Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010


students try belly dancing at an international lunch last semester. Photo by Bob Handelman.

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Nhung Le ´12, right, and Chi Ninh ´12, left, with professor Don Peppard, center, and Stan DeCoster, author of this article. Photo by Brandon W. Mosley.

An unofficial cultural exchange between Connecticut College and Vietnam has flourished over the last decade

By Stan DeCoster

Nhung Le ´12 had a grandfather who fought for communist North Vietnam and a cousin who died in the war while fighting the United States.

Chi Ninh ´12 counts two relatives — also a grandfather and an uncle — who joined the American-South Vietnamese alliance against North Vietnam.

Today, the two Connecticut College classmates, whose families fought on different sides of the war, are close friends.

Time heals, and not just among members of Vietnamese families who 40 years ago were trying to kill each other in the Vietnam War, known as the American War in their country.

Between 3 million and 4 million Vietnamese died in the conflict, yet today the people are generally welcoming and accepting of Americans.

The “what´s-past-is-past” attitude is especially strong among young Vietnamese.

“I think it´s because we´re more focused with moving on, rather than dwelling on the past,” Ninh says. “The war is over, so we let it go.”

The same attitude is reflected in a close relationship that has developed between Connecticut College and the people of Vietnam since 1999.

For the last decade, the College has been sending students to Vietnam to immerse themselves in that nation´s culture as part of a wider learning experience. Scores of students have spent a semester there while participating in a highly successful Study Away/Teach Away program (SATA).

Professor of Government William Frasure built a foundation for the program as well as a faculty exchange program.

Vietnam is a single-party state, with political participation limited to organizations affiliated with the ruling Communist Party. Frasure describes it as a closed political system, with state-controlled media and highly visible constraints on freedom of expression.

But he sees the Vietnamese people as optimistic, patriotic and family-oriented. Their optimism, he says, can be traced to 1985, when the government decided to open its economy to the rest of the world.

“Before 1985 the country was closed and the poverty was horrible,” Frasure says. “If things hadn´t changed, I think that Vietnam today would be a lot like North Korea.”

Today the culture is so open that one Connecticut College student says that young Vietnamese are “borderline obsessed” with American culture. They know American pop stars and, Nhung Le says, the movie “Avatar” was sold out in Vietnamese theaters when she went home during winter break.

From Hanoi to New London

On a parallel track, the College has been recruiting Vietnamese students to the New London campus. It started when Nguyen Quynh Trang ´03 matriculated as a freshman in the fall of 1999. Five Vietnamese students are enrolled at the College this year.

Jessica Ricker ´00, associate dean of admission, notes that Connecticut College has become a favorite destination for many students of the Southeast Asian nation. The Class of 2004 had only three applications from Vietnam; for the Class of 2011, that number swelled to 82.

Many are attracted by need-based financial aid and like the idea of a living and learning in a small community. “Some are very hungry for a different way of thinking that can only be provided at a small liberal arts college,” Ricker says.

So, while no formal student exchange is in place, it definitely is a two-way street between the College and Vietnam.

Many Connecticut College students who have participated in SATA Vietnam say it has been the high point of their lives. Students, who study at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, typically make the trip in a group of 12 or more with two of their professors.

Kiara Fuller ´10 says the Vietnamese people made her experience an outstanding one.

“The people welcomed me into their homes, their schools and their hearts. They are more trusting of American people in the beginning, and they have a lot of hospitality that you rarely see here,” she says. “I plan to go back to Vietnam very soon.”

Fuller´s experience in Vietnam helped her develop as a student and will stay with her the rest of her life. “I definitely learned to be more open to new situations. Being in Vietnam taught me more about myself.”

Students become immersed in life in Hanoi and in many other parts of the country, including many smaller towns and villages in the countryside.

Alex Ellison ´10 recalls a day when he and another student took a bus and ended up in a small farming village. Residents there weren´t as used to seeing Americans as were city dwellers.

“People would point and sometimes come rushing out of their houses, yelling to members of their family to come have a look,” he says. It turned out to be a positive experience all around and an important lesson for Ellison about the isolation of rural life.

It was the incredible commotion of the city, particularly the outdoor markets where women earn about $2 a day peddling food grown in the countryside, that made a lasting impression on economics major David Owyang ´07.

He also learned how his hosts might view events from different perspectives. Owyang recalls visiting the former prisoner-of-war camp where U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was held captive for five years. He read a plaque at the site.

“I don´t remember the exact words,” Owyang says. “But it was something like, ´This is where the American imperialist slept.´

“Vietnam made me more inquisitive,” Owyang says of his study away experience in his junior year. “It made me more understanding and independent when I returned to campus and after graduation.”

He has put that inquisitive nature to good use: He is an investigator for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, examining anti-trust mergers.

Lessons of diversity

On the other side of the two-way street are Nhung Le and Chi Ninh. Both are impressed by what they term the “incredible diversity” of America.

Coming from a land with one predominant culture, they are intrigued by a society where whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others live together. The most important lesson they have learned at the College, they say, is how people from different backgrounds can co-exist.

“I have learned to respect the differences around me,” says Le, who double majors in art and architectural studies. She intends to attend graduate school and eventually return to her native land, citing her love of country and family.

Ninh, a human development major, says she has “learned to accept differences and not to make any assumptions.”

Phuong Le ´10 says she has learned from experiences in both countries the need to help the disadvantaged. Last summer she, along with a student from Clark University, hosted a “harmonization camp” in Hoa Binh, a mountainous province in northern Vietnam. Thirty disabled students participated in the five-day camp that was funded through a grant from the Davis 100 Projects for Peace.

Phuong Le says that project leaders were able to put into practice their shared passion for social responsibility. She wrote in a report: “On the last day of summer camp the two most frequently spoken words were ´love´ and ´miss.´ Both of these will echo whenever we reflect on the personal growth and experiences gained (through the camp).”

Both the Vietnamese students attending Connecticut College and American students visiting Vietnam spoke of how the war isn´t an impediment to relations between people of the two countries.

Don Peppard, an economics professor who has made repeated visits to Vietnam as part of the College´s program and learned the language, also served there as a U.S. soldier during the conflict and returned home to become an anti-war protester. He says younger Vietnamese are distanced by time and less likely to hold ill feelings.

“If they hold a grudge, they don´t let you know,” he says. “They never had a problem with Americans — it was American policy they didn´t like.”

Peppard is eagerly awaiting his next semester in Hanoi in 2011.

“I love Vietnam and the people,” he says. “It´s like my second home.”

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