(Portland, Ore.)—For many Americans, the name Vietnam conjures up war—not a country, people or culture. Even for college students today, what they learn about Vietnam is largely left to textbooks and movies that highlight Vietnam as an “era” of American divisiveness.
Lewis & Clark is awakening a generation to a different Vietnam with its newest study abroad program. The college kicked off its inaugural program in Vietnam when 12 students headed to Ho Chi Minh City on January 13.
“Vietnam is a culturally rich and dynamic country with a rapidly growing economy,” said Joann Geddes, director of Academic English Studies and one of the program coordinators for this trip. “The Vietnam of today and tomorrow is one that our students will engage with in a way that is much different from what their parents and grandparents experienced.”
Tom Anderson, a junior majoring in history, knows this well. His father was drafted into service in 1968. After completing a tour in Vietnam as an infantryman, he came back to his home state of Minnesota to work with fellow veterans including U.S. Senator John Kerry to oppose U.S. involvement. Today, Tom’s father heads a nongovernmental organization in Laos, working on behalf of the Hmong population.
“I’ve seen the issue of Vietnam from many sides, given my father’s experience,” Tom said. “I grew up with my father’s anecdotes about the war, and I’ve seen the work he’s done in southeast Asia. This is now a part of the world that I want to explore for myself. I think we tend to see countries as homogenous, and I’m looking forward to pushing my comfort level and exploring the drastic differences between north and south Vietnam.”
Students will spend approximately seven weeks in Ho Chi Minh City, focusing on Vietnamese society through academic course work, language study and cultural immersion. They will travel to the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue, and other locations in Central Vietnam for 10 days and spend one month in North Vietnam, learning about the politics, history and culture of the country. The students will return to Ho Chi Minh City to wrap up the semester.
Students will learn about Vietnam from people who live and work there, including scholars from academic institutions such as the Saigon Vietnamese Language School and Hong Bang University, as well as public officials. Geddes and Kelly Wainright, co-coordinator for the program, point out that the Vietnam War scars for each country are different. While the Vietnam War left an indelible mark on the United States, it represents a fraction of the expansive, complex history of Vietnam.
“Our Vietnamese partners in this project are eager to share their historical perspective with our students,” said Geddes. “Vietnam has been fighting for their independence for thousands of years, and U.S. involvement there was such a small, although significant, part of their history. It has entered the 21st century as one of the most politically and economically dynamic countries in Asia.”
Despite the rare opportunity of participating in a study abroad program in Vietnam, few colleges and universities are able to find enough interested students to develop a program. That was not the case for Lewis & Clark.
“Vietnam is still vastly underrepresented nationally among study abroad programs,” said Larry Meyers, director of Overseas and Off-Campus Programs. “In fact, our program partners in Asia had only about 30 U.S. students participate last year. Lewis & Clark, alone, is sending 12 students this semester, which speaks volumes. Our students want a rigorous academic experience and are so eager to learn in the most exceptional, diverse places.”
Isobel Crittenden, a junior participating in the program, agreed. “I want to push myself out of my comfort zone. To my parents, Vietnam is a war, not a country, and this history is my generation’s legacy. It’s not only good to look at the world from other vantage points, it’s our responsibility.”