In Vietnam, US students ‘think different’ about culture, war

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Traveling to Vietnam challenges American students to rethink their preconceptions about culture, history and the war, said David Smith, an adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan.

Smith, who has taught a regular course on the Vietnam War since 2000, has been bringing students here since 2005.

He said the trip to Vietnam was many of the students’ first opportunity to travel outside the US.

“Students gain an experience that they would not be able to gain by studying in other more common study abroad destinations,” he said. “The cultural differences, the differences in the standard of living, the pace of life have been quite pronounced for my students and have really forced them to think very differently about their own differences.”

In recent years, a growing number of US universities and colleges have started offering study abroad and internship programs in Vietnam â€" hoping their American students, born long after the war ended, would embrace cultural understanding and a little bit of foreign adventure.

Study abroad programs for US students in Vietnam allow students to earn academic credits while learning the history and culture of Vietnam here. The students also have the opportunity to travel and volunteer across the country, and even in its neighbors, during their summer, semester or year-long programs.

According to the latest statistics from the Institute of International Education, the number of US students studying abroad in Vietnam increased from roughly 95 during the 1998-1999 academic year to 652 by 2007-2008.

Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, opened its first Vietnam program in 1994 as one of the first US colleges to send students here since the war ended.

According to Mark Jones, associate professor of art at HWS and Vietnam study abroad program director since its inception, 18-20 students from the college are sent here every year.

“Our students experience Vietnam in ways unavailable to most visitors,” Professor Jones said. “They climb Fansipan, ride elephants, visit an environmental research center, tour a rice processing factory, swim in Ha Long Bay and contribute to an orphanage.”

A different side of things

More and more American students are seeing study abroad experiences as integral to fostering new skills and developing into “world citizens.” While most still feel more comfortable learning in English-speaking and more developed countries, Vietnam is now an attractive destination for those who are looking for the road less traveled.

With the University of Michigan program, students do volunteer work at a Vietnamese NGO, experience rural life first-hand and learn how the war is remembered in Vietnam, which according to professor Smith, has pushed them “to think how people beyond the US have different ideas and approaches.”

Chris Niemiec, who came here as a Michigan student in 2005 after hearing about the country from his father, who was an American fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, said his experience in Vietnam helped him tackle problems at work in a different way.

Now working in the private sector, Niemiec said, “I work with many individuals from different parts of the world and having studied in Vietnam allows me to work with these people with a level of comfort not realized by my co-workers.”

War and peace

Tom Gardner, who teaches “Vietnam: Culture, History, Media” at Westfield State College, said it was important for American students to learn about the longterm effects of the war.

Starting next year, Westfield plans to offer the course inclusive of 12 days in Vietnam to allow students to visit members of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin and learn about the chemical weapon used by the US during the war, according to Gardner.

“We believe that all exposure to cultures rather than the one our students grew up with is important for their development,” he said. “Getting to know Vietnam, its people and culture, will give rise to many questions about the destructiveness of war and the insanity of such a conflict.”

But for Neal Newfield, an associate professor of social work at West Virginia University who has brought a dozen of American graduate students to An Giang University every year, he wants the students to get the message that Vietnam is no longer about the war.

“It’s very eye-opening for them to come to a developing country as opposed to England, Germany where everything is economically very well-developed,” he said. “They get to see what are the roles of social workers and the type of work they could be doing, whether that’s in Vietnam or other countries.”

Dominique Lee, founder and chair of BRICK, a group devoted to teaching the children of Newark, New Jersey to be academically competitive, said the experience of being submerged in the culture and the life of Vietnam as a University of Michigan student in 2006 “was an eye opening moment in my life that helped me mature.”

She summed up the experience in one word: “Growth.”

Reported by Huong Le

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