From an accidental meeting at Olin College

On a summer day in 2015, Fulbright University’s founding group met with the President of Olin Engineering College Richard Miller in Massachusetts. They had hardly envisioned this meeting would mark a turning point in their long journey of searching and testing ideas for Fulbright’s undergraduate program.

Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, a key figure of the University’s founding team felt truly captivated by Olin President’s statement that “Olin is never a complete work”. For Olin, the creation of educational experiences has been a constantly iterative process. This philosophy helped Olin – a newly-built university – emerge among the best American science and engineering colleges in less than a decade.

Ngan, a Bates graduate who earned a doctorate in development at Cambridge University, had been teaching economics at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program for 6 years before she joined Fulbright University Project as Director of Undergraduate Program*. Having sought for innovative educational ideas, Ngan felt greatly inspired by Olin’s unique approach.

“Having tried for a while with the ideas of importing curricula from an American university, we found few opportunities to be ourselves. It seemed inappropriate to replicate an educational model from the United States for Vietnamese students who have inherited a different education, culture, and social foundation. Even if the engineering program in the United States has been rooted in tradition for over a hundred years, Olin still discovered a way to innovate, and succeeded,” Ngan said.

The meeting with Olin helped the Fulbright team realize what they had been looking for. Ngan then spent months in the United States to learn about Olin and other U.S. liberal arts universities, focusing on various areas such as academic design, admission, and student life.

By luck, Ngan was at Olin during their admissions cycle. She was impressed with the admissions process, and how the selection of shortlisted candidates was organized over three week-ends. She also spent time meeting and talking with many students. Through exploring Olin’s innovation in university education, Fulbright team gradually defined and shaped the very first ideas about their institutional undergraduate program.

To a journey across Vietnam to find the gems in the rough

From the fall of 2015, Ngan and Ben Wilkinson, another core founding team member, began to work regularly with Dr. Mark Somerville. Considered as the chief architect of Olin College’s foundational year, Somerville finally agreed to take on the role as senior advisor for Fulbright.

If working in a team, what are you seeking from your teammates? This is the first question Mark posed to us,” Ngan recalled. “Although we didn’t have clear ideas on how to design an undergraduate program from a blank slate, Mark planted a precious seed in us. Before asking us what the product could be, he asked us what the team should look like.”

As an experienced pioneer, Somerville advised that the most critical factor to develop a decent undergraduate program from scratch is to know the “users” or our target students, including their personality traits.

“Only after identifying who our users are, can we create an educational product that suits our target students. We started our work from this point,” Ngan explained.

To answer this question, Mark Somerville and Ngan conducted an interesting study. For several months, Ngan came back to Vietnam and traveled on buses from the North to the South, visiting highschools all over the country. Through referrals from her friends and former students in different provinces, she had many opportunities to meet and chat with high school students about multiple subjects.

Vietnamese young students did not hesitate to express their most intimate thoughts: from the anxiety and pressure to meet their parents’ expectations, to the desire of earning a dream job and giving back to their society.

They also shared with Ngan what they imagined for a dream university: one with a lot of greenery, where teachers were friendly to students, and where they could be themselves and pursue their boldest dreams. These stories came together like a treasure and were so attractive. Consequently, Ngan was so inspired that she joined numerous activities to stay close to the students, to try and understand them, and to volunteer for social projects serving the youth.

“Although this was only a collection of their short yet truthful stories, these students pointed us to an unexplored treasure, raw gems hidden in mines. The data obtained from our journey greatly surprised our leadership board and made them much more confident in Vietnamese students’ potential capabilities. Such experience also strengthened my belief that these students would be the best co-creators of Fulbright University,” Ngan said.

Based on what they discovered about Vietnamese students throughout the trip, Ngan and Mark worked together to classify data and eventually came up with seven personas of “typical Fulbright users”. These personas then played as a “compass” in the designing process of Fulbright’s inaugural academic programs and admissions.

In a meeting later in Boston, the University’s Board made an important decision to conduct the Co-Design Year before officially launching the undergraduate program. This meant designing a school year that allows Fulbright faculty and students to explore innovative educational ideas, prototype them and then to refine a proper undergraduate education.

Soon after the Co-Design Year concept was approved, Fulbright team organized various workshops to introduce Fulbright project in leading American universities, including MIT, Harvard, and Stanford in an extensive search for like-minded founding faculty.

Since the Co-Design Year is a radically unique idea in Vietnam, they intentionally tried every effort to get different Vietnamese constituencies involved from the beginning.  In early 2017, similar workshops were conducted in Ho Chi Minh city with the participation of prominent educators, employers, parents and highschoolers. Their feedback, then, was incorporated into the University design.

Proven Belief

In the fall of 2017, Ngan and the Admissions team traveled across Vietnam again in search for Co-design students. She visited 26 high schools in 22 provinces and cities to introduce, for the first time, the newly established university that was designed based on the dreams of students, whom Ngan met in her previous trans Vietnam trip.

During the trip, Ngan was touched by the story of five high school students from Nguyen Binh Khiem High School for the Gifted (Quang Nam), who started a mushroom planting project. They talked about the project’s success enthusiastically and asked if they could submit it as a proposal for the admissions process, so the whole team can apply to Fulbright University.

“How can Fulbright find raw gems hidden in the rough? This is a journey full of surprises and amazing discoveries about the young, creative, and talented generations of Vietnam. They encouraged us to believe that Fulbright’s educational ideas can come true,” Ngan said.

The appeal of Fulbright model became more evident during the admissions process of the Co-Design Year, conducted in late 2017. While other Vietnamese universities selected students based on their grades and test scores, Fulbright designed a unique, holistic assessment process that emphasized on student’s abilities as a whole person.  Its success in recruiting a diverse student body of talents across Vietnam has demonstrated Fulbright’s assumption about Vietnamese students.

“One example was when we observed students teaming up in the interview round. There was no competition as usual. Instead, students were put into a nurturing environment to explore their talent, and work together; they did not feel mutually exclusive but mutually supportive. When I saw young students, unfamiliar with one another, bid farewell amicably after the admissions process, I thought: “Yes, this works.” The Co-Design Year is a feasible idea.”

Fulbright’s Co-Design Year just lasted for 9 months. Nonetheless, Ngan knows that it will take longer to truly understand the value of their past experiments.

“I still remember Mark Sommerville once said that we can learn something from failures and grow from there. The Co-Design Year is a remarkable year. We have come to understand one another, deeply know our “users” and learn how to respond to challenges and changes. Co-creation spirit, thus, will be a striking feature of Fulbright University Vietnam”, Ngan added.

* Dr. Dinh Vu Trang Ngan is now Fulbright University Vietnam’s Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

Xuan Linh

 “It’s hard to believe that when brilliant scholars come into the city, the first place they think of presenting in is an art gallery or a café, when we have this university with guaranteed academic freedom, amazing students and faculty, and a dedicated venue. I want Fulbright to be the first stop. We have so much to offer.”

Sitting by the beautiful waterfront across the Fulbright University Vietnam campus, we talked with Dr. Ian Kalman, resident professor at Fulbright, who initiated our first academic conference: “New approaches to university education in Asia”, held February this year. This was the biggest conference of its kind to take place in the region outside of Singapore, with 129 applicants from more than 20 countries. Ian also helped launch and led Fulbright’s Speaker Series, a (mostly) bi-weekly presentation from academic researchers from around the world on computing, psychology, history, coffee and linguistics, among others. We discussed his journey to Fulbright University Vietnam from New York City’s suburbs, his dedication to education, and Fulbright’s promise as an academic hub, fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and research in the region.

The quiet professor has a long track record as an initiative starter: “I love to build things and watch them grow. I was in student government everywhere, I was part of the effort to build up the conference at McGill for grad students, where we pushed to get funding. Now, it’s one of the biggest international graduate anthropology conferences in the world. The last time I was there, we had people from Hong Kong. If you push into your networks consistently, you’ll get talent from all over the place.” This made moving to Fulbright at the very beginning of the Co-Design Year, a great idea for three different reasons: it is an institution-building effort, a place of higher education, and maintains a “spirit of adventure.

Ian (front row) celebrating Teachers’ Day at Fulbright

“I think that we’re building one of the best student bodies I’ve ever worked with. I’ve taught all over the world, I’ve taught in multiple continents at all sorts of advanced and beginner University levels. And I can say without reservation I’ ve never worked with students this good, who excel both in content, and in their creativity and criticality using that content.”

A short introduction

Ian Kalman grew up in New York City from a Jewish household. Ian’s parents were the first in his family to go to college and encouraged him to pursue a more prestigious education. From public schools in NYC, Ian pursued a Bachelor’s of Anthropology at University of Chicago and was the first in his family to go to a graduate school. “My parents imparted to me the value of education for social mobility, and my university’s liberal arts focus brought me from being a pretty mediocre high school student to being someone who really cared a lot about their studies. To this day, the rigorous core education and the philosophy of lifelong learning I acquired there affect my life positively to this day.”

After graduating in 2005, he became a Peace Corps volunteer in China, teaching people in a small rural village. “I was already passionate about education, tutoring and providing literacy training on the south side of Chicago in 2004. I don’t think I was very good at it at first, but I wanted to get better. I spent the next three years in universities and private schools, from China to Ukraine and then Turkey.”

Dr. Ian Kalman, Faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam

In 2009, Ian pursued a PhD in Anthropology from McGill University, focusing on the interactions between border officers and Native Americans, and from 2012-13 worked out of the research office in a native American community, developing policy reports for them, and training materials for border officers servicing the region. At the intersection of culture, indigenous rights, and governmental institutions, Ian’s work is part of an emerging field of research, law and anthropology. “After my field work, I finished my thesis at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and helped them build their law and anthropology department. This was really exciting, the first years of a new field.”

Fostering multiple perspectives

Ian’s passion for education and his interest in interdisciplinary research seem to originate from the same source. At its core, it’s both a desire for better communication, and deeper understanding. “I love the teaching aspect of things. Back at McGill, I was adjuncting more than anybody else. And then I transferred to their political science department: people in policy and politics don’t necessarily read anthropologists, so I wanted to write to the audience that makes these decisions.”

Whether to offer quality liberal arts education, to engage with researchers outside of your field or country, or to sharpen your arguments and creativity, the benefits are endless. “Academia tends towards hyper specialization, which in evolutionary terms is not very good for survival, but in academic terms might be necessary. But I’ve always been proud of being more of a generalist. The fact that I’m able to engage with different theories, different methodological approaches, is I think a boon to a place like Fulbright.

This is how we work through our ideas and refine them, as well as how we disseminate them. I find it extremely useful at both in my own research and in interactions to talk to people from different disciplines, both because of what we understand, and what we don’t. Giving a talk to an engaged audience that ask challenging questions you never thought of or listening to someone’s insights and exploratory ideas from an entirely different place, is the absolute best way to refine intellectual discourse. In that aspect, the conference was a huge success, both in terms of academic topics and geographical diversity.”

Dr. Kalman having a conversation with Dr. Daniel Lee Kim (from Pelita Harapan University, Indonesia), who attended Fulbright’s 2019 Academic Conference

This is true for professors, from all around the world, who participated in the conference, but it is also doubly true for the students at our university, a major motivation for Ian. “Our visibility locally and in the ASEAN region opens doors for future cooperation, becoming an intellectual center for HCMC, for Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We can create an opportunity for students to see and participate in this cutting-edge research currently taking place at other institutions. It’s valuable for the students both as an opportunity to, for them to learn from the presentations, but also this form of modeling of what it is to think through a difficult problem and to come up with innovative ways to understand it. They ask good questions and they’re infinitely curious. This is what I love, you know: when the talk ends and a group of students and the public from beyond the university line up to talk with the speakers afterwards. That’s wonderful.”

Antoine R. Touch

A little-known fact about Ms. Le Thi Quynh Tram, Fulbright University Vietnam’s Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, is that she is an enthusiastic bird photographer. Having been to numerous national parks and wildlife reserves to capture rare birds, Ms. Tram aspires to show everyone the astonishing beauty of nature and help raise awareness about environmental problems and sustainable development.

She once held a small exhibition on Fulbright campus, titled “The Colors of Nature”, with photos taken from all around Asia. Apart from rare, endangered birds, she also captures more common, urban species. Some of the photographed birds are on the IUCN Red list, while others can be found within a small radius around the Fulbright campus. Tram intends to put her photos up for auction to raise fund for academic activities and projects at Fulbright that are related to art or nature conservation.

Ms. Le Thi Quynh Tram is an enthusiastic bird photographer

Among Tram’s artworks, some of the most breathtaking shots were taken on the Otowa bridge in the Tsurui-mura village, Japan. In the frosty morning air at -18 C, Tram and her fellow photographers had to get up at 3 a.m. to set up their equipment and patiently wait for the first rays of the sun to awaken the siege of red-crowned cranes.

Below is an excerpt from Tram’s journal:

“I have on me six layers of thermal tops, three layers of pants, two layers of socks and two layers of headwear, bolstered by warmers in my trekking shoes, gloves and jacket pockets to increase body temperature. Only while standing still for hours in this weather can one understand how cruelly the cold seeps in. My blood vessels are constricted, my fingertips and toes are numb and no matter how I try to warm myself up by running in place, it doesn’t help.

After just one night, the spindly, leafless branches of the trees are covered in a layer of white frost, like a scene taken straight out of a fairy tale. In the faraway river, the red-crowned cranes are sleeping, standing in a thermal spring that helps keep them warm.

A heavenly scene captured in the numbing weather

Thin curtains of steam evaporate from the river surface. The break of dawn is the coldest time of the day. As the temperature is below dew point, the air is saturated and water vapor condenses into mist. The lower the temperature is, the thicker the mist becomes.

The dark sky starts to brighten, first to a deep blue color, then shifting gradually to a yellow-pink ombre. As the rays of light gently touch the frosted treetops, they sparkle. One by one, the cranes wake up. After hours of finding the right angles and adjusting the cameras settings, we start to get to work. Blissfully, the whole scene comes to life under the sun. The humans, the cranes and even the landscape are all livened up by the sunlight.

Awaken by the sun

This ethereal scene only lasts a few ephemeral minutes. In order to capture such precious moments, besides the painstaking preparation of equipment, we must also hope for supportive weather, or as one of us jokingly says, the blessings of the “Photo God”. In this moment, we all forget about the cold, heated by our concentration and desire to take shots worth remembering for a lifetime.

Flying in the blizzard

At some point, I get carried away and take off my gloves in order to adjust my camera more quickly and precisely. I lose sensation the moment my skin touches the metal block that is my camera, seeped as it was for hours in freezing temperatures. I can’t help but keep going, despite the ruthless blizzard winds blowing at 85km/h.

Dance of the red-crowned cranes

The photos were the fruits of four hours on the Otowa bridge in the Tsurui-mura village. Although by the time we finish shooting, the cranes are yet to fully awaken and have not finished their morning dances, the glacial temperature and the marvelous sights are eternally engraved in my mind. Being able to witness such a breathtaking view of nature, I am forever grateful.”

Some other wonderful shots taken by Ms. Le Thi Quynh Tram:

Steller’s sea eagle


White Crested Laughingthrush

Yellow-fronted Leafbird

Black Drongo

Olive-backed sunbird

White-headed stilt

Silver-eared mesia

Red-tailed Laughingthrush

While microscopes are her favorite, pen and paper characterize another aspect of Raj.

The road to the lab

In a house tucked among Mysore’s iconic palaces and temples, a young girl was bending over, trying to breathe life into her portrayal of a lotus – her hometown’s traditional flower. This scene, far from being an anomaly, soon became a signature of the house, leading the girl’s parents to be confident that their daughter would pursue art.

The girl, now in her twenties, finds herself indissolubly linked to biology, a discipline whose embodiment of artistic creativity often proves elusive to many.

Born to a pair of doctors in Mysore, a royal city steeped in Indian tradition, Professor Samhitha Raj enjoyed a happy childhood alongside supportive parents. That probably explains her undaunted advancement towards the male-dominated field of science in a country where academia is still ridden with discrimination on the grounds of caste and gender.

“My parents didn’t discourage me from going into science,” Raj said, her eyes sparkling with pride and gratefulness.

Raj’s enthusiasm for science, particularly mathematics and biology, was spotted early and nurtured all the way through university as she opted for a degree in Bioengineering. Yet, it was not long before she realized she had a propensity for scientific thinking, at which point she decided to follow the calling of biology in the next phase of her life.

“I got my undergraduate degree in Bioengineering because I like biology and I love math, so I wanted to combine the two. But then I realized I didn’t think as an engineer. I thought more as a scientist,” Raj said.

This momentary insight led to a career of longevity. From that moment onward, Raj dedicated herself to understanding the core of biology, which, for Raj, began at themolecular level.

Professor Samhitha Raj

During her six years at the University of Michigan, where she worked as a graduate student, Raj conducted research into the role of thyroid hormones in modulating DNA methylation in the development of the vertebrate brain, a topic that has enthralled her ever since.

Albeit guided by her burning passion, Raj’s career path was no bed of roses. Raj recollected falling victim to sexual harassment during her stint at an Indian research institute, which hindered her from focusing wholeheartedly on her project.

“I felt no gender-based disparagement in terms of opportunity,” Raj asserted. “But the inappropriate behavior of some male colleagues at that institute reflected badly on my experience as a female scientist.”

Beyond the lab

A scientist by profession and an artist by instinct, Raj was also a journalist, though for only a while. Upon graduating from JSS Science and Technology University, she made her foray into journalism by attending a few courses that spanned a total of one year. Reminiscing about this unique endeavor, Raj concurred that adding the journalism chapter to her all-science storybook was a wise move.

“My whole pursuit had been science, so I wanted to try and see what journalism was like. As part of the practice, I had to redefine what I had done previously to make science a topic understandable to everybody,” she recalled. An ability to communicate sophisticated scientific findings to the layperson was what Raj acquired from those journalism courses, extricating her out of the ivory tower that isolates researchers from the outside world.

Take a look back at Raj’s history, and none should be surprised that when she talks about writing, she doesn’t solely mean writing on paper. Since university, Raj has tried writing into space, and now considers bringing it into her classroom.

“During my years at college, I choreographed classical Indian pieces,” revealed Raj. “I’ve talked with Jill about the possibility of a class that combines yoga and Indian dancing. We will see.”

In the wake of her cross-field experiences, transdisciplinarity appears to have permeated Raj’s life and mediated her choice-making mindset. Last September, from the other half of the globe, Raj traversed oceans and fields for a job interview in Vietnam.

The interview turned her life, as a scientist, upside down. She was co-opted onto the team of Founding Faculty Members at Fulbright University Vietnam, the country’s first non-profit liberal arts institution.

While the term ‘liberal arts’ brings music to the ears of creative artists and social scientists, it, in the conservative’s eyes, is a curse on the career prospects of natural scientists. Hanging in the air is the question of how a natural scientist may make a mark in a university where the laboratory goes by conspicuous absence, and education is interpreted as an integrative project rather than the in-depth exploration of any predetermined discipline.

This problem, however, doesn’t seem to demoralize Raj. The lotus in the lab remains optimistic about what the future holds in store for her, possibly because she sees transdisciplinarity as a vehicle for scientific fluidity.

“The university will support me in whatever ways it can. And personally, I have to make a choice. I made the choice that to me, teaching science is a little bit more important than doing research work,” Raj smiled. “I love collaborating with other faculty members here to get different perspectives, and the transdisciplinary learning is really what I’m looking forward to.”

In Module 5 of the Co-Design Year, Raj instructs the Grand Challengescourse with KinHo Chan, a Fulbright neuroscientist. Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous century, the course strives to harness a common ground between disciplines in identifying, analyzing and tackling pressing issues ranging from climate change to genetic engineering. So, instead of experimenting with microscopes, Raj is having fun experimenting with the big wide world. 

Dang Thi Hoai Linh

(Student of Co-Design year)

  • Photographer : Nguyen Nhu Phuong Anh

Dr. Skultip (Jill) Sirikantraporn is a founding faculty of Fulbright University Vietnam. She used to be a licensed clinical psychologist in California and New York with research interests in trauma, resilience, and positive psychology in the context of cross-cultural and international psychology. Fulbright focuses on her story at our campus:

Her smile pierced the thickest of souls. Her laugh sang like a melody. In the child’s presence, Dr. Skultip Sirikantraporn (Jill Siri) could not help but be seduced.

As part of her university studies in Bangkok, Thailand, Dr. Siri decided to work with sex workers and their children. That course altered her trajectory, inspiring her to work in clinical psychology.

“I saw these families’ incredible amount of resilience and hope they displayed despite the accumulated stress and discrimination they faced,” she said. “It planted a strong seed in me that grew into my own personal and career development.”

She then worked in various mental health settings: a nursing home where she designed treatment to foster holistic healing, inpatient psychiatric hospitals where she served people with severe mental illness and substance abuse disorders, and an outpatient counseling center where she worked with Asian Pacific Island clients.

Now at Fulbright University Vietnam, Dr. Siri is leveraging her experience in clinical psychology to lead the university’s Wellness Center. With her research on trauma and resilience across cultures, she is shaping the university’s approach to ensure mental health is a pillar of student development.

“Most of the time wellness, especially mental wellness, is something thought about later in university settings, and it takes a lot of work to integrate it,” Dr. Siri said. “Academic success cannot be taken out of mental and psychological growth. We at Fulbright are in a leading position in that we are incorporating mental wellness as a major element of who we are as a university from the get-go.”

The Wellness Task Force comprises faculty, staff, and members of Safe Haven, the student psychology club.

“Everyone on the team is motivated purely by their desire to support our students. Their dedication for student wellbeing motivates me and inspires many of our efforts,” she said.

Based on the Task Force’s feedback on existing needs, Dr. Siri has provided Mental Health First Aid training to Student Life staff, Residential Advisors, and Peer Mentors with plans to expand this training to the entire Fulbright community.

Going forward, Dr. Siri envisions Fulbright’s Wellness Center playing a pivotal role in creating a campus culture that supports psychological growth. Initially, it will design and execute prevention, intervention, and crisis management activities for Fulbright’s community. In time, the center will partner with grassroots and non-profit organizations to serve the larger community.

Dr. Siri has already started gathering insights from local psychiatrists, psychologists, and students in Vietnam to ground the center in the Vietnamese context. She stressed the importance of the center operating as a research hub that works with local resources and existing knowledge.

“Most of the existing theories in clinical psychology were developed in the West,” she said. “It is important to understand those theories, but we should not assume that we can or should adopt their methodologies to Vietnam.”

She outlined two emerging themes from her initial conversations in the medical community. First, the mental health profession in Vietnam is in a nascent stage with needs regarding licensing standards, increasing access to mental health services, and educating the public to destigmatize mental illness. Second, the profession needs to strategize for its own expansion and change.

“With Vietnam’s rapid development, strong mental health and wellness policies will be essential to enable people to fully participate in the socioeconomic development of the country,” she said. “At Fulbright, I am energized by the idea that we can support practices and research that aid Vietnam’s psychological and emotional growth alongside its economic growth.”