Last year REI began a cultural exchange program with Vietnam National University's ULIS (University of Languages and International Studies). This year, for four weeks in June, a second group of American university students flew to Hanoi to trade our language and culture for those of Vietnam.
In March REI's Brian Teel and Jeff Stebbins flew to Texas to meet and prepare seven students (Caleb, Colin, Derik, Levi, Melissa, Payton and Tyler) for the upcoming program. Then, at the end of May, Jeff and the team of REI students flew to Hanoi to get started. An old health problem flared up for Levi and kept him from making the trip, but he was still a part of the team, serving actively as their communications link with home.
The traveling team of seven, including Jeff Stebbins, the team leader and mentor, used a few days of recovery from jet lag to explore Hanoi's fascinating 'Old Quarter,' and to learn some foundational Vietnamese pronunciation. Then the REI students met their ULIS counterparts (see photo directly below) and launched into a month of intensive linguistic and cultural learning experiences.
Each REI student moved in for a week with a host family. One said, "I was so grateful that my hosts spoke English better than I spoke Vietnamese!" The tonal Vietnamese language is difficult for anyone to learn, but the REI students jumped into language classes with gusto and they did remarkably well in a few short weeks. ULIS also arranged briefings on Vietnamese culture and field trips to noteworthy sites. In exchange Jeff presented information about U.S. student life, geography, sports, holidays, customs, history, employment, and hobbies, and the American students engaged the ULIS students in English language discussions about those aspects of U.S. culture. "The ULIS students learned and practiced more current, natural, conversational English than they could ever find in their textbooks," says Jeff.
Despite two REI students having health crises in their families back home, and despite REI's concerns about wildfires raging at the edge of Colorado Springs, Jeff and his students remained fully engaged in the program at ULIS.
Some language practice and friendship building opportunities were planned, and others just happened when creative, fun-loving students got together. These included karaoke nights, chatting over tea, playing baseball (in 100-degree temperatures and 90% humidity), howling at hilarious linguistic mistakes, sampling every conceivable rice noodle dish, and even teaching a Vietnamese family how to make Tex-Mex burritos. Jeff says, "Let it be known that every REI student ate at least one fried silkworm! It tastes better than it looks!"
Two American campus club leaders visited the students during the month to see firsthand what this experience was like–to better evaluate opportunities for future exchanges. They discovered that the students on both sides of the exchange learned a whole lot about another country and built some delightful friendships with its people. As far as the students are concerned, some are staying connected through email, Facebook and Skype, and are already figuring out how and when they might see each other again!