October 10, 2019

Volunteer advisor to Fulbright University Vietnam: “Santa” Bill Hiss

October 10, 2019

Bill Hiss is the retired Vice President for External Affairs, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid and Lecturer in Asian Studies at Bates College in Maine, where he served for 35 years.

Twenty-two years ago, my wife Colleen and I adopted our daughter Jessy in Hanoi. At the time, I gave a talk at Hanoi Amsterdam High School on the architecture of American higher education: public, private, large and small, college or university, levels of competition for admission, and costs. In the front row of that audience of high school juniors was Ngan Dinh, who would come to Bates College a year later.

Ngan was the first student to come to us directly from Vietnam since the mid-1970’s, graduating with academic honors and double majors in Economics and Asian Studies. Today, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and years of business consulting and teaching experience, she is the founding Director of the Undergraduate College at Fulbright University Vietnam, and the principal reason that I am here as a volunteer.

“Santa” Bill Hiss

Fulbright’s mission is better than admirable: it is noble. The first non-profit liberal arts institution in Vietnam, it offers a different kind of education to Vietnamese youth, and to students sometimes overlooked in their higher education. Some of Bates’ renowned alumni were from families where no one had ever dreamed of going to college: Edmund Muskie, an immigrant’s son who became a US Senator and Secretary of State, and Benjamin Elijah Mays, whose parents were born into slavery, the longtime President of Morehouse College and mentor to the young Martin Luther King. Fulbright in a few years will begin to graduate young people with similar vision and promise.

Bill Hiss met students at Fulbright Admission Fair in Hanoi

I first met with Ngan and her colleague Ben Wilkinson several years ago. Ben works with the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, the U.S. foundation that provides a way for Americans to support Fulbright with their gifts. Mostly by email, I began to offer advice from 12 time zones away.

In March of 2018, I came to HCMC for a month, by then a retired Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, to help with the design of the enrollment and financial aid processes. Having started my career in 1978, I could offer advice on the complex array of issues for a new Admissions and Financial Aid staff: How best to keep track of thousands of students with often partly similar names? How to fairly judge financial aid awards when there is no common tax document like the American 1040 to establish family income? How to evaluate students from wildly different backgrounds, from small towns in the Mekong Delta to the renowned “high schools for the gifted”?

This year, I am back for two months. Advising still, but also visiting schools and speaking at receptions about Fulbright. Explaining the wonderful strengths of the American traditions of a liberal arts education requires clarity and energy from the Fulbright Admissions staff, and careful consideration on the part of prospective students and their parents.

In those two months, I also decided to become a book donor, to help create a tiny part of a new library suitable for Fulbright undergraduates. One of my great loves is reading – anywhere, and broadly. I am a largely addicted devotee of libraries. I love history, religion, essays, politics, social ethics, some fiction, and a few newspapers and magazines: the New York Times, the Atlantic, Smithsonian.

Finding that most of Fulbright’s library books dealt with Public Policy for their graduate program, I went to two bookstores in HCMC, buying what I could find of the English language classics—Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Faulkner, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the beginning of an undergraduate library. I intend to send boxes more from my collection, with some of the great writers of non-fiction, science, environmentalism and essays, accumulated over decades of fond readership and a long and fulfilling career in university administration.

Indeed, over the last twenty-two years, over 30 Vietnamese citizens have enrolled at Bates, many with the financial aid packages that made it possible for them to graduate, earning me the nickname of “Santa”. The Vietnamese Bates alumni have since founded VietAbroader, built companies in Vietnam, earned Ph.D.’s and law degrees, become professors and lawyers and even won classical and popular musical competitions, gotten married, started families.

Dozens of other American colleges and universities have followed Bates’ lead, and thousands of highly talented Vietnamese citizens have benefitted from the adoption of a single baby over two decades ago, just like a single book can start a pile that grows to be a library. Now a team of dedicated Vietnamese and international citizens have founded Fulbright University Vietnam and offer a designed-for-Vietnam liberal arts education to support the country’s growth. I hope to return as a volunteer, and to find other volunteers joining me.

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