October 1, 2007

Advancing Educational Opportunities in Vietnam

2007 Havens Award Winner Martin Tjioe ’09 shares his experiences teaching abroad

Martin Tjioe ’09 (N. Sumatera, Indonesia) is pursuing a B.S. in civil engineering and an A.B. in mathematics-economics. For three weeks this summer, he traveled to Vietnam to work with high school students. The trip was funded by Lafayette’s Jeffrey B. Havens Memorial Fund Award, which provides nontraditional, summer learning experiences with opportunities for education, growth, and personal development outside the classroom. It was established as a memorial to Jeffrey Havens ’78, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1979. Tjioe will be giving a presentation entitled “Introducing U.S. Education in Vietnam” noon Tuesday, Oct. 16 in room 200 of the Acopian Engineering Center. The following is a first-hand account of Tjioe’s experiences.

At the end of my summer 2007, I went for a three-week program to Vietnam under an organization called ACCESS (American College Culture for Non-English Speaking Students). This program is pioneered by Vietnamese students from Stanford University and it is the first year the project kicked off. Despite being an infant program, ACCESS is unprecedented in scale and ran successfully. The program was carried out in two of the most developed cities in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. The three-week period was broken down into three parts: one week of training session, and a week of the actual program in each of the two cities.

There were in total five professors and nine teaching assistants (including me) on the staff. During the training session, the professors and TAs were briefed on what to expect from the students and what kind of discussions were appropriate. In general, we were not allowed to touch upon topics related to politics, history, and religion as they were sensitive issues that could get us into trouble with the government. For the rest of the time, professors worked closely with the TAs to convey their lecture materials and advise us on what we could do in our seminar sessions.

A typical ACCESS day consists of lectures, seminars, and writing workshops. The lectures are held in the morning and usually two professors presented on two different topics. These topics range from psychology, economics, and medicine to sociology, sexuality, and American literature. In both cities, roughly 200 high-school/ university students were qualified to sit in for the lectures after a selection process that ensured basic English proficiency. Writing workshops and seminar sessions, however, further shrank the number of students to a total of 50. These students were selected based on their enthusiasm and potential and were therefore the ones who would likely benefit the most from the program.

In the writing workshops, the students are taught basic English structure and grammar, common errors in writing, how to write application essays, and how to choose the right school. The writing workshop consists of an informative session held by the professors and an intensive writing session in which the students would hone their writing skills under the supervision of the TAs.

Following the writing workshops, the students go into the regular seminar sessions which last for one and a half hours. In the first half of the seminar, two lead TAs who are assigned to the lectures of the day would stand in front of the seminar students and deliver a summary of the concepts introduced in the lectures. They would get the discussion going and engage the students with thought provoking questions. In the second half of the session, students can freely express their ideas. Discussions are centered upon the lectures during the day.

The students’ participation and responses throughout the week had been encouraging and heart-warming. Contrary to the initial belief of student passivity from the rigid and one-directional teaching system, students actively exchanged their opinions and created lively discussions. They showed genuine interests in the topics, willingness to learn, and receptivity to new ideas. I initially had a reservation about how well the discussions would turn out, but now I believe that the students have learned a lot from this intellectual and cultural exchange.

The lecture-seminar style of the program has given students an idea of how classes are conducted in the U.S. The content of the lecture-seminar introduces the American scientific approach. Through the lectures and seminars, the students are exposed to the American culture and mindset. Most importantly, the interactions with the TAs and the professors afford them with first hand experience and contact with Americans. I believe that this will go a long way in helping the students.

Firstly, being in a relatively closed country, the Vietnamese students have rarely had any contact with the outsiders. This contact made apparent an opportunity that had otherwise never crossed their minds, and made it more real and accessible. The confidence boost and the unique experience will give them an added incentive to study hard to gain admissions to U.S. institutions. Even for those who have already considered studying in the U.S., interacting with the TAs and professors will clear up some of the myths and misconceptions they have and help them gain a more transparent view of U.S. schools. They will receive valuable information about the Western perspective, and feel less intimidated about the Western culture. The network established will help them in the future, especially when applying to colleges.

I believe that a lot of students as well as volunteers from Vietnam have been inspired by this program. This can be seen from the spirit and liveliness that they exuded. Even during extracurricular activities held after a grueling day, they were still filled with energy. The questions they asked outside classrooms showed their great interest in knowing more about our lives, and their inquiries about the details of applications and college life showed their genuine interests in U.S. colleges. Many students and volunteers I have kept in touch with still express their nostalgia for the program weeks after it has ended. This shows how much the program has impacted them, both in terms of the knowledge they gained and the people they got to know.

The program itself has greatly benefited me and left a permanent imprint. Despite the experience of being a teacher in a private tuition center in Indonesia and a subject tutor at Lafayette, the idea of leading a discussion was still far-fetched. During the program, I learned how to encourage students to speak out during discussions, which improved my communication skills. I have also become savvy in a wide range of subjects after gathering information during the preparation stage for the lectures and seminars. However, even with sufficient preparation, there are still unexpected circumstances, and these hone the impromptu response that I am lacking.

The topics covered by the professors are also completely new areas that I have never ventured upon. As I go along, I learn that I do not need to be omniscient to be a good mediator in discussions. I learn to ask for students’ opinions instead of providing them with definitive and conclusive answers (which is my inclination, being educated in a predominantly scientific environment). Now I begin to accept the ambiguity and obscurity that characterize humanities-based subjects. I became more comfortable with concepts once I became more involved and worked with professors and other TAs.

The people I worked with have been and will remain to be tremendous resources for me. Not only have I learned from the professors, I have also picked up many essential skills from my fellow TAs. Periodically, all of us will meet up, talk about the challenges that we face in the classroom and brainstorm on the way to tackle classroom situations. With TAs coming from different educational institutions across the U.S., I have also learned about their perspectives and discovered insightful similarities and differences. The volunteers and the students have especially left an indelible impression. They showed me excitement, confidence, appreciation, and willingness to learn. I am deeply touched by their perseverance and capacity to believe and overcome hurdles.

All in all, the program has brought benefits to everybody involved. This is certainly an unforgettable experience and it would not have been possible without the financial support from the Havens family. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for their magnanimity. It would have been impossible for me to make it into the program without the support.

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