REI-Vietnam News

Pham Thi Phuong Luong

by REI-Vietnam |

Image: Pham Thi Phuong Luong
From Tea Talk volunteer to YSEALI award winner

October 4th has seen a number of significant events over the years. In 1927 sculptor Gutzon Borglum began working on Mount Rushmore. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. And in 2011, our dear friend and colleague Luong met Tea Talk’s founder Michael Ong for the first time.

In 2011 Luong was, by her own admission, a discouraged and somewhat directionless university student. As she began exploring extracurricular activities as a way to find more meaning and significance in her life, she attended a meeting at the University of Labor and Social Affairs (ULSA), where Michael Ong had brought in some of our international volunteers. Intrigued, she asked Michael if there was a place for her at Tea Talk as a volunteer.

Within a few months, in the summer of 2012, Luong found her place at Tea Talk. She quickly grew in her understanding of the Tea Talk/REI ethos of building people to build a nation, and wholeheartedly embraced the work Tea Talk was doing. Some years later, at a Tea Talk birthday celebration, she exclaimed, “If Tea Talk was a man, I would marry him!”

As Luong describes it, “At that time, I was part of a group of about 50 people with a similar passion and energy to set up different programs and projects to connect and empower the public’s human resources. Although I was only 21, my heart was filled with happiness and a sense of pride as one of the 3 coordinators for an environmental campaign, which pledged to advocate for non-smoking areas of more than 200 shops and restaurants in Hanoi. There were many firsts that I recall! I had my inaugural newsletter, media interview, and a first overseas partner to collaborate with! More than those “firsts,” my volunteering group at Tea Talk and I organized a number of exchange events, academic and cultural, or skills development classes for young people. We took pride in the achievements of 3 years of contribution as we worked to establish a network of more than 500 beneficiaries, including both working adults and adolescents.”

After 3 years of volunteer work, Luong came on staff with CoRE, the Vietnamese non-profit organization founded by Michael. When REI launched its Community Based Health Care (CBHC) program, Luong was asked to be the local Program Coordinator, and, a year into the program, was one of five persons selected to receive in-depth training from the CBHC team, led by Drs. Gary Hipp and David Bjork.

This training served her well as Luong entered a competition for a spot in the YSEALI program. This program, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, was founded by former American president Barack Obama to improve the capacity of young leaders to continuously build sustainable development in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After advancing through the written part of the competition, Luong sat through an interview, during which she frequently referred to principles and methods she had learned through the CBHC training. The interviewers were surprised by the depth and aptness of her answers to their questions. “Where did you learn all this?” they asked. “REI,” Luong replied promptly. “I learned these things through REI.”

And—drum roll please—next stop: the United States of America! Luong won one of the coveted 3 spots offered to Vietnamese youth, one of the 21 places overall, in the area of Civic Engagement. Her 5-week, fully sponsored program was largely held at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, with additional visits to Portland, Oregon, Washington D.C., and South Dakota, where she saw the fruit of dear old Gutzon Borglum's labor.

As Luong describes it, “Could anything make me more proud and happy in my young adulthood days? One more trip with so many new experiences, my horizons broadened, adjusting myself to a completely new group, and once again I was surprised to see who I have become. Five years ago, nobody would see me as calm, friendly, listening, or cooperative in group work, nor able to mediate conflicts or misunderstandings. Five years ago, nobody would have been able to convince me that I would be remembered as the sweetest girl after their trip. And definitely no one would be coming to me when they experienced pain, suffering, grief or disappointment. I am not a counselor, nor have I had in-depth training opportunities for it. What did I do to earn so much trust? The answer is that I have been nurtured and trained in the environment of Tea Talk.”

We are proud of you, Luong. We have seen you grow and contribute to your people, and we know that even greater things lie before you. You represent the best there is among the people of Vietnam, and we count it an honor to work alongside you, as together we seek to build people to build their nation!

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