For the past several years REI has conducted a summer student exchange program with the University of Language and International Studies (ULIS) in Hanoi. This year we sent several undergraduate and graduate students from Texas A&M and the University of Oklahoma (Team Leaders Ryan and Gabby Nicklas and Josh and Kaitlyn Hargis, Rebekah Bogdanoff, Leslie Johnson, Maddy Chavez, Lauren Bowers, Thomas Speer, Holly Brown, Grace Ivie, Joel Sam, and Paul Bittner), accompanied by REI staff Dr. Jeff Stebbins and Bob Motsay.
Crossing cultural boundaries can be much like jumping into a cold swimming pool—exhilarating or excruciating, depending on one’s perspective! Our students began easing into the “cold water” last March, through attending a multi-day orientation session here in the US that focused on Vietnamese culture and history, as well as touching upon such practical information as necessary immunizations and travel tips. Upon arriving in Hanoi the team eased into the new culture gradually, staying in a backpacker hotel for the initial 4 nights while continuing orientation.
And then began three weeks in the deep end! During the first week the students lived in the homes of Vietnamese host families, enjoying their hospitality, their food, their way of life. Some of our students were initially apprehensive, but all of them felt increasingly at home by the end of the week. For the following two weeks our students lived in common dormitories on the ULIS campus.
A good part of the program was spent in the classroom, both learning and teaching. Our students learned some basics of the Vietnamese language and culture, as well as sharing on US culture and helping with English. The ULIS teachers were favorably impressed with the intentionality of our gang. ULIS hosts other programs for foreigners, and often the students with these other programs are essentially there for the adventure and the tourism, and have little interest in the language and the culture. Both the teacher and the Vietnamese students were deeply touched by the team’s genuine interest in their culture and heritage.
This desire to learn paid off. Within two weeks our students felt comfortable enough in the language to go out into the neighborhood, find a restaurant, and order their food without the help of an interpreter (and without resorting to the “lucky dip” method of making a random finger jab at the menu). Their favorite: bún bò nam bộ (a spicy dried beef and noodle dish).
The students also participated in several field trips to museums, historical sites, a village where ceramics are made, and a special weekend trip to Halong Bay, an extraordinarily beautiful World Heritage site with 2,000 or more verdant islands rising from the emerald waters. Games were also a hit with the students and their Vietnamese student friends. Frisbee was popular, as well as a game similar to the children’s game “Jacks” (also known as “Knucklebones”), but using chopsticks instead of our more familiar metal jacks.
We are thankful for our partnership with ULIS, particularly with its Center for International Education (CIE), led by Dr. Son and assisted by Ms. Trang, Mrs. Nhung, and Ms. Thuy. They did an excellent job of preparation and adapting to having several more students than originally planned.
As mutually beneficial relationships and understanding between American and Vietnamese young people were made, it is our hope that some of the participating young Americans would be inspired to return longer term to Vietnam in the future, and that ULIS and the Vietnamese students would be inspired to continue partnering with REI in future projects.
One Vietnamese student, who made good friendships with the team participants, wrote, “I’ll keep the time we had together in my memory as one of the most unforgettable moments in my life.” For this student, a poor countryside girl, making foreign friends was not just a fun thing to do for the summer but a life dream fulfilled.