Vietnam is a fascinating place to live and work. My interest in long-term service in Vietnam was piqued by two separate month-long trips teaching English as part of REI’s summer exchange programs, which included some teaching of English. Through those positive short-term experiences, a desire to labor in Vietnam on a long-term basis germinated and grew in my heart. So when I applied and was accepted to REI as full-time staff in 2010, Brian Teel (Director of REI-Vietnam) and I developed a plan where I would spend my first two years learning the basics of the language and increasing my understanding of the culture of my new home. I did this as a language student at Hanoi University (HANU), where REI has long had and continues to have a strong presence in teaching and training. I felt at home at HANU, as it was also the host school for my second short-term trip.
In those two years I also explored possible avenues of future service, and concluded that the best fit of my interests and knowledge with the needs in Vietnam would be for me to teach general English. That required a return to the USA for a period of time for some additional professional training. When I returned to Hanoi in the fall of 2015, I came to a new university—the University of Languages and International Studies (ULIS), which is part of the Vietnam National University (VNU) system. At ULIS I began to teach and assist in the school’s test development center. Since my arrival I have been developing VNU students, who study anything from finance to engineering to environmental studies, in their general English proficiency, teaching in a program that prepares them for future classes that will be taught entirely in English.
Being at the front of a classroom is new territory for me, but I’ve learned, with mistakes made along the way, some of the basics of classroom management and adapting lesson plans to better fit the students’ needs. I teach roughly ten hours a week, in addition to investing time to work on lesson plans and student evaluation. I spend the rest of my work week in the Center for Language Testing and Assessment. Here I work in various areas of test development for English proficiency tests at different levels. These tests include item writing and editing, and—in the case of listening tests—voice acting. What I do helps prepare students for college entrance exams and a nationwide certification test.
One of the more exciting aspects of my time here has been the speed and level at which I’ve been welcomed into the community on campus. I am often invited to events with other colleges/academies (without being paraded as a native English speaker), which helps me get to know a wide group of people outside of my normal work/teaching circles. A particularly exciting relationship is with a man named Phuong, who is the secretary of the president of ULIS. The president, who was installed in this position earlier this year, asked if I would meet with Phuong three days a week over lunch to help him develop his English. Due to Phuong’s busy schedule we actually only meet about once a week, but its still a wonderful opportunity for friendship and exchange. I can’t say that I was invited to do this because of the renown of my teaching skills, but this demonstrates the university’s commitment to include me as a part of its community, as well as a recognition and appreciation of previous REI involvement here.
Beyond my friendship with Phuong, my deepest friendships are with other staff at the Testing Center and with some teachers that we bring in for our test writing. For the most part, these are all normal working relationships that everyone would have with their co-workers, but they also include some occasional evening outings and some more special group events.
One of the blessings about my job is that many people here speak English well, so I can enjoy a number of good relationships using English, while practicing but not having to rely on my limited ability in Vietnamese. ULIS also provided outstanding housing facilities for me right here on campus, which makes those 7 am classes much more doable!
I count myself a lucky man. A job that is satisfying and rewarding and that will pay dividends for future generations of Vietnamese, increasingly deep friendships, the opportunity to live in a fascinating country of warm and hospitable people—what more could you want? Yes, there are days when I feel baffled by the culture, stuck in my progress in the language, and far from my family and home country. But despite all the ups and downs of everyday life and the unavoidable cross-cultural challenges, I am thankful to be here, making my own contribution to building people to build nations.