September 30, 2020

The warm-hearted librarian at Fulbright school

September 30, 2020

A day in mid-2007, in the office of Ben Wilkinson, Harvard Vietnam Program representative of Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP), a candidate for a part-time librarian position was waiting for a job interview.

The candidate was Truong Minh Hoa, a bachelor’s degree holder from Library and Information Science Faculty of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. Hoa’s experience was still limited; having only worked as a full-time librarian at Van Hien University, HCMC.

Hoa looked anxious and nervous as he had never talked to a foreigner before, while he was the third candidate to be interviewed for this position. Much to his surprise, Ben spoke fluent Vietnamese; it made the interview much more comfortable and warm. Hoa wanted to be polite and called Ben “Sir,” making the latter laugh. Ben corrected him immediately: “I’m not that kind of high-ranking officer!” It turned out to be Hoa’s first memory about FETP.

Hoa got accepted for the position. In the library inside FETP’s small campus on Vo Thi Sau Street, District 3, his desk was set next to that of Ms. Mai, the full-time librarian. It was beyond his expectation that he would work here for 13 years, in a small library where he experienced the most exciting days of his work life.

For the pursuit of knowledge

Although the library of FETP was not home to a vast collection of books like those of old universities, it took Hoa by surprise in his first days of work. The library welcomed anyone seeking information, even if they were not FETP students. They could access all kinds of books, including the rare ones. Later on, Hoa realized it was part of Fulbright school’s culture: a student-centered approach for the pursuit of knowledge.

It was totally different from what Hoa experienced at other libraries, where books were strictly kept and the distribution of books to library users was restricted. Therefore, Hoa felt very pleased with FETP and quickly fitted in this new environment.

According to Hoa, FETP’s library also had a different approach towards its users compared to other libraries. Traditionally, students in Vietnam keep a certain distance with librarians; they feel reserved and uncomfortable when interacting. When they talk to librarians because they wish to borrow a book, librarians are addressed as if they were superior.

“They might think librarians are grumpy and unfriendly. But here at FETP, students could search and look for the books they wanted themselves, in a totally open library. They just had to sign up with the librarian if they wanted to bring the books home,” Hoa recalled.

The open library gradually grew the bond between Hoa and the students. Their interactions and mutual support formed a friendly and comfortable academic environment at Fulbright school, where the relationships between faculty and staff, library officers and students were more akin to a big family.

“FETP completely changed the way I think about my work, the way I interact with my colleagues and students, and made me understand that librarians can contribute to building the culture of “serving for the pursuit of knowledge,” Hoa emphasized.

A turning point in his career path was when Ms. Mai resigned from her position at FETP. Hoa became the full-time librarian, working very hard to keep up with all the responsibilities by himself. He classified the books, labeled them with barcodes, put them on the shelves… He settled into a routine in which he found excitement and inspiration.

After a while, he found the perks of being a librarian were not just helping students find the information they needed. It brought him endless opportunities to learn, immersing into knowledge in the wonderful academic environment of Fulbright.

Founded in 1995, FETP, which has now become Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), was a partnership between the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). IT was initially designed to teach applied economics for Vietnamese policymakers, with the curriculum “imported” from HKS. Books and other documents used at FETP were updated constantly by HKS.

“In an attempt to build the academic space at Fulbright, we bought a huge volume of books on modern economics and market economy, including macroeconomics, microeconomics, econometrics, development economics, and a vast literature reviewing economic development in East and Southeast Asian countries and in the world,” said Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thanh.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon had just began operating internationally, and it was not easy to source books for FETP. Imported books were also subjected to strict censorship before entering Vietnam. HKS supported FETP in accessing the latest books and other economic documents from abroad. FETP translated these books into Vietnamese for students, mostly public officers from various cities and provinces across Vietnam who came to FETP for public policy study and had limited mastery of English.

Since the early 2000s, the bilingual library of Fulbright school has been home to a vast collection of newly published books on modern economics, something you may not find in other libraries across Vietnam.

True to a student-centered approach, there was a close connection between faculty members, academic affairs officers and the librarian at Fulbright school. Hoa actively assisted faculty members to find documents and prepare for translations. Sometimes, Hoa would go out himself to source the books students could not find in Fulbright’s library.

“The Fulbright environment changed me completely, from someone who just sits passively waiting for students to borrow books to an active, multi-tasking librarian,” he reflected.

It was not just the books that consumed Hoa’s time and efforts. The librarian was also heavily invested in building and maintaining OpenCourseWare, an important online platform for FETP’s teaching and learning program built in the early 2000s. At that time, Vietnam’s internet landscape was dominated by internet cafés all over the big cities. FETP began to publish its teaching and research materials online.

Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare Initiative (OCW), FETP, and now FSPPM, publish course syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists, assignments and case studies online. Both teachers and learners can access these resources and freely download documents.

The OpenCourseWare requires constant updates on a yearly basis, from majors, lectures to assignments; for cases studies, updates are more frequent. For more than one decade, Hoa has kept a steady course at the helm of OpenCourseWare, a unique legacy for those learning and working in policy-related fields offered by Fulbright school.

Nowadays, the booming development of technological platforms allows easier access to knowledge. But Hoa still dedicates his time and efforts to the platform, with a systemized approach and in accordance with copyright laws.

“FSPPM’s OpenCourseWare is up to date and hits over 1.5 billion page views each year, not just from FSPPM students and users inside Vietnam. We also have users outside the country,” Hoa added.

Warm-hearted librarian

In 2008, FETP shifted from a one-year training program on applied economics to a complete Master in Public Policy. Hoa actively helped students find statistics for their research and graduation theses, though it was not part of his job. As students came from various cities and provinces and their graduation theses covered different areas, the statistics they required differed greatly. Each year, Hoa would contact the Bureau of General Statistics of Vietnam and the statistics offices from cities and provinces across Vietnam, collecting data from statistical yearbooks. So far, FSPPM has owned a collection of statistical yearbooks from all cities and provinces, providing a comprehensive compilation of statistics on social and economic conditions and activities at local level with constant updates.

“The collection of figures and statistical yearbooks has been a very interesting experience for me at Fulbright. In my first days here, professors taught me to search for official data from the databases of international organizations such as the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, Economist Intelligence Unit and more, all for the research and reports on macroeconomics; at that time, the data was not widely available online like today. That experience helps me a lot when I am assisting lecturers and students with their research and learning,” he explained.

Dang Thi Manh, former MPP2 student, remembered how busy she was in 2011, juggling her graduation thesis and a new job. Her thesis compared public finance models in Da Nang and Binh Duong provinces in relation to a socio-economic development model. She needed figures regarding the two provinces’ budget, revenue, and spending, and turned to Hoa.

“The collection of statistics became a burden for me given the pressure and time constraints. I deeply appreciated Hoa for his care and his willingness to help me gather the data for my thesis. I remember waiting for the release of the 2010 Statistical Yearbook to get the updated figures. As soon as the yearbook was available at the library, Hoa called me. Thankfully, I managed to use the figures to finish my thesis on time,” she recalled.

Hoa experienced memorable moments both bitter and sweet with the students of FSPPM who share the motto “Work hard, play hard.” He remembered the students of MPP4 class usually gathered to eat sweet soup after lunch under the tamarind tree when the campus was located on Vo Thi Sau Street. One of them would enter the names of all students present in an Excel file and use the Randbetween function. The random number indicated the person numbered would have to pay for all the sweet soup servings that day.

FSPPM students said they always remembered the 8:20 a.m. deadline to submit their daily assignments. Hoa was tasked with labeling the assignment papers as “Late,” in red letters, if they missed it.

Former students like Manh said they cherished the moments spent together and thought of Hoa as a sincere, warm-hearted, and dedicated person.

“He knew very well the topics that we were interested in and recommended books related to those topics to us. Whenever the school or each class hosted an event, he quietly held the camera and sneaked into different corners to take photos for us. When we had free time or took a rest, he always talked to us. During the lunch breaks under the tamarind tree, we chatted about our studying, our life, our family and our hometowns. Hoa became close to us. Looking at the number of former FSPPM students who attended his wedding, many people were so surprised and asked how come that young librarian had so many friends!” Manh recalled.

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diep, a student of LM2020 class, also shared her warm feelings for Hoa, ‘the guy with the unforgettable smile’. “I wonder how he managed to finish so many tasks in such limited time. He has a lot of work to do, and many of us ask him for help, but he always smiles.”

“After the graduation ceremony on August 6, Hoa wrote a note to say goodbye to us on his Facebook page; he made me cry. I think our students may forget this or that person in school, but Hoa is always remembered. Thanks to him, I realized that a humble job done wholeheartedly is really valuable. The way Hoa is doing his job each day, the way he is serving students is a pillar of Fulbright,” she added.

Xuan Linh-Doan Hang

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