Improving the Lives of the Vietnamese People through Education

‘Extraordinary’ gift of Vietnam – US ties

As part of the series about the 20th anniversary of normalized Vietnam-US relations, VietNamNet talks with Mr. Pham Duc Trung Kien, the first Executive Director (2003-2006) of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF).

Kien Pham and Herb Alison

Mr. Pham Duc Trung Kien (right) and Mr. Herbert Allison, Chair of VEF. Photo provided by Kien.

I agree that the VEF is a highlight in the Vietnam – US relations. Actually, education relations are just a continuation in the process of normalization between the two countries, and that process started in 1995.Looking back the past 20 years, the VEF is one of the achievements that marked the normalization of the Vietnam-US ties. On this occasion, could you review the process of formation of the foundation?

In December 2000, the US Congress passed the Vietnam Education Foundation Act of 2000 to establish the VEF. This foundation is an independent agency of the US government, reporting directly to the President and two congressional leaders.

This was an “abnormal” event in the political system and administration in the US. To have this special achievement, we should mention the contribution of two persons, who transformed from “enemies to friends” of Vietnam: Senator John McCain and Senator John Kerry.

Along with the two counselors Thomas Vallely and Nancy Stetson, the two senators initiated the idea of establishing the VEF in the US Congress and lobbied other congressmen to support this special gift to Vietnamese people.The VEF program focuses on quality of training,  fairness, equality and non-profit in the selection process. The VEF broke the barrier to bring young and talented people of Vietnam to study for doctorate and master’s degrees in the leading American universities, such as MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, UIUC …

So far, about 600 young people of Vietnam have been trained through this program, and a majority of have returned to Vietnam to work. Among them, some have been granted the Associate Professor title at very young age.

The fruits of the VEF will continue and extend in the next 50 years. Each VEF fellow will continue to be a solid bridge between Vietnam and the US. In addition to the positive contribution in the fields of education, science and technology between the two countries, the “people’s diplomacy” will be also facilitated through the VEF fellows.

Those are the sustainable and long-term values of the special gift in the process of normalization between the US and Vietnam.

I was lucky to be tasked by the US government to build the VEF program from the first day, and with the great success of the VEF, I’m still a bridge builder.

There is a concept that is become an interest and a topic of discussion in Vietnam. It is “academic freedom”. Could you say something about academic freedom in America?

In my opinion, this is one of the differences between universities in Vietnam and the US.

This difference also depends on the subjects of study. For example, in the natural sciences such as mathematics or physics, academic freedom in both countries is not different. But in the social sciences as literature or philosophy, there are specific limits in Vietnam and the US.

For example, in the US, professors cannot encourage discrimination or stigma against black women in their lectures. They will be opposed by the colleges and students. In American universities, people use the words “politically correct” to talk about the invisible boundaries of teaching and study.

These are the limits generated by the current political system and today’s social values.

Since the social and political environment always develops and changes, we will see the change of the current limit of “academic freedom”.

I think, Vietnamese and American professors should continue to discuss and share teaching and studying methods. The interrelation will help develop Vietnam’s learning in the best direction, matching with the general situation of the country.

Having worked closely with Vietnam, in your opinion, which direction should Vietnam’s education innovate to meet the development requirements of the country?

Vietnam’s education should focus on its strengths while building and making good the weak fields. Vietnam should not take the ideas of “taking a short cut” or “frying it by its own fat” because it is short-term thinking. Development without solid foundation will become “hollow”.

Today, the world has a lot of opportunities for learning through the Internet, with abundant and free knowledge everywhere. Vietnam should take advantage of this open source so students can teach themselves and teachers get better teaching documents and teaching methods. For example, everyone can access and study the advanced online programs such as Coursera, Khan Academy and VOER through mobile phones, not just computers.

The VEF will complete its mission in 2018, while Vietnam still needs assistance from the advanced educational environment. What should Vietnam do to continue to benefit from countries like the US, or from the program as the VEF?

Very simple. Vietnam just needs to investe $5 million per year to establish a high quality scholarship fund as the VEF. The matter here is the management and the implementation methods.

Currently, the US National Academies is willing to support Vietnam to do this. They helped the VEF to be successful and now it is time for Vietnam to directly take part.

In the long run, Vietnamese people should not rely on the financial support of the US government to train people.

Now, the message that many people look forward to in the occasion of the 20th anniversary of normalization of Vietnam – US relations is “looking to the future together”. Do you think that education will continue to be an important bridge between the two countries?

I think education is one of the most important bridges. Our slogan should be expressed through action. In my opinion, both countries have made concrete action to develop educational ties. The US government has issued many visas to young people from Vietnam to study in the US. Vietnamese students and fellows have created a pretty good “Made in Vietnam” brand at leading universities in the US.

For Vietnam, the Government has welcomed educational institutions from the US. To continue development on the existing achievements, the Vietnamese Government should use the management model of the VEF and replace the VEF’s role when the foundation ends its operation in the next 3 years.

The whole spending for the VEF is only $5 million per year. This is a small amount that Vietnam should invest to train human resources for the future and strengthen long-term relations with the US.

We have seen good results of the VEF. So, in my opinion, Vietnam should replicate this model.

Mr. Pham Duc Trung Kien received a B.S. in marketing and international business from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and won a scholarship to study in England. His graduate degrees, earned concurrently at Stanford University, include an M.B.A. in international and organizational management, an M.A. in international economics and a special diploma in public policy management.

In 1985, he was selected for the prestigious White House Fellowship program. At Stanford University’s 100th anniversary in 1990, he was honored as one of its “100 Most Outstanding Alumni” and by the White Fellows with the “Legacy Leadership Award” in 2000. Currently, he is a financial investor and a philanthropist in Vietnam.

Lan Anh


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