A different kind of university

Like many young Vietnamese students, I wanted to study abroad. But between my academic results and the associated financial burden, this option proved to be unrealistic.  Although I studied at a high school for the gifted, I definitely wasn’t an academic rock star. Except for Biology, I didn’t do very well because I didn’t have much interest in what I was studying. I felt out of place in that system, instead learning by myself on topics I cared about, especially philosophy. I spent a lot of time at the library. Fulbright turned out to be one of few options available to me and at the time felt like a limited choice. But it proved to be exactly what I was looking for.

Nguyen Cao Nghi, Class of 2023

Most of the classes and activities here align very well with my philosophy of studying. For example, our Creating and Making professor, David Bruce, shares a similar passion for self-exploration, endlessly encouraging us to investigate and solve problems that are important and interesting to us. To find our own motivation to achieve things, bringing creations into the world, instead of completing a task because it’s what someone requires from us.

In that sense, Creating and Making is not your ordinary engineering class. But beyond that, its true value, and the value of Fulbright in general, is in the mentorship and support we receive. This is an environment where encounters and ideas can instigate completely new projects.

Project “Germinate”

One day, David sent me an email, sharing articles and resources that he found, as well as his ideas involving bio-art. This is a fairly recent field incorporating biotechnological processes and tools into art, borrowing or embedding living processes, such as live tissues, bacteria, organisms and life processes into artworks. The goal is to ask questions or provoke conversations regarding society, humanity, and the way we see the world.

Dr. David Bruce in a Creating and Making class

He knew I was interested in both biology and art. Originally, his inspiration came from how he usually gets sick around his children, and how his children do not wash their hands thoroughly or often enough. He also saw the same issue at Fulbright. For him, this project was an opportunity to educate people about hygiene and about washing hands. How do you make the invisible visible in creative ways to entertain and enlighten? After our first meeting and brainstorming session, the project grew and expanded far from its original scope.

GERMINATE was born. A group of 6 Fulbrighters experimenting with living cells, using every field of study from philosophy, ethics, communication, visual culture, aesthetics, microbiology, laboratory work, engineering, and even possibly marketing. We collected bacteria from different areas at Fulbright. We grow them in petri dishes and try to find meaningful ways to use them. We preserve them using epoxy resin. We draw with them, grow patterns, or use a fluorescent medium. We build abstract installations, and even started a video log. My group and I oversee this project and have full creative ownership.

A set of petri dishes

Stirring nutrient agar

Extracting bacteria. lactobacilli, to draw with

It is very important to educate people about basic microbiology and disease prevention, but in a climate of rising concerns and panic that surrounds the coronavirus, our focus has shifted towards more positive aspects of microbiology. We intend to leverage some interesting properties of more benign microorganisms to spur conversations on philosophical matters such as life, the human condition, and the relationship between humankind and the rest of the biosphere. The encouragement and support we have received for such an ambitious and transdisciplinary project are unlike any I’ve encountered in other institutions.

 The creative village

David spurred us to action and made suggestions, especially on the topics of materials, engineering, and chemistry, his field of expertise, for example on the proper use of epoxy. We also received guidance from Samhitha Raj, another professor here who specializes in molecular, cellular and developmental Biology. We had additional help from our academic advisors. Not only has their advice been instrumental in getting this project started, but having that ongoing support really gives us the courage to carry on and follow through. It keeps us motivated. Our mentors are so invested in guiding students and through their enthusiasm, I aspire to be relied on as well, and to be held accountable.

Preparing growth medium

Beyond that, I feel that this project is nurtured by many aspects of our studies. Our Creating and Making class has taught us the fundamentals of working together as a team in a project driven approach. We focus on our objectives, have a timeline, and distribute tasks. We listen to each other. From the first week of our project, our approach to material experimentation was very systematic. Visual Culture, another core course, taught us to go beyond “art as beautiful”, and into “art that sparks conversations and challenges ways of thinking”. This critical approach to analyzing and making art is very important for what we set out to achieve. Our endeavor has purpose beyond the aesthetic, and beyond the scientific.

The importance of interdisciplinary

Art and Science are often seen as incompatible, as they don’t share the same vocabulary and operate from different paradigms. But both can generate insights into the world. And as the world and societies become increasingly complex, people from different fields need to communicate more. Contemporary issues can only be solved by working on them from several angles. At Fulbright, our project is an opportunity for students to reflect on what kind of vocabulary, what kind of collaboration is required for fields to synergize. In a sense, this project is a way to bridge the gap, to challenge education and institutions to facilitate more of these conversations.

This is a major source of motivation for me, as my interests are very varied. Some aspects of computer science, cellular biology, the brain, semantics, complex systems, a little bit of artificial intelligence, a lot of philosophy, some art. I don’t believe in fields or disciplines, which can be a challenge in Vietnam’s education system; we reached out to students of other universities, and the response was that students need to focus on their studies.

Although there is a dire need for this form of exploration, it is true that such projects consume a lot of time, both from faculty and students: big picture, long term conceptualization on the one hand, but also materials, resources, and a space on the other. Fulbright not only facilitates the space and freedom to explore outside of traditional studies, but actively encourages it.

This is where my personal interests and academic inclinations can thrive, and it is where GERMINATE can exist. It is now under the umbrella of the Fulbright Art Lab, a club here on campus that boasts at least 7 projects and counting. We are preparing for our exhibition coming up at the beginning of April, the very first art exhibition here at Fulbright, and its first big transdisciplinary, student-led, and student-curated project.  Our creative and scientific adventure is only beginning, and we are excited to share the fruits of our exploration then.


Nguyen Cao Nghi – Class of 2023

After finishing her final Creating and Making readout, Thai Thanh Mi (Class of 2023) came to a conclusion: This class is anything but the typical engineering class she had expected.

I used to frequently refer to Creating and Making as “Engineering 101”. But as the course progressed, my perception shifted drastically. From the first day to the end, the course felt, to be frank, really easy. Before taking the class, I had imagined it to be an instructive course for so-called hard skills. Not everyone is familiar with tools and equipment, neither for that matter with the workflow of a product designer/engineer.

Yet there was no rigid structure to follow. Instead, things were very flexible, focused more on self-exploration. Specific fields of knowledge, or task forces, were assigned to be peer-taught. The instructors did not tell us what to do or what to think, but rather encouraged us to learn the techniques by ourselves. Even for our final products, no example was given to model our work after, no standard technique or construction style to be followed, with no compulsory requirement or obligation.

In that regard, Creating and Making upended all expectations I had from other courses and “college life” in general. Unlike Vietnamese Studies and Rhetoric, with its many reading materials to be completed and the variety of writing assignments to submit every week or two, or Logic and Limitations with its difficult math and convoluted problems related to life and cosmology, Creating and Making seemed facile.

There was no sight of sleep deprivation, of anxiety over late submission, or trouble of comprehension. Which, when you’re expecting an engineering course, can be paradoxically overwhelming. It was less, but also so much more than what I had expected.  The point of the class was not the product. It was instead a process.

It is true that by nature the class requires a hands-on learning experience as we explored and problem solved to craft. Bamboo is a demanding material, and other aspects such as coding and implementing the right electronic components are equally exacting. It was great to learn the technical skills in using tools and equipment. But Creating and Making is so much more than learning to handle and produce client budgets, sketches and final products.

The focus instead was on an interdisciplinary process of which the complexity of collaboration and interdependence is prioritized. Rather than Engineering, Teamwork is the main theme of this class. Students are expected to follow a working methodology called Scrum/Sprint Cycle, which creates opportunities for everyone to contribute and progress collectively while maintain the independent working capability of an individual.

There are still of course, aspects of engineering involved. The process of ideation and brainstorming, sketch formation, and the concept of a minimum viable product are obvious first interpretation goals of the course. But what I have found to be much more compelling about this class is the framework that helps us establish every interpersonal skill that will continue to be relevant in a real life working environment, even for students who do not follow an engineering specialization. As we had the absolute freedom to achieve whatever we wished, the only condition was we did it together.

A bamboo scooter – Thanh Mi’s group’s product

Indeed, we learned effective communication – how to pay attention, to be informative and inspirational, to resolve differences. To assess mutual aspirations in a collective environment. We discovered you don’t necessarily have to be communicative in order to be an excellent communicator, but rather to be constructive in your feedback and criticism, and to set a common norm and working habits for cooperation between team members.

We also realized the importance of being receptive to and addressing each other’s emotional needs. Our professors encouraged us to not be afraid to ask questions such as “How do you want to feel?” or “How do you expect to be treated?”, and David Bruce, one of our professors, even provided polls. It was surprising to me that emotions would be brought to the forefront. It seemed ordinary and cliché, but turned out absolutely essential when put in context of a collective working environment.

How we feel play a crucial role in our professionalism, if only in helping us keeping our heads cool, and to strive for our team to be as open and straightforward to each other as possible when laying down common interests and expectations was a game changer. Having the course facilitating that truly elevated our learning/working experience.

Beyond our cooperation skills, the freedom that made the course seem so confusingly easy had deeper meaning. Yes, the instructors will not follow you around to remind you of your working schedule, nor will they strike away a percent in your grade as a warning for your lack of participation. Yes, this is somewhat paradoxical: we had instructors who refused to instruct.

And it made me feel lost. Until I realized we are supposed to get lost, and make decisions, and make mistakes. The professors would then help us guide ourselves. This means we had not only more liberty for ideation, but also greater opportunity to find our own motivation, to organize – or learn to organize – our personal working schedule, as well as discover our own sense of responsibility.

In order to achieve the minimum viable product that your team had decided to bring to completion, each team member is made accountable for their own productivity. Students get to decide what their products will be, but most importantly, how they want to progress. In that sense, having the liberty and self-determination, a collaborative spirit of innovation, but also ownership of our learning, is everything that Fulbright means by creating and making. So if any class can best represent what it means to be a Fulbrighter, it is, without a doubt, Creating and Making.

Thai Thanh Mi – Class of 2023

Nguyen Phuong Thao is a Class of 2023 Fulbrighter who has just finished her Visual Culture course. It revealed to her an entire new career path that she is now greatly excited about.

For a very long time, as a math major, I had set investment banking and finance as my career goal. So when came the time to take the core course Visual Culture, I wasn’t sure how well I could follow or how much interest I would have in this seemingly art-oriented class. I was very scared. After all, lots of my classmates were very knowledgeable about the topic. I questioned myself: how can I benefit from this class? How can I participate? I was at a loss as to how to proceed and contribute my ideas to the conversations. I saw myself as completely different from them, an outlier in both my opinions and ways of thinking around the material.

Fulbright students visiting a lacquer studio in Da Nang

Fortunately, studying here I realized so much of what we learn can be used to succeed in other classes, and there is much to learn from other areas of expertise. Vietnamese Studies for example really prepared us to deeply and efficiently think through our many readings. Logic and Limitations taught me a lot of what I know about not only expressing my ideas, but to really make sure they are conveyed. Even my advisor here at Fulbright, Kevin Hart, specializes in literature, not math. We always strive to find different ways to approach a topic. He opened the way for me to take full advantage of the class, and his advice was very straightforward. Try to see the correlations, the connections, and how you can apply this knowledge to your goals. Find your own questions to ask. The obvious but shallow solution was to use visual culture as a useful topic to discuss with people from the finance industry, my chosen field, which didn’t satisfy me.

I then came to several realizations.

Firstly, I’ve always been worried of the possibility in investment banking to focus too much on profits, and thus lose a part of my moral principles or my humanity. I’m preparing the chartered financial analyst program, and CFA graduates have to take a pledge of ethics and integrity. I take this very seriously. We need to see more ethics in the finance world. We need to build a better understanding of integrity, and more empathy. Can we have a standard of ethics to guide us through life? Do we decide on a case by case basis? This question stays with me and courses like visual culture help me investigate.

Secondly, it became evident this was a whole industry I could invest in. What is a metric for success in our visual culture class? Knowledge about art, references and concepts to experience it, articulate it? That’s not the entire picture. We should look about the entire ecosystem that makes the art world, from the paintings, to the artists, but also the audience who experience art, and the market. So I took this market approach to the class.

Thao and Aaron, her Visual Culture teacher

Aaron who teaches Visual Culture gave us so much support, even when it comes to disagreeing and challenging. I was very afraid my ideas would go contrary to everyone else’s, but he was completely open to self-study and encourages exploration. This was a platform where I could contribute to the community from a very different background.

And then I fell in love with visual culture. I loved to debate and argue, was thrilled by the readings, discovered so much about myself and my assumptions. Before visual culture, I already enjoyed art and photography, but had never considered myself knowledgeable enough to pursue it. Trading and making profits were always important concerns for my career choices. Now I am more solid, and trust that I can follow my interest and still make money. Keeping an open mind, challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone brought me to unexpected discoveries, and I came to decide I would open an ethical art dealership.

Thao talking to Oanh Phi Phi, an accomplished lacquer artist

Indeed, through the class and with our professors’ help, I’ve had the chance to talk with artists and other actors in the industry, and discovered that commercial art dealers take a very large commission when selling artworks, which must be corrected if we want thriving and fair commerce.  I’ve researched lacquer in particular, which holds so much promise as a booming market inside and outside of Vietnam. I can use connections in institutions to help others and move the conversation forward, raising the profile of Vietnam internationally, while promoting and improving access to art and art education, which is always a challenge. I can also use my skills in relationship building, marketing, product sales, turn my expertise into a force for society and others. This course I was so reluctant to take, showed me a path forward. A path where I can follow my passion, help others and my country, while securing my financial future all at the same time. A path of purpose.

Nguyen Phuong Thao (Class of 2023)

At 8 years old, I was a hyperenergetic child that gave my parents a hard time pacifying. A short course of martial arts that was supposed to burn my excessive energy was counterproductive when I started “practicing” on my poor little brother. As a last resort to simmer me down, mom sent me to a guitar class. Unexpectedly, it was the beginning of my passion for music.

In just one month, I improved immensely. I appeared to have a talent for music, as I could practice new pieces with ease and enthusiasm. Music was what I enjoyed learning the most. Guitar had become more than just a hobby – I couldn’t live without it. After zealously performing at local shows and participating in local guitar contests, I accumulated a small collection of prizes. With the care and attention needed to tend a garden, I nourished my love for music. The more I practiced the guitar, the more I realized it had become an inseparable part of myself.

Experiencing outside the box

The freshman year of high school is an important milestone for everyone. With my desire to learn in a nurturing, dynamic and open environment, which is rather scarce in my hometown, Pleiku, I decided to aim for Gia Lai province’s only school for gifted students. I failed to get in the English-specialized class, so I chose chemistry instead even though I didn’t care much for it. This probably explains why I felt incomplete throughout high school, with the mediocre scores to boot. I was always yearning for more, as if something essential was missing from my life.

In the summer of 10th grade, the stuffy environment of Pleiku bored me out. There was no space for me to develop musically. Stuck in a repetitive routine and tedious extra classes, I felt like a bird entrapped in a cage, longing to break free and fly among the clouds in a boundless blue sky. I wanted nothing more than to learn more, experience more outside the classroom.

On one occasion, I hosted a couch surfer from the US. My hospitality and enthusiasm made us good friends and he invited me to come visit him some time in Sai Gon, where he was living and working. I was intrigued, as I had always wanted to explore this city, the cultural hub known for its vibrant music scene.

I asked my parents for permission to travel to Sai Gon, to learn from the best, to familiarize myself with the professional music world and hopefully build a network in this community. Moreover, I wanted to practice my English skills. Worried about my safety going there alone, my mother rejected this idea. Surprisingly, I earned my father’s support, who even provided me a small amount of money for my trip. Without missing a beat, I packed my things and hit the road.

The experience was way beyond my expectations. I visited my old friend in Sai Gon, who serendipitously had a musician friend from Berklee coming over – a prestigious music academy in the US. Despite my limited language proficiency at the time, I learned a lot from them. I could witness what a true musician’s life was like.

In those two weeks, I roamed the streets of Sai Gon with a borrowed guitar. I was introduced to the professionals here, and these encounters revealed a tempting yet challenging path as an artist. I also

reunited with an acquaintance from my guitar class in Gia Lai, who helped me define my goals in regards to music. With my horizon broadened, I felt more refreshed and energized than ever.

I was astonished with how much I was inspired and how much my musical skills improved. I became more serious with music. Normally, at first sight, I could appear somewhat distant and cold, as I am naturally reserved. I usually shy away from being the center of the crowd. Yet the guitar grants me with a “superpower” that allows me to forget about the surroundings whenever I play it. As I start strumming, I become one with the instrument. There is truly no other feeling as mesmerizing as being able to harmonize with a voice and reverberate with the audience.

Upon my return to Gia Lai, I was full of plans and participated more actively in my school’s music club as the vice president. I put my heart into organizing workshops and mini concerts as a way to bring a breath of fresh air to Gia Lai, the highland province where music life was rather underdeveloped.

The path ahead

For most students from a chemistry-specialized class, the seemingly obvious career choice is the healthcare industry. Yet, I wonder if most of us are making career choices of convenience, before actual exploration or inquiry. I believe many of my peers who followed higher education in medical or pharmaceutical majors were unaware of their career prospects, or forging ahead without much excitement.

I found myself standing at a crossroad: To pursue music professionally, or not. Should I apply to a music school, or just keep playing recreationally? Even though I had been trying to establish an initial launchpad for my musical career should I choose to follow one, I was reluctant. The only thing I knew for sure, was that I could never abandon music.

I once reached out to a music class, with the spontaneously audacious intention to apply to the Conservatory. Though it was risky, I put my hopes up for it. Yet the instructor rained on my parade saying there was no way I could improve my skills in time for the audition. The application form was put aside and once again, I chose a safer path. On my list of college choices, the Foreign Trade University and other economic institutions were on top, followed by Social Sciences and Humanities schools. Music did not even make that list. Even though the idea of studying abroad did cross my mind, I did not have the resources and qualifications to follow through.

Sometimes, happenstances come about without any anticipation. From a post on the Facebook page “Tony Buổi sáng”, I came to know Fulbright. Out of curiosity, I came to an admissions event, only to be blown away by the endless possibilities here. Fulbright was displaying with such vibrant colors: compelling, energetic, experiential and most importantly, liberating. The fact that you can pursue music alongside another major here was more than persuasive to me. That was exactly what I was looking for – an opportunity to keep exploring more options without having to leave music behind. The Original Piece of Work I submitted for Fulbright’s admissions application was my performance of “Romance D’ Amour”, the very first piece I had the chance to play on stage at age 8.

The first-year curriculum at Fulbright includes extensive core courses, which range from Natural science to Logic, Rhetoric or Vietnamese Studies. I also took part in various extra-curricular activities, like workshops and an entrepreneurship bootcamp. It helped me realize how none of those subjects seem to be the right track for me. I finally saw I had been beating around the bush and searching for easier routes all along, but I couldn’t dedicate myself thoroughly unless it was to music.

Ever since I was a child, I have always been stubborn and tenacious, doing things my own way without relying on or consulting with anyone. My parents neither forbid nor demand that I follow any particular direction, I have to figure out my own choices. Whenever I have to come to a decision on anything, I always spent a lot of time deliberating and pondering, and this time it was no different.

Tien Cong and Fulbright’s Provost Ian Bickford

I was not born into a family of artistic tradition. My parents are under the common impression that art requires tremendous investments without guaranteeing a stable future. The fact that none of my friends who performed with me chose to follow music as a career was not to my advantage, either.

Without such catalyst, my road is undoubtedly more challenging. But I know where to start – by perfecting my technical skills, equipping myself with knowledge and ceaselessly searching for opportunities to study professionally. Although Berklee still seems to be quite out of reach, they do have promising exchange programs. Hopefully, one day I will be able to stand on a big stage and perform music to my heart’s content. One day, my original compositions will see the light of day.

My journey has just begun.

Nguyen Le Tien Cong – Class of 2023