we bring the humanistic side to edtech. We need to consider the whole picture of education and see where the new technology fits in to enhance these learning experiences. Just because you have the potential to do something or the ability to do something does not mean that you should do it,” Thanh Bui postulated. That is a question for all of us to ponder upon, and that question may not have an answer, but rather require the step-up of industries’ leaders to be the heroes, to inspire other people, to ignite passion and more forward-thinking innovations.

Technology is understandably a poor substitute for maintaining the strong connections we miss seeing each day. But using technology to foster new connections beyond students’ reach actually plays to tech’s competitive advantage: overcoming time, geography, and cost barriers to growing their networks. As a matter of fact, Fulbright held a number of virtual events in 2020, such as David Rubenstein’s How to Lead virtual talk and the YSEALI online panel on the Future of ASEAN, which proved that “we can effectively use technology to try bridging the heroes and create a support network to inspire people,” Charles Lee concluded.

‘Edtech that connects’ holds the immense potential to connect students to people – experts, mentors, near-peers – who can help them reach their goals. Over time, it could help education systems address the social side of opportunity gaps by disrupting the inherent limitations of students’ networks. Edtech is also proving powerful drivers of outcomes that educators are starting to pay more attention to connecting learning to real-world projects and people, expanding students’ professional horizons and connections, and building students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference.

As the majority of students around the world begin yet another term at home, we are faced with the opportunities to create a new (and somewhat improved) normal for students and teachers. The challenges, such as technological infrastructure and access to hardware, are surmountable with time and effort. With the right approach, technology, and resources, we can prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, on platforms that are becoming more accessible and using methods proven to be more powerful. As students continue to grow hungrier and more inquisitive for knowledge and technology, reimagining higher education is something to be excited about, and it all starts now.

Bảo Trâm

Since May 2018, Harvard Business School’s project, Managing the Future of Work, is shining a light on six forces currently redefining the nature of work in the United States as well as in many other advanced and emerging economies.

Co-chaired by faculty members Professor Joseph Fuller and Professor William R. Kerr, the project team has been running a podcast on relevant topics concerning the future of work since May 2018, and in view of recent events, focused on the dramatic impacts of Covid-19 since April 2020.

Today, global firms are facing unprecedented challenges adapting to a multitude of changing factors in an increasingly complex world. Among factors they must take into accounts are technological trends and advances, an unstable workforce, employment skills gap, global talent access and utilization, extended life expectancy, or spatial tensions between leading urban centers and rural areas.

These trends also put pressure on secondary and higher education, and pose a question: How do we prepare students with the resilience and bravery they will need in life?

Skills gap

Nowadays, knowledge or professional skills are no longer the main concern. Instead, there is a gap in foundational competencies and soft skills, which are key to motivating life-long, effective learning.

The Managing the Future of Work project lists the skills needed most among fresh graduates, but that come in short supply even for those coming from leading colleges. In order of importance:

– Written and verbal communication skills

– Teamwork, negotiation, partner relationship management competencies

– Lateral thinking: creative, critical thinking, self-learning competencies

– Professionalism: etiquette, personal branding

– Leadership skills: supervising, mentoring and project management

– Character traits: ethical, independent, trustworthy

Furthermore, fresh graduates have changed attitudes towards work. They demand high salaries and other privileges such as flexible working time, or working from home, salary and bonus raises; on the other hand, their performance is lower. They are less dedicated to work and the rate of quitting is high. Many graduates are reluctant to get deeply engaged in work and explore their potential to be the best version of themselves.

Dr. Nguyễn Chí Hiếu at a training workshop on teaching methods for educators from across the country at Fulbright University Vietnam (PEN 2019)

In a 2002 study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), authors Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger concluded: “Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than rejected applicants who attend less selective schools.”

In a 2014 survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders and the American public view the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans – and only 11 percent of business leaders – strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.

Even more concerning, around half of college graduates in the US are either unemployed or doing jobs that high school graduates can do. In terms of competencies, attitude and character traits, college graduates are not better off than those graduating from high schools or vocational training schools.

Which path leads to success?

Nevertheless, 94 percent of American adults still believe strongly in the value of higher education diplomas, perceptions failing to catch up with fast changing realities. Indeed, bachelor’s degree holders may not find it easy to open the heavy doors to their future. Their path to success may be a long and winding road instead.

Policy institutions, research academies, organizations and individuals involved in shaping the future of the U.S. educational system are joining the race to find out the answer to these questions: Where will liberal arts education go? How liberal should it be, so students may be strong enough for the life ahead?

Whenever I have a chance to discuss the answers with those institutions and individuals, they focus on three aspects:

– Life-long learning competencies

– Habits of the mind

– Foundational skills

Looking at our society, educational changes must be grounded solidly, lest they be like “paint with the same brush,” shallow and ineffective. If educational investment is conducted too fast, without in-depth, foundational analysis, we incur the risk of wasted time and resources. And the more time is wasted, the more opportunities are lost for young people.

Liberal education should do four things for students: unleash, activate, collaborate, breakthrough. (One hour study at Fulbright University Vietnam)

“In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of college is to give you a strong incentive to think independently. The desire to understand the different aspects of a question, to know one aspect of another’s opinion and of other eras is the sign of an educated person. Education should not put the brain in a cabinet full of formula but should fill the brain with nutrients to constantly expand and grow. Get knowledge wherever and whenever possible. Listen to the opinions of people who are more experienced than you. And don’t let others think for you,” said James Bryant Conant, late President of Harvard University.

From the early days of liberal arts education, those who laid the foundation for this education tradition boil it down to four principles: unleash, activate, collaborate, breathrough.

Unleashing learners means they should not be trained for a certain profession before they know who they are and what they want to achieve.

To Activate learners is the opposite of rote learning. We must help them to be creative and to activate their potential, not subject them to imitation and repetition.

Learners should also learn to Collaborate with others from varied backgrounds and characters, so they may impact the world positively together. Liberal arts education should get learners used to walking in others’ shoes and cultivate diverse perspectives, a humbling perspective that encourages curiosity, empathy and growth.

Learners should also cultivate doubt. After all, challenging traditional ways of thinking is the source of innovation, allowing learners to experience Breakthroughs in the way they think, act and create.

The purpose of education is not just to land students a job after graduation. The goal is to train exceptional thinking skills, to learn and explore in a way that allows everyone a better chance to find their true passion. Because finding that calling means a lot more than the diploma of an elite school.

It is what will accompany you on the long road ahead, in a world which someday will not obsess over the names of schools, and the diplomas will not be a static certificate attesting to someone’s quality.

Liberal arts education has never been and should not be encapsulated by famous school names; it should be a sustainable, in-depth way of thinking and educational philosophy.

Tiến sĩ Nguyễn Chí Hiếu (CEO of IEG Foundation)

On November 30 and December 1, Fulbright University Vietnam co-hosted the inaugural Pioneering Educators Network (PEN) workshop in collaboration with Innovative Education Group (IEG). The event attracted over 100 educators from all around the country.

Initiated by Fulbright and IEG, PEN aspires to become a network of pioneering educators promoting innovative teaching methods, updated educational trends, cutting-edge pedagogical practices and the liberal education model in Vietnam as well as in the region.

The PEN workshop 2019 is grounded in 3 fundamentals: (1) Intellectual Curiosity, (2) Creativity, and (3) Writing and Thinking in Teaching”. Instead of giving traditional, noninteractive lectures, experts from Fulbright and IEG engaged the audience by putting them in the shoes of learners, letting them experience and thus understand the technical steps underpinning liberal education approaches. This allowed teachers to not only observe how experts conduct a creative and discovery-based class, but also empathize with actual learners – how they take in knowledge, what makes them happy or nervous, and how the teacher can lead the class without “passivizing” learners.

Teachers putting themselves in learners’ shoes

In attendance were committed educators with years of experience who restlessly seek for ways to innovate and enhance their teaching practices. PEN is most certainly not their first teaching workshop. However, as one participant has pointed out, most such events remain too theory-focused and still struggle to apply modern methods smoothly. Coming to PEN was a chance to gain firsthand experience on advanced approaches and explore the extent of their applicability.

Some participants are experienced educators, while others are young and passionate teachers

Ms. Nguyen Thu Phuong, teacher at Phan Huy Chu High School (Ha Noi) has been experimenting with the liberal education model and wants to employ it to teach literature. However, she had yet to solidify her grasp on how liberal education can be exercised in a classroom setting. This experience allowed her to compare it fairly with a more traditional approach.

Scientifically proven methods

For Ms. Vu Thi Lan, teacher at Tran Phu High School for Gifted Students, in Hai Phong province, one of the main obstacles to replacing obsolete practices is the teachers’ reluctance to attempt new, “experimental” methods. However, education specialists at PEN2019 introduced pedagogical concepts proven to be effective and supported by scientific evidence.

“This has given us confidence to apply more positive teaching methods, convincing parents and colleagues to have faith in and encourage those new approaches”, said Ms. Lan.

Mr. Tran Minh Luan, Principal at Nguyen Quang Dieu High school for the Gifted, Dong Thap province, also supports this idea. As per the new curriculum passed by the Ministry of Education and Training, primary, secondary and high school teachers are actively participating in professional training, which requires the implementation of innovative methods that enhance the activeness of both teachers and learners.

“Rigorous training sessions on these methods, like the PEN workshop, are extremely valuable to us. The methods are simply and clearly illustrated, which helps us apply more easily to our own classes as well as demonstrate to other colleagues at home,” Mr. Luan explains.

Teachers are actively participating in professional training nationwide

As an instructor of future teachers, Ms. Hoang Thi Thao from Hue University’s College of Education is aware that although how innovative, active teaching is encouraged, actual implementation remains a challenge despite an abundance of theory. Professional training programs for teachers are outdated and unimaginative, at the consequence of which trainee teachers develop a mindset that favors repetition. This prevents them from thinking outside the box when the time comes for them to become real teachers.

“In the shoes of a learner, I came to deeply understand the most important thing: rather than establishing a dominant attitude in regard to their students, teachers should look to inspire and lead. With the traditional method, teachers only stand on the classroom platform to give lectures, much like a referee controlling the class, an authority figure dispensing knowledge. Meanwhile, Dr. Ian Bickford (Fulbright faculty provost and facilitator at the workshop) shared some very useful tips for teachers to better interact with their students, such as joining the students at their desks to instruct and discuss the lesson, which will create a democratic atmosphere and erase the boundary between the teacher and learners, encouraging students to take ownership of their education,” Ms. Thao added.

Innovation starts from the teachers

Workshop participants had a chance to experience new teaching methods firsthand via some exciting activities. For instance, during the “Writing is Thinking” class, participants were given an excerpt from a classic literature piece and assigned with a reading exercise comprised of four steps. One activity involved participants taking turns to choose a random phrase from the text and read it out loud to the whole class. By following the flow of the text and read in succession, their voices connected harmoniously and rhythmically to each other.

The “Writing is Thinking” class by Dr. Ian Bickford

With 13 years of experience working as a teacher and education manager, Mr. Tran Minh Luan said he always seeks innovations and enjoys intriguing his students in every lesson. Yet he was astonished by this small yet effective activity.

“I was truly touched listening to everyone in the room read the literature excerpt together. In a serious classroom atmosphere, you could feel as the voices were raised one by one. In that moment, we all harmonized and connected with each other. That feeling helped us focus highly on the lesson.”

Ms. Vu Thi Lan, who has a background in mathematics and has dedicated her entire career to teaching this subject relates her experience:

“I have never learned to write like this. This method helps make sure no student is left behind in a class. Each student has their own strengths. Gifted students always stand out easily, but there are others who are more timid. A class that encourages everyone to express themselves and raise their voices will help them gradually develop a sense of self-confidence.

As teachers, we keep in mind that gifted students will probably excel no matter how they are taught. Most importantly, we must bring reserved students out of their shells. Success should be measured by the teacher’s ability to do so.”

Dr. Nguyen Chi Hieu engaging with the audience at PEN 2019

Ms. Hoang Thi Thao confirmed she would share and demonstrate these methods to her colleagues. However, not all methods introduced at PEN are universally applicable. Although teachers will need to remain flexible dependent on class or subject, in their essence, these methods will help students institute suitable mindsets for successful, active and lifelong learning.

Boston, USA. On June 24, 2005, President of Harvard University, Professor Lawrence H. Summers, welcomed a special guest: Mr. Phan Van Khai, then Prime Minister of Vietnam. Khai was the first Vietnamese prime minister to ever visit the United States since the war ended, and his trip drew great international attention.

High on Mr. Khai’s agenda was a visit to Harvard University — the institution that had laid the groundwork for educational cooperation between the two countries. The Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (known as Fulbright School), a joint program between Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics, was established right before the two former adversaries normalized diplomatic relations in 1995.

By bringing economic and political analysis to bear on Vietnam’s development challenges, the school has seeded a new group of leaders there – more than 1,000 alumni strong – in government, private and state-owned enterprises, finance, and academia nationwide: institutions very much in need of trained talent, in a country desperately short of it.

The conversation between the Vietnamese prime minister and the Harvard president, however, was not just limited to the Fulbright School. Khai, a humble but persistent reformer, officially asked Harvard to help create a world-class university for Vietnam.

Director of Harvard’s Vietnam Program Thomas Vallely, who had arranged Khai’s visit to Cambridge, did not imagine that this meeting would pave the way for his decades-long journey to build a world-class university for Vietnam, the country he had fought during the war and helped reconstruct after the war ended.

After the visit, a research team led by Vallely conducted a critical study on how Vietnam could build a world-class university. “After the government learned about the study,” Vallely recalled, “the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Vietnamese Government recommended: why don’t you give what you proposed a try? Our initiative of creating a world-class university in Vietnam began that way.”

A number of years later, through Tommy’s close relationship with senior leaders in both countries—especially his lifelong friends Senator John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, Senator John McCain, and many American veterans—Tommy placed the idea of building an American-style university in Vietnam on the two countries’ agenda for cooperation.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Phan Van Khai met with Harvard’s President  Lawrence H. Summers at Harvard University on June 24, 2005. Nguyen Xuan Thanh, Director of Fulbright Economic Teaching Program, who sat behind Larry Summers was the interpreter. 

At a time when so much else in the country is being rethought, the proposal prompts “both excitement and fear in Hanoi,” where it is being reviewed, said Nguyen Xuan Thanh, Director of Fulbright School and a founding member of Fulbright University.

Like the earlier Fulbright School, Fulbright University Vietnam presents new challenges for a system built largely on existing public universities, for-profit institutions offering business and foreign-language training, and government-to-government joint ventures.

July 2013 marked a turning point in their unlikely journey as Vietnam and the United States successfully nurtured growing political trust and strategic relations. In a joint statement on the Comprehensive Cooperation between Vietnam and the United States, President Truong Tan Sang and President Barack Obama addressed this initiative for the first time.

The Joint Statement by President Barack Obama of the United States of America and President Truong Tan Sang of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam read: “The two Presidents noted the success of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program and President Truong Tan Sang welcomed the initiative establishing a Fulbright University in Vietnam.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, Thomas Vallely, Director of Harvard’s Vietnam Program, Nguyen Xuan Thanh and Ben Wilkinson (in red tie) – core team members of Fulbright Economic Teaching Program and then Fulbright University project. 
Fulbright founding team and Vietnamese Delegation took photos with John Harvard’s Statue

Ha Noi, Viet Nam. On a hot, humid summer day in 2007, Dam Bich Thuy, Chief Executive Officer of ANZ Bank, sat in her office overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake – a green space in the center of Hanoi. She was waiting for two special guests, Thomas Vallely and Ben Wilkinson – Representatives from Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City.

Her two friends stopped by to print a document and to have a friendly chat. During their meet-up, Thomas Vallely suddenly asked her opinion about building an American-model university in Vietnam. At the time, Thuy was extremely excited about education-related topics. She had spent the previous few months studying American educational models for her own daughter’s schooling. “I realized the huge gap between our education and what the U.S. offers”, recalled Thuy. The three of them shared a few thoughts about Vietnam’s education system, but none of them expected any next steps to come out of the discussion.

Over their subsequent meetings, however, an idea started to emerge. The group began to formalize when this idea was backed formally by a few professors at Harvard. In 2009, the research team led by Tommy published a detailed study on developing a world-class university in Vietnam. They shared this study with Thuy. Tommy invited Thuy to join the project officially if they were able to garner more support.

After President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington, Vallely founded the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam (TUIV), a Boston-based, not-for-profit organization that seeks public and private support in both countries for the proposed new institution.

“The moment I officially joined Fulbright project was when the other founders were presenting this idea to Vietnamese senior leadership. In 2015, during Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to the United States, the university founding team submitted a detailed proposal to implement the project”, Dam Bich Thuy recalled.

In an event attended by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in New York City, Ho Chi Minh City’s Party Chief Le Thanh Hai granted the investment license of Fulbright University Project to TUIV Chairman Thomas Vallely. According to the investment certificate, Fulbright University Viet Nam was to build a flagship campus on a 15-hectare area in Saigon Hi-Tech Park, a generous donation made by Vietnamese Government. Fulbright was designed as the nation’s first independent, not-for-profit, American style university.

The Joint Statement of the Common Vision of Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Barack Obama emphasized: “Both Vietnam and the United States wish to promote educational cooperation, including cooperation through organizations like Fulbright University Vietnam.”

On July 10, 2015 in New York, USA, Chairman of Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam (TUIV) Thomas Vallely and Director of Fulbright Economics Teaching Program Nguyen Xuan Thanh received Project Investment Certificate for Fulbright University handed over by Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee Secretary Le Thanh Hai and witnessed by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

In May 2016, President Barack Obama made an official visit to Viet Nam, marking the two-decade normalization of bilateral relations. In Hanoi, he announced the establishment of Fulbright University, initially funded by the U.S. government.

At that time, Dam Bich Thuy left the banking sector after serving as an executive for a decade to undertake the role of the University’s Founding President. For her, stepping out of the corporate world to take on a start-up educational project was a normal choice based on her personal values.

A Fulbright scholar who earned her M.B.A at the Wharton School in 1996 and the first native-born leader of an international bank’s operations in Vietnam, she has always believed in the transformative impact of education.

“Nothing is more meaningful to me than to join in this effort to prepare the future for Vietnamese younger generations, who will help shape our country. They are passionate, knowledgeable and full of positive energy. They deserve a better education right here, in Vietnam,” Thuy said.

A unique journey to reinvent the university

Upon receiving the investment certificate, the core founding group began a journey to lay the foundation for the university. This group included Thomas Vallely, Ben Wilkinson, Dam Bich Thuy, and Dinh Vu Trang Ngan – a former lecturer of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, who was just finishing up her doctoral study at Cambridge University.

Thuy could not remember how many visits she and her team have made to American universities to learn about their educational models. Each journey helped define and shape the core values that Fulbright aimed to pursue.

Ben Wilkinson and Dam Bich Thuy on their first visit to Bard College (December 12, 2015).
President Barack Obama and the Vietnamese founding members of Fulbright University *

 “I still vividly remember our trip from Boston to New Hampshire. It was a long journey, and the roads were blanketed with thick snow. Ben drove the whole way, carrying Ngan and me in a family car. We discussed all the way and then drafted Fulbright’s foundational mission and precepts. This mission document was later hung at our first office. When Fulbright had its official campus, this mission remained unchanged”, Thuy recalled.

One stark challenge facing the founding team at that time was to choose a model among different options. There were times that the group seriously considered to import an accredited program from U.S. top-tier universities.

“It seemed like importing a foreign model would be easiest.  They would come, open their facilities, prepare the academic resources, then Fulbright would simply join in. We knew that path would be the easiest; however, it would also come with major restrictions. We decided it would have a greater impact, not only for ourselves but for other institutions, to build our own curriculum in house”, Thuy explained.

A turning point came when the team met with Olin College of Engineering President, Professor Richard Miller in Massachusetts, who was introduced by a TUIV board member.

“We were inspired by Olin’s fascinating ideas about higher education. They were determined to innovate on engineering education, which was considered an extremely bold idea since other U.S. traditional engineering colleges – such as MIT and Stanford – had established a dominant teaching style. We were totally attracted to the way Olin pursued its unique approach and became one of the best American engineering schools in just a decade,” recalled Fulbright University President.

Dr. Mark Somerville visited
Tran Dai Nghia High School for the Gifted

Later, the team was introduced to Dr. Mark Somerville, who was acclaimed as the architect of Olin’s innovative curriculum. They held back and forth discussions over the year with Somerville, which helped them shape their initial ideas about the university design.

The team also perceived that the University must address the urgent need for well-rounded thinkers in Vietnam. After enduring “rote training with a regulated information flow,” Thuy said, the students who emerge “can’t think, they can’t form their own opinion on any matter. They have very good transcripts, but they can’t work in real life.”

That’s why Fulbright’s founding team finally came up with a university model that innovates on the American liberal arts tradition, which has been proven extremely successful in cultivating good thinkers.

“I believe that liberal education is critical for Vietnamese society in the coming decades,” Thuy concluded. 

Xuan Linh – Viet Lam

*The White House (United States Department of State) has provided the documentary photos of President Barack Obama together with members of the Founding Team of Fulbright University Vietnam for use.