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Trip ‘Home’ Gives Nguyen Keener, More Focused Purpose

Published: February 15, 2010

When Teacher Education’s Huong Tran Nguyen arrived in Hanoi for the second time during the 2009 winter break, she found family and a sense of community.

“It was very exciting to work with students at the Hanoi University of Agriculture (HUA) and the closer we worked, the more we developed a family feeling,” said Nguyen. Since fall 2007, she has been serving as principal investigator (PI) of the five-year, $1.5 million professional development federal grant for Secondary Teacher Education for English Learner Integration (STEELI). This project is a collaboration between the Single Subject Credential Program in the College of Education, the Center for Language Minority Education and Research (CLMER), and the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, with the Long Beach Unified School District as its local educational agency.

“I recently received e-mails from these students, one of which referred to my husband and me as parents. That makes me think we did more than help them learn English. We taught them about American life. They understood we cared and that we wanted to know more about them. It put more pressure on us to do whatever we could for them, ” she said.

Nguyen’s first visit in the 2008 winter break came at the invitation of Tran Duc Viet, rector of HUA, to teach a four-week intensive English language development seminar to three student cohorts and to serve as a consultant on pedagogical matters. Class size ranged from 40-53. The students’ English language development proficiency levels ranged from early intermediate to early advanced. The university was established in 1956 and was one of the first national universities in Vietnam. It is the oldest and leading agricultural campus in the country. As of 2006, HUA enrolled 20,557 students with 19,200 in undergraduate programs and 1,245 in graduate programs (master and doctorate.)

Her Vietnam connection began in 2000 when she met a HUA faculty member on a fellowship to the UC Riverside (UCR) Agriculture department while pursuing her doctorate at UCR, which Nguyen received in 2004. (She earned her bachelor’s degree from San Diego State in 1976 and her master’s from Point Loma College in 1984.) When she met the HUA faculty member again in 2004, the scholar challenged Nguyen to make a commitment to her birthplace similar to the one she has had to CSULB. “I decided to visit in 2008,” she recalled. “I had a lot of trepidation. I was very apprehensive about going back. I had never taught in Vietnam, certainly not on the university level. But I thought, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”

There was culture shock waiting for Nguyen. “Three-fourths of the HUA students were from very remote villages all over Vietnam, mostly in the northern region,” she remembered. “They were mostly the children of farmers. They were very bright but had few educational opportunities. The students were limited in English and had few chances to interact with English-speaking persons. They were very shy. Teachers in Vietnam are revered, so these students were not going to ask questions, disagree with me or participate in discussions. They wouldn’t come up to the board. They wouldn’t even raise their hands. But they had a thirst for knowledge. They kept saying ‘Teach us more.’”

The students were surprised by Nguyen’s knowledge of Vietnamese culture and her fluency in the language. “That’s not very common,” she said. “I realized they lacked role models. They hadn’t met many people who could navigate between two cultures and cross borders. I wanted them to understand that my bilingual-bicultural skill is very common. Individuals can be multilingual and multicultural in the U.S. What I did wasn’t anything special. But for them, it was.”

The students were curious about American society. “I made sure that they understood that ‘Americans’ did not represent a monolithic group but possessed unique regional characteristics and features depending on where they came from and were brought up in the U.S. But there are similarities that Americans tend to agree on, such as shaking hands. The students were puzzled. What did I mean? I told them that when they went for a job interview, for example, they shouldn’t extend a ‘wimpy’ handshake. People would judge them by their handshakes. I suggested they look people in the eye. They thought that was very rude, having been raised not to do so with authority figures,” she said.

Huong Tran Nguyen teaching in Vitenam
Photo Courtesy of Huong Tran Nguyen
Huong Tran Nguyen teaching in Vitenam

Nguyen began to realize how many things about U.S. society she took for granted. “It helped me to reflect on my own journey coming to the U.S.,” she said. “I remembered distinctly being asked in my first job interview why I ought to be hired over the other 50 applicants. I said I didn’t know. It was terrifying. In one of the English lessons I taught, I conducted mock interviews with the students. They told me they were puzzled by the casual behavior of some of their Western visiting professors who wore jeans to class and put their feet on the desk. There was so much that interested them which had nothing to do with learning English per se. But these were the things that mattered to human interaction and communication.”

Her social advice included warnings against asking people’s ages at the first meeting. This is a custom in Vietnam which helps individuals establish social hierarchy in order for them to properly address one another. “Do not ask how much money someone makes either,” she advised.”Do not ask their marital status or comment on their weight. Westerners could be offended by these types of questions. And when they asked when it would be appropriate to pose such questions, I replied ‘Maybe never.’”

Nguyen decided to spearhead a “Build a College Library” effort to collect donated college math, science, English, English as a second language, economics, business administration and teaching methods textbooks and supplementary materials. Thanks to generous donations from the faculty, staff and students, she has been able to send boxes of donated books to Hanoi.

“I remember visiting the campus library. It fit on two bookshelves,” she said. “And even then, the copies were photocopies of other textbooks. I wondered at their reaction to CSULB’s university library. And what if they saw the Library of Congress? They might think they’d gone to heaven.”

Since twice visiting Vietnam, she has discovered she has changed, having witnessed first-hand how happy her HUA students had been in light of their daily challenges and few material possessions.

“I’ve learned to value people even more,” she said. “I’ve learned to give less priority to material things. I may want a lot of things but I don’t necessarily need them. I’ve changed in that I am making a concerted effort to bridging my teaching in the U.S. to Vietnam and vice versa. I intend to stay in touch with my students in Vietnam. I want them to know I wasn’t there as a guest on a fun trip but rather as a conscious effort. Teaching in Vietnam has given me a keener, more focused purpose.”

She can’t say she’ll return next year to the same university but she has been in touch with other campuses from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. “I feel that if I dropped enough pebbles in enough ponds, the ripples would spread,” she said.