The U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change delivered remarks while visiting Fulbright University Vietnam on February 25, 2022. 

It was in 2016 that Mr. John Kerry, the then U.S. Secretary of State, presided over the official launching ceremony of Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. A continuation from the success of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, which was founded in 1995 and bore the fruits of Kerry’s dedicated efforts to bring Vietnam and the United States closer through education cooperation, the university represents “a future that was not defined by war, but defined by learning, knowledge, and lessons that we can pass on to other generations,” as reiterated by Mr. Kerry during his recent visit to Fulbright’s Crescent Campus. 

The event was part of Mr. Kerry’s four-day visit to Vietnam, from February 22 to 25, 2022, as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change. “What brings me to Vietnam, right now, is that the government of Vietnam made an important commitment in Glasgow [COP26] about achieving net-zero emissions by 2050,” he said. “This is a very important discussion we need to have now. This is something scientists have been telling us […] in simple mathematics and physics, that we need to reduce emissions by 45% between now and 2030. And 2050 is not achievable unless you do what you have to do now. That is the guidepost.”

A cleaner, safer, healthier world for future generations

At COP26, nearly 200 nations reached a climate agreement to accelerate efforts to limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in a “critical decade” that requires reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 45% to reach net zero around mid-century. “What we did was create the framework for that resolution, and got more commitments from more countries and more private sector entities than ever in history,” said Mr. Kerry, as he reflected the coming together of countries representing 65% of global GDP, with respect to nationally determined contributions. “But that also means that 35% did not. So we still have to bring those countries on board. Because we believe there are possibilities for huge transitions here.”

Citing Vietnam’s remarkable renewable resources from wind to solar to hydropower, especially with Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces as magnets for clean energy projects, Mr. Kerry emphasized the country’s potential to make a coal-to-clean transition that will create jobs, reduce pollution, and help Vietnam “keep the lead that you have shown in these last years about how to build a vibrant economy and how to improve the life of people”. “I promise you, the building of this new clean energy future is providing for future generations a cleaner, safer, healthier world in which to live, where we have not the destruction of species, but genuine sustainability.”

As a result of this momentous global efforts to combat climate change, according to Mr. Kerry, there will be enormous demand for new skills across all spectrum of work, be it the demand for engineers, architects, designers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, or pipefitters to develop clean grids and build energy-efficient buildings. “I know because I’ve seen it first-hand in my own state in Massachusetts, and across our country. The fastest growing jobs in America are wind-turbine service technicians. And the third fastest growing jobs in America are solar panel installers. It’s happening, folks.”

During his exchange with Fulbright students, Mr. Kerry encouraged the young people of Vietnam to take the time to understand what they’re passionate about, to enjoy the fruits of being young, as well as the benefits of a great education. “In today’s world, you don’t have to pick one career,” he said. “In today’s world, you can go out there and have any number of things you wind up doing. Pick the things that excite you, and do what makes you happy in life.”  

“Green from the Beginning” – The public-private partnership at Fulbright

At the event, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change also made a special announcement that USAID is going to provide Fulbright up to $16.5 million over the next 3 years, adding to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) previous commitment of $37 million, to further the university’s future development. 

In 2017, the then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. Government’s development finance institution, presented a letter of interest to Fulbright University Vietnam to support the design and construction of the university’s main campus. Since then, Fulbright is honored to have received generous financial commitments from private philanthropists all over the world, the U.S. development agencies, and the support of the Vietnamese government by donating a 15 hectare parcel of land in the Saigon High-Tech Park, to build its flagship campus in Ho Chi Minh City, the first phase of which will be completed in 2023. 

In her opening remarks, Fulbright President Dam Bich Thuy laid out the university’s vision of a green campus that will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty and the interested public: committed to net-zero emission, it is built in adherence to LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system, and LOTUS, the Vietnam Green Building Council certification. 

“This campus will be the most environmentally advanced education complex ever built in Vietnam, demonstrating our commitment to solutions that mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said President Thuy. “This is a goal embodied not only by our investment in eco-friendly infrastructure, but also in everything we do, from teaching and research initiatives to policy advising to encouraging green projects from our community members.” 

The joint efforts from the public and private sectors between the two nations to invest in Fulbright, and thus, the future of Vietnam and its transition to renewable energy, were commended by Mr. Kerry as an extraordinary milestone that proves “you can make improbable things happen”, and that “green from the beginning” is something achievable even for a young institution like Fulbright. “This university is a monument to the ability of people to overcome dark times, and find the best [in ourselves], which is educating young people for the future,” Mr. Kerry said, reflecting on the positive changes he had witnessed during his many visits to Vietnam.

Mr. John Kerry: “I’m fighting for Plan A”

Talking to Fulbright students and distinguished guests of the university, Mr. Kerry stressed exciting opportunities for investment and development of green technologies. With examples of commitments made by corporations such as General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Tesla, he underlined the American private sector’s support of their government towards a carbon-free future, and trillions of dollars from the global finance industry to invest in efforts to tackle climate change.   

“So that tells you a story about the marketplace, and where people are betting on the future,” he said. 

But how to get that money deployed is an important question Mr. Kerry expounded: “It’s not giveaway money. It’s investment money. So you have to create bankable projects. Governments need to work with philanthropies and bring multilateral development banks to the table to de-risk the investments. What really makes a difference is the investment money that has to be put on the table in order to buy the equipment, build the factory, pay the workers initially when there’s no revenue, get the business up and running – that is where the private sector is going to be.” 

In response to a question posed by Mr. Le Hong Minh, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of VNG, as well as one of the inaugural members of Fulbright’s Founders Circle, on whether or not there is a Plan B in the likelihood that the world fails to reach targets to combat climate change, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change asserted: “Frankly, I don’t sit around thinking about Plan B, because I’m fighting for Plan A.”

“Europe has set the target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. The U.S.: 50 to 52% cut. UK: 68%. Canada: 45 to 50%. South Korea and Japan are about the same,” he said. “But let me remind you, just 20 countries account for 80% of global emissions. If we can get to 1.5 degrees without a bunch of countries, the possibilities of what we can get done are actually much bigger than that. We can win this battle if everybody gets on board and becomes a part of it. Now can we move fast enough? I believe we can.”

Bao Quyen

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM – Fulbright University Vietnam (Fulbright), the first independent, non-profit liberal arts university in Vietnam, announces today the inaugural members of its Founders Circle. The total commitment of $40 million from these eight Founders and their families will support the first phase construction of Fulbright’s flagship campus in Saigon High-tech Park, Ho Chi Minh City.

This commitment highlights one of the largest philanthropic gifts to a higher education institution in Vietnam. The eight inaugural members include:

  • Henry Nguyen & Mrs. Nguyễn Thanh Phượng, Phoenix Holdings
  • Lê Văn Kiểm & Family, Chairman of Long Thanh Golf, Investment & Trading JSC.
  • Lê Nữ Thùy Dương & Family, Vice-Chairwoman of Long Thanh Golf, Investment & Trading JSC
  • Trần Trọng Kiên & Family, Chairman and CEO of Thien Minh Group
  • Cuong Do & Family, Former President of the Samsung Global Strategy Group
  • Lê Hồng Minh & Family, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of VNG
  • Vương Quang Khải & Family, Co-Founder of VNG and President of Zalo
  • Lương Tuấn Nghĩa & Family, CEO of Evergreen Invest

Fulbright is incredibly honored and tremendously fortunate to receive this extraordinary gift from our inaugural Founders. This significant support would help us turn our bold dream of a green campus into reality, a permanent home for the leaders of tomorrow where innovations, sustainability, creativity, and public service will always be nurtured and thrive,” says Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam.

The announcement of the Fulbright Founders Circle also represents a significant development of philanthropic work in Vietnam. While charity is widely practiced in Vietnam, private philanthropy, particularly in higher education is still limited. “Our Founders believe in the transformational power of education, and it is their faith in Fulbright’s relevance to the future of Vietnam that motivated this historic act of giving. As the beneficiary of such generosity, it is Fulbright’s responsibility to continue fostering impact not only in Vietnam but also in the world. We hope that this kind act of our Founders will inspire Vietnamese people to continue giving to education, a long-term investment that benefits generations to come,” she adds.

Fulbright’s flagship campus will be built in the Saigon High-Tech Park on a 15-hectare parcel of land donated to the University by the Vietnamese government. It will be the most environmentally advanced education complex ever built in Vietnam, committed to net-zero carbon emission. The campus will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty, and the interested public.

In conjunction with the Founders’ gift, Fulbright University Vietnam is also the beneficiary of the $37 million via a 20-year direct loan from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to support the Phase I construction of accommodations, academic buildings, and dining and recreation facilities for up to 1,500 students. Fulbright University will continue its fund-raising efforts to complete the whole campus in the years to come, which is expected to accommodate up to 7,000 students across Vietnam.

This largest private gift in Fulbright’s history is announced together with the visit of the U.S. President’s Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry to Fulbright. As a veteran senator, Mr. Kerry has been playing a pivotal role in the normalization of the two former adversaries as well as the establishment of Fulbright University Vietnam.

Fulbright is honored to receive long-term support from the US and Vietnam government in forms of finance and land. These extraordinary gifts and support signify the public-private partnership approach to finance and build Fulbright University Vietnam. They enable the changes that not only better Fulbright but also benefit generations of Vietnamese people now and in the future as originally envisioned by the US and Vietnamese governments when they agreed to establish Fulbright University Vietnam as the first independent liberal arts university in the country.

About Fulbright University Vietnam

Fulbright University Vietnam, a new Vietnamese university with Vietnamese and American origins, serves Vietnamese and global society through teaching, research, and impactful engagement with the world. Fulbright develops highly educated, globally connected citizens prepared and inspired to engage with the challenges and opportunities facing Vietnam and the world.

The university traces its roots to a 1991 bill sponsored by Senator John Kerry to develop an exchange program for Vietnamese students and government officials. Following the success of this program, in 1994 the Department of State funded the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to partner with the Vietnamese university to establish the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, Vietnam’s first center of public policy. Both the exchange and graduate public policy programs are still in operation today and have trained over 2,000 public and private sector decision-makers.

In 2016, the public policy center incubated by Harvard transitioned to Fulbright University Vietnam, becoming the university’s first academic program. Today, Fulbright offers three academic programs – the Undergraduate Program in Engineering and the Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, and a problem-focused research program.

Education was one of the topics that the Vietnam Ambassador to the U.S Pham Quang Vinh and the U.S Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius mentioned during their discussion with the scholars at CSIS(*) in March 2015 in celebrating the 20-year relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. This was also the first time the two ambassadors participating in such event.

The partnership in education has to be the first breakthrough of the bilateral relationship between the two countries during the sanction period.

U.S. Secretary John Kerry’s career was almost ruined when he strongly opposed the Vietnam War.

The conservative party in American even aimed to politically ruin him for the difference in political viewpoint. Yet, John Kerry and many Vietnam War veterans played a crucial part during the normalization period and developing the Vietnam – U.S relations in the future. Things started simply with a ticket to a Broadway show in New York City.


In early 1985, when the relationship between the two countries was still tense, Vietnam was still sanctioned, John Kerry, who was just elected to Senate at the time, bought a ticket to a Broadway show and invited Ambassador Hoang Bich Son (who later became the Chief of the Central Commission of Foreign Relations and Chairman of the Committee for Foreign Relations) in New York.

Kerry grew up in France and Ambassador Hoang Bich Son was fluent in French; French became the language for conversation. The Vietnamese delegation in New York was the main contact channel for both the Vietnamese and the American governments.

Joining Senator Kerry to that Broadway show was Thomas Vallely, a Vietnam War veteran and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Thomas Vallely became Kerry’s close friend after the shocking Winter Soldier hearing – an investigation on the crimes American soldiers committed in early 1970s and John Kerry was the pioneer of this campaign.

Vallely later became the campaign manager for Kerry’s first run for Congress in 1972. Though he lost for his view against the war, Vallely and Kerry became the best of friends and later partner in helping to normalize the relations between two countries.

Unfortunately, the Broadway show wasn’t that excited; Vallely remembered being restless next to Senator Kerry and Ambassador Son. He only felt lively again when the military attache accompanying Ambassador Son asked him whether or not he would like to visit Vietnam.

“I still remember when Senator John McCain came back to visit Hoa Lo prison that year; and when he left, he folded a rose origami and gave to a woman standing right outside. I loved that image and I wanted to be like him” – Vallely recalled.

“Our biggest lesson is from Mr. Hoang Tuy. He used to write for the Tia Sang newspaper; and he said that the problem in Vietnam was that Vietnam only knew how to compete with itself, from science, medicine to other industries. Vietnam only knew how to connect with itself. Hoang Tuy’s viewpoint is that in order to become better, you have to connect with the world” – Thomas Vallely.

Vallely came back to Vietnam right on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam War. “I met the Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Le Mai and I was really impressed. I care about Vietnam” – he shared.

Yet, Vallely called his personal relationship with Vietnam a complicated one even though he deeply cared about the country, the people, and his good friends here.

“It’s like a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I love Vietnam; sometimes Vietnam drives me nuts” – he said. Those who met Vallely then recalled that he had this overwhelming way of talking, as though he would crush the other person with his words.

Former Director of Ho Chi Minh City External Relations Department and a senior diplomat, Vu Hac Bong recalled: “Tommy is candid to the point of being shocking.”

His trip back that time awoke Vallely’s deep interest and concerns about Vietnam. When Harvard University offered him a job, he turned down the proposed position at the time but said he would take it if there were to be any Vietnam-related program.

And the result was the Vietnam Program, which was established at Harvard University since 1986. The American Program was the first institute among leading American universities that studied on modern Vietnam during the “Doi Moi” (Renovation) period onward.

Also during this period, Senator Kerry started the process of normalization between the two countries. Senator Kerry also acted as the chief of Prisoners of War (POW) Committee and Missing-in-Action (MIA) Committee along with John McCain and Jesse Helms. POW and MIA were the main drives to  loosen tension and foster communications for normalization.


POW/MIA solved the issue related to the consequences of war. But the real important milestone for the Vietnam – U.S. relations has to be the first ever funding for educational partnership in Vietnam in early 1991.

In the budget bill of 1991, Senator John Kerry, along with the support form veterans like John McCain…, succeeded in securing USD 300,000 for scholarships for Vietnamese students (Harvard later contributed another USD 300,000).

From this funding, the first group of Vietnamese of the Fulbright program such as Nguyen Thien Nhan, Cao Duc Phat… got the chance to study in America.

A few months before the bill was passed, Senator Kerry visited Vietnam with his two teenage daughters. The idea of educational partnership stemmed from that trip.

The activist on the ground who pushed the funding into the bill was Richard Kessler, Senator Kerry’s assistant and also the Vietnam War veteran. In 1992, the Fulbright scholarship program was introduced.

“At Fulbright, Xuan Thanh knows what is happening at Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy at Princeton University, at Kennedy School at Harvard University, at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (the world’s top three Public Policy schools), in Australia, or Oxford… We connect with what is happening in the world. And that is what makes this university different from others in Vietnam” – Thomas Vallely shared.

At the same time, Vallely and a group of Harvard professors including Dwight Perkins, David Dapice, became the consultants for the National Planning Committee, led by Phan Van Khai.

There were two parts to the partnership: learning from other countries and from the East Asia, South East Asia regions like Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia…; and writing a book called In search of the dragon’s trailincluding series of strategic ideas deriving from other countries’ experience.

Yet, during their East Asia research trip, they could not find Vietnam in the statistical numbers featuring in economics research articles. ““Why isn’t there Vietnam,” they kept asking me that question,” Vallely recalled. Vietnam was completely closed off at the time and had no contacts with the outside world.

Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Le Hoai Trung recalled: “Many comrades from the senior leadership paid much interest and read the In search of the dragon’s trailbook. I still remember being assigned by the Foreign Affairs Ministry to be the interpreter for the research group during the discussion with the delegation led by Dao Duy Tung, then the Permanent Secretary.

The Harvard’s research group wished to establish a consultant group for Dr. Luu Bich Ho’s  Institute of Development Strategy in Hanoi.

Due to the “the unsuccessful marriage” (Dr. Luu Bich Ho’s sentiment), Vallely turned toward Ho Chi Minh City and established the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP). The program’s mission was simply to teach the most updated and suitable economical concepts to government officials.

During this period, with the support from the veterans, the funding for education in Vietnam kept rising from USD 300,000 to USD 1 million, to USD 3 millions. The diplomatic relations between the two countries was established.

In 1998-1999, Vietnam had to pay America back a public debt; this was the money the Saigon regime borrowed but after reunification, Vietnam had to take over. If failing to pay back the debt, Vietnam could not borrow from the international market.

Vallely and many Americans felt discontent that Washington took the money, especially from a country that was struggling economically like Vietnam. No one knew for sure that the money back then was really used to build infrastructure or to finance the war.

Vallely and his friends campaigned for a bill, in which this money would be used to build a Vietnam Education Foundation, which offered scholarships for technology and science.

The Embassy took over the Fulbright program; but the FETP program was still under Harvard University. In the beginning, the program was taught by American lecturers. Now, FETP is run by state renown experts like Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Xuan Thanh, Pham Duy Nghia… The program has trained many officials from both central and lower levels.

A Vietnamese diplomat shared that 20 years after normalization, Vietnam had become globally integrated. This made education program like FETP more meaningful: Vietnam needed to develop international-quality human resources now more than ever. He noted that: “That is still a long road when education in Vietnam is still old and full of hardship.”

FETP faced various challenges, especially during the early stage of ‘Doi moi’ (Renovation) period. Vallely recalled that Vu Hac Bong often reminded him: “You can be the accelerator; but when I tell you to stop, you stop.”

Challenges also came from America; especially during 1998-1999, certain members of the Consulate General wanted to close the program claiming that it did not follow the Fulbright mission of cultural exchange. When this got out, an urgent telegram was sent directly from Washington and signed by Secretary Madeleine Albright: “Fulbright name stays – Albright.”

The head of ASEAN’s Senior Officials Meeting (SOM), Ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu – who served a term in Philippines – shared that he used to suggest different places to a group of Filipino students who wanted to come and study Vietnam; among his recommendations was FETP.

The students were utterly impressed with the program. Their question remained: “Why is this program only for Vietnam and not for South East Asia?”.

(*): Center for Strategic and International Studies

By ANH NGUYEN (published on Tuoi Tre newspaper)