Resounded in speeches impassioned and articulated at the ceremony’s virtual webcast, held on Sunday morning, October 17th, was Fulbright’s pioneering spirit in liberal arts education and its strong commitment to community service in Vietnam.  

“Convocation is one of the most important ceremonies for any Vietnamese students. It is a tradition that Fulbright University Vietnam, a Vietnamese university, will always treasure,” said Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam, in her welcoming remarks for the Convocation Ceremony of the Undergraduate Class of 2025 and the Master in Public Policy Class of 2023. 

Invoking the tradition endeared to students and faculty members from preceding years’ ceremonies, as seen in musician and educator Thanh Bui and his encouragement for students to be brave and creative in times of uncertainty, or entrepreneur Le Diep Kieu Trang with her message of serving communities, the Convocation this year had the esteemed honor of having, as its main speaker, Dr. Nguyen Lan Hieu, Associate Professor, Director of Hanoi Medical University Hospital cum Medical Director of Emergency Resuscitation Center of Becamex International Hospital. 

While the invitation was “quite surprising” to Dr. Nguyen Lan Hieu, it is, however, an absolutely apt choice for Fulbright, for he represents and exemplifies the intellectual acumen, the tremendous strength and selflessness that medical frontliners have shown in providing health and social care for those in need during the pandemic. “Our country has undergone multiple outbreaks. […] Each accordingly requires different strategies and approaches apropos of the situation. […] Nonetheless, of all the lessons we have learned, the most pronounced thing is the core role of science in any attempt to successfully solve problems and overcome challenges,” he said.      

Dr. Nguyen Lan Hieu, Associate Professor, Director of Hanoi Medical University Hospital cum Medical Director of Emergency Resuscitation Center of Becamex International Hospital.

“In the field of medicine, the number of innovations and breakthroughs from Vietnam that are recognized on a global scale is truly scarce. Our dated education model has produced many ‘golden hands’, meaning brilliant and excellent surgeons. Yet it’s nearly impossible to dream of novel medications or new and advanced technologies given the current state we have,” Dr. Nguyen Lan Hieu remarked.  

An ideal higher education model, he pointed out, is one that connects and unites talents across disciplines to share and transform ideas into concrete applications that will serve our communities, as well as contribute to the nurturing of a progressive academic environment. “I’m very fond of the articles and discourses shared on Fulbright’s social media channels, for they illustrate a rational and scientific mindset worthy of Vietnam’s first not-for-profit, independent, liberal arts university. Such ethos is what I believe has empowered Fulbright to nurture its new generation of students,” he said. 

Dr. Nguyen Lan Hieu exhorted the Undergraduate Class of 2025 and the Master in Public Policy Class of 2023 to “Instigate debates. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t back down from criticism. These lessons will help you grow as a person and prove invaluable on your path to success.”  

“The pandemic has caused sufferings and adversities, but metaphorically speaking, it is a shower of rain that washed away the glorified veneers entrenched in our society,” he said. “So that the old will be replaced by the new, specifically the young thinkers and doers who will be at the heart and forefront of our country.” This opportunity to re-define the “new normal” and impact change in the community was also reflected in Fulbright President Dam Bich Thuy’s remarks, when she enlisted students to consider the following questions:    

  • What will my very own “new normal” look like? 
  • How will I challenge my own traditions and build new ones as a result? 
  • What does “better” look like for me? 
  • Who will benefit from this and how can I even make “better” better? 

(R) Ann Marie Yastishock, Mission Director, USAID Vietnam.

 Fulbright’s pioneering spirit

“The world is constantly transforming and your role, contribution, and service to society will evolve with it,” said Ms. Ann Marie Yastishock, Mission Director, USAID Vietnam, in her address to the students. “Covid-19, climate change, and digital transformation are some of the grand issues reshaping the world we live in. What you do here at Fulbright will help define this new world. As you write this next important chapter of your lives, I encourage you to explore your interests, pursue your talents, and nurture your spirit of service. To quote Aristotle, educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” 

Fulbright’s pioneering spirit is emblazoned not only with Vietnam’s 1,500 top leaders that its predecessor, the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program – now the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) – has trained over 26 years. But in striving to deliver an undergraduate program inspired by the liberal arts tradition of open inquiry and critical analysis, through academic rigor and intellectual curiosity, the heart and soul of Fulbright is the desire to think and work beyond ourselves, to bring up creative individuals who will find their own paths and go after causes and endeavors they hold dear.  

“We see that in everything our Fulbright community members do,” President Thuy said, stating Fulbright’s efforts during the pandemic from raising funds for Ho Chi Minh City’s hospital ambulances and its Covid-19 relief activities to the FSPPM faculty’s advisory work for the city’s government to the social projects our undergraduate and FSPPM students initiated, as examples of Fulbright’s unfailing quest for social good. 

Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam.

“I have high hopes that in this time of historic change, you will continue to follow in their footsteps, exercise this Fulbright’s pioneering spirit, and re-define a better ‘new normal’ for us all,” President Thuy urged the Undergraduate Class of 2025 and the Master in Public Policy Class of 2023. “Don’t be afraid to “think ‘unthinkable’ thoughts”, as the late Senator J. William Fulbright once said. […] We are where we are because we are not afraid to be bold, innovative and new; because we are willing to take the risk to realize what we believe in.” 

 “One Fulbright, One Family.”

This year, the Class of 2025’s student speech was delivered by Le Dao Minh Tam, one of the 5 recipients of Fulbright Undergraduate scholarship. On the distance that kept people apart and the solitariness many have felt in the midst of a global pandemic, as well as reflecting on her new journey at Fulbright, where she has been “showered with love and care” by every member of the community, Minh Tam spoke of the meaning and education of altruism:  

“Where does kindness come from? What makes an empathetic and compassionate person? Two things, I believe. First, it’s the environment […] in which meaningful discourses are encouraged, so that we get to hear and understand voices from different social backgrounds, in which we learn to overcome our own prejudices and dismantle stereotypes, to treat everyone with equality and respect, in which justified reason is the only legitimate driving force behind every one of our actions.  

Le Dao Minh Tam delivering her Class of 2025’s student speech.

“Second, it’s the community where we are inspired to become noble and selfless. It is the people around us who act selflessly that make us want to sacrifice our own comforts and time to do the same thing. It is the people who give us care that make us want to give it back, or pay it forward. […] It’s something we have to learn and sacrifice for, and hence the achievement we obtain from it should be appreciated and congratulated upon, not being taken for granted. […] I strongly believe Fulbright as a community has the innate strength and qualities to empower and nurture meaningful changes through education, selfless contributions and love.” 

Though virtual, the 2021 Convocation ceremony still honored a cherished tradition when our freshmen together recited, from their family homes, the Fulbright’s Honor Code, which exhorts all faculty, staff and students to uphold standards of integrity, shared commitment and excellence. “Today is a special day. It marks the beginning of a new life with new routines – and maybe a new way of thinking for our new students. But more importantly, it also marks one of the rare occasions in life when they can declare themselves as a member of a new community. And today, it’s the Fulbright community,” said Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies. 

Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies, and members from the Class of 2025.

Joining in with welcoming the Class of 2025 were Hoang Hoa and Thuc Anh, representatives of Fulbright Student Council. Established in 2021 with 13 student-elected members, the Student Council represents and advocates for the needs, interests, and concerns of Fulbright students through open dialogues and transparency with the university. “I am sure the Council is not the only one who calls itself a family but other departments at Fulbright as well,” Hoang Hoa said.

“‘Embrace the Uncertainty’ is the motto that we, members of Fulbright, live by. The academic life at Fulbright wouldn’t be whole without the love and compassion that we share within this united community. I do believe nothing is impossible as long as we listen to one another, understand our individual stories, and do our best to support each other regardless of our roles and our cohorts.”  

Hoang Hoa and Thuc Anh, representatives of Fulbright Student Council.

Closing the 2021 Convocation ceremony on a high note, Thuc Anh expressed her congratulations: “Welcome the Class of 2025 to Fulbright! And thank you for choosing this community. You are now an important part of Fulbright and we appreciate your contributions to make our community better. We wish you a great journey ahead, full of rewarding achievements, life-long friendships and extraordinary moments at Fulbright!”  

Representing Fulbright, MC Hoang Bao Tram beating the drum to usher in the new school year.

Piano performance by Tang Linh Trang, Class of 2025.

 Bao Quyen

The convocation ceremony of Fulbright University Vietnam’s undergraduate class of 2020-2024 is the third of its kind since the establishment of our institution. Emotions ran high for those attending the event both physically and virtually. While retaining its traditional rituals, special moments on this Convocation day touched the hearts of all participants.

This was the case when the visually impaired first year Tran Viet Hoang headed up to the stage and shared with the audience his extraordinary journey to Fulbright, as well as his message: “enjoy the good things even during hard times.” Just as memorably, the keynote speaker Thanh Bui livened up the room with the inspirational story of his life and his call for courage in difficult times.

The highlight of the ceremony began when close to 200 freshmen read out loud Fulbright’s Honor Code, marking their official initiation as full members of the Fulbright community. The recited text exhorts faculty, staff and students alike to strive for a common goal: “learning together, growing together.”

Facing the complicated Covid-19 situation, the event was adjusted to smaller gatherings for a safer environment. The parents and families of new students joined the convocation virtually while those present at the event were required to wear masks and keep a certain distance from one another. However, the inconveniences did not stop new students from enjoying inspirational moments and experiencing rituals that mark the beginnings of a new journey.

“We are very lucky to be here, with our families and friends, old and new ones, with university leaders, faculty and staff, to experience this convocation together. Across the world, many students are unable to enjoy this exciting moment together on campus. Many are even unable to attend classes at all. I hope you feel as lucky as I do, but more importantly, I hope this will inspire you and your commitment to the personal pursuit of knowledge,” said Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies in her address.

“Enjoy the good things even during hard times”

The students of Class 2020-2024 come from different parts of the country, have different backgrounds and beliefs. Furthermore, while most had decided to begin their studies in Vietnam, some of our newest cohort are visiting students who could  not continue their studies abroad due to the Covid-19 outbreaks and were lucky to continue their education in their home country despite the disruption.

Among the new students is Tran Viet Hoang, who comes from a poor rural village in Ha Tinh Province in central Vietnam. When Hoang turned five, his eyes gradually lost vision. His mother worked extremely hard and left no stone unturned to find the money to treat his illness. After dozens of checkups at various hospitals and four surgeries at the Hanoi-based Central Eye Hospital failed, his eyesight finally degraded completely. For a poor boy raised by a single mother of two, life seemed to turn dark.

But Hoang did not let himself wallow in sorrow and pain. Instead he chose to overcome adversity. He attended Braille training courses at the Association for Blind and Visually Impaired People in Ha Tinh before getting back to a normal school. He scored good grades in his primary, secondary and high school education, and always remained among the top performers of his class.

His strong will and extraordinary qualities were indisputable to Fulbright school’s admission team. Hoang was admitted with full financial aid for four years on the condition that he spends one year studying English until he qualified.

When Hoang headed to the stage and recounted his life story in fluent English, his voice sometimes shaking with barely contained emotions, the room turned silent, of a silence reserved to shared wonder. Some audience members even shed tears. This will remain one of the most memorable moments in all of Fulbright’s convocation ceremonies.

But Hoang’s story was not that kind of tear-jerker. He did not expound on the difficulties he faced as he grappled with a diminishing sight and the new realities of a life with a handicap. Instead, he recalled the peaceful memories of his childhood.

“I remember the afternoons when I played football with my friends – the balls were made of plastic, straw, paper, or a ripe pomelo. I remember the afternoons when I sneaked outside to go fishing, flying homemade kites on the rice paddy fields. Because I believe we can still enjoy the good things even during hard times.”

In his closing remarks, his message to his peers at Fulbright school was clear: “If there are any obstacles, please believe in yourself. Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Have courage in a chaotic world

It was a fascinating coincidence that the speeches delivered by guest speaker Thanh Bui, student representative Tran Viet Hoang, US ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink and Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan had one thing in common: the message about courage.

“The first piece of advice is key to everything else you do in life and is perhaps the hardest thing to do. HAVE COURAGE,” emphasized guest speaker Thanh Bui.

Thanh Bui is now an accomplished entrepreneur, singer songwriter, and educator. But as a 17 year old, what he now recalls as the “most defining moment” in his life, he summoned the courage to tell his parents that he wanted to pursue a musical career rather than studying to become a doctor or a lawyer as they wished.

“They said that it was impossible to make a life of music in Australia because I was Asian. The deafening silence of that moment still vibrates in my ears,” he told the audience.

He decided to make a deal with them that he would finish university within three years and at least earn a University degree before pursuing his passion.

What followed was an intense four-year degree, a Bachelor of Business/IT from Swinburne University, compressed into three years before he auditioned and was chosen for an Australian boyband called North.

In 2008, he made it to the Top 8 of Australian Idol. He also composed hundreds of hit songs before he decided to take everything he had learnt in Australia back to share with the people of Vietnam. From a singer, songwriter, and music producer, Thanh Bui now operates a music school in Ho Chi Minh City he is developing into an arts education and entertainment empire.

“We all want to see people demonstrate courage, but when it comes to ourselves in those difficult moments, courage may be hard to summon. This is because having the courage to make difficult decisions or to hold firm in situations where others question what we are doing involves risk, and automatically raises the specter of failure,” he explained.

In his address delivered through the podium video screen, Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink also told students not to be afraid in a time when Covid-19 has challenged us all to adapt to a new normal.

“You had to leverage technology and innovation to study and connect with and learn from each other.  You had to figure out how to keep our communities safe while making sure school goes on,” the Ambassador observed.

“…don’t be afraid. The world has gone through tough times before — famine, disease, war, poverty. Think about the challenges your parents and grandparents had to face. With each crisis we faced, we came out stronger, usually because a new generation, young people like you, learned from past mistakes and figured out how to make things better,” he further asserted.

That message also echoed with Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan’s message to the new Fulbrighters. “I would like to ask you to actively contribute to this process any way you can – be bold, take risks, face challenges like you never have before – the way you would do to rebuild the world one day,” Dr. Ngan told students in her closing remarks.

Environment for creative education

As you may know, Fulbright draws on the American liberal arts model and puts students at its center. Undergraduates of liberal arts education institutions are equipped with flexible, transferable skills to quickly adapt to changing work environments and demonstrate outstanding creative thinking skills.

Thanh Bui mentioned in his address the goal of creative education is to create the best educated and most fully integrated students who can be successful in a world that is increasingly complex and uncertain.

Quoting his much-respected English teacher as saying there are only two questions that really matter in life: “What?” and “So what?”. He then elaborated on the meaning of creative education.

“What?” is important because the answer gives you the information you need, the facts. But the real question, the KEY question, is, “So what?”. Now that you have the facts, why do they matter? Automatically you will find that you are forced to move beyond memorized facts or rote learning,” he argued. “You enter a world that requires you to think, to make judgments, to weigh ethical issues, to balance different views and to understand complex situations. Creative education! There you are.”

This interpretation of creative education is also the commitment of Fulbright school – creating an environment in which questions are more important than answers, in which ideas are highly appreciated and each student is encouraged to explore and grow into the best version of his/herself.

In Dr. Ngan’s on words: “Each of you has your own voice, ideas, and skills to contribute to the world we are living in. I hope at Fulbright University Vietnam, we can help you find that voice, ignite that idea, sharpen that skill so you can create a healthier, better future for everyone everywhere.”

Thuy Hang