This year English instructor and poet Laura Gray created and served as adviser of Fulbright Service Leadership, a new international service leadership and development program. Gray and students mostly from the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the Honors College visited Vietnam on two separate occasions. The Sam M. Walton College of Business partners with this multi-disciplinary program and also brings a team to work in a business-related project at the site. The two groups collaborated with faculty and students from Can Tho University, Vietnam’s largest research institute, and its rural extension college to support villages in Hoa An and to explore sustainable methods to improve lives and living standards for the people in the Mekong Delta.
Below is her account of program’s pilot year.
Life in the Mekong Delta is steeped in strong traditions centered in family, the Mekong River and farming. Most families in the south of Vietnam live simply, often in modest grass-walled homes and on less than $1 U.S. per day. Some aspects of life here are relatable to the not-distant histories and communities in and around Arkansas and the rural South, especially life near the Mississippi Delta.
On these first trips, our aim was to share, to learn and to build relationships that would create meaningful exchanges for years to come. Students learn so much about the culture, history and place from being in the classroom abroad with local students, collecting data and creating project opportunities that includes everyone’s ideas and perspectives.
Students from Can Tho University served as our translators and partners in research projects. Our local guide and project coordinator, Mai Ngyun, was from Hanoi, in North Vietnam. Through her and many others, we caught glimpses not only of regional differences between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, but also of generational differences and the changes that are happening for Vietnam’s future.
Fulbright students majoring in math, pre-med and communications experienced a classroom and lab that offered the complexities of our world. We experienced the openness of the Vietnamese people toward Americans, something many of us were warmed by. While reading literary texts from a variety of national and political perspectives, these students engaged in academic coursework that explored the rich history and culture not only of Vietnam but also of America from 1970 to present day.
Culture, gender, politics, history, hegemony – our discussions leapt wildly off the pages of literary and historical texts, the syllabus and course plans, growing deeper and offering students many opportunities for individual research and reflection. The academic experience and our discussions were far more personal and challenging than anything I initially hoped for them. All teachers who’ve experienced something like this know that “class” sometimes happens on bus or boat rides or at a field site.
“History becomes even more relevant when you understand the realities of something like the Vietnam War,” said Skylar Caldwell, a freshman from Fayetteville who is studying history and politics in the Honors College. She and the Fulbright team visited the War Memorial Museum in Ho Chi Min City, which houses the powerful world collection of war photography from that time.
Fulbright team projects came from areas all across the humanities, creating the beginnings of interdisciplinary work and many opportunities for future research and development. We worked with rural schools, rural farmers, the local medical clinic and the local government board, as well as the university. Our aim is to create possibilities globally that match areas of study for Fulbright students so that we – both Americans and Vietnamese – learn how to support the areas that the local community wants to improve and develop. Allowing Fulbright students to participate in solutions and apply their critical thinking skills and academic knowledge in the world is so important. I find it inspiring, because they want to make meaningful contributions beyond the program and a lasting impact on the lives of Vietnamese people.
Fulbright students worked in two rural schools in Hoa An. One of these schools had to be reached by boat because the roads were too narrow for van transport. At this school, we donated and set up equipment for two computer labs and offered computer training. Fifty percent of rural students have never seen a computer, and of those who have had some access are not generally familiar with an English keyboard. With access to technologies, schools there can have unlimited information resources, which supports learning at all levels.
We collaborated with administrators of a local health clinic to understand the kinds of medical needs the clinic serves, technologies and areas of interest for growth to plan for our future research and development projects. Four of the Fulbright students were pre-med majors and focused on learning ways to support global rural health. We also conducted a water quality survey, which yielded information for more research. And, along with students from the Walton College, we gathered data for a farm survey. The students focused on traditional farming methods. Led by Sam Harris, a freshman honors student who joined our team from the Bumpers College, this research helped us better understand and assess farming methods, costs and profits generated, and what might be possible for future growth.
The Fulbright team also met with the Can Tho University English Language Club for conversation and several social activities. Their English Club is popular with weekly events and over 120 members strong.
Finally, our program also included a faculty-to-faculty exchange. I worked with English language faculty at two campus sites, where we held several workshops. One workshop at the Can Tho University main campus focused on English language learning methods and was well-received, with more than 100 faculty and secondary teacher attendees. I also taught courses in Hoa An rural extension. These courses focused on using creative and generative assignments using English as a second language. More than 30 participants, both teachers and students, attended each event.
The Fulbright team students served as facilitators for the Hoa An workshops with local students at various English abilities. In one activity, I led groups through some poetry and haiku writing. A Fulbright student later shared in her reflective writing that the poetry activity had been especially important to her. She described how personal and rewarding the experience was for her and a Vietnamese student to work together to find the best images and phrasing to understand and to create just the sense and feel they were aiming for. I really appreciate the unplanned, the way that in these experiences learning opportunities come in all ways at all times – during a meal, a pagoda visit, a casual conversation, or in an assignment outside of our usual classroom work.