It was the mid-90s.
After many external affairs efforts, Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) was finally able to secure a teaching facility inside the Institute of Economics Research Ho Chi Minh City, in an alley on Vo Thi Sau Street, District 3. A small old building block was renovated to become FETP’s first campus.
The campus was modest with a few lecture halls, modeled after Harvard University’s lecture halls, which had big, beautiful, double-glazed windows overlooking a small communal courtyard. Wanting to liven up the campus, the staff decided to adorn it with a tree.
Mr. Vu Trong Cao, FETP’s chauffeur, took responsibility for that task. He went and picked a small tamarind tree to plant in the middle of the courtyard. Rooting the tree into the ground, little did the staff envisage FETP to be an ever-growing project in opposed to the ordinary lifecycle of all other projects. The tamarind tree grew, rose to provide a pleasant leafy shade for the campus, overwatched countless outdoor activities of FETP students. Over two decades have flown by, yet there still stands the tamarind tree, the greenery background for FETP’s graduation and opening ceremonies, year after year.
Started as a friendly bilateral project for cultural and educational exchanges between Vietnam and the United States in the early days of normalization, FETP turned out to be the first grounding block for Fulbright University Vietnam. Mr. Vu Trong Cao has now become one of the most senior members of Fulbright, remaining faithful to his job since the early days working on this project.
This past May, Mr. Cao was one of the most avid employees to commence the Giving Week – One Week One Fulbright initiative by making a six-month pledge for a brick gifted towards Campus Building.
“I’ve been working with Fulbright for almost 27 years now. When I first joined, I was in my 30s. Fulbright always feels like home. Everyone is like a family – faculty, staff, students, and the board are very close together. Although a brick is not of great value, it is my heart, belief, and hope for the future development of the school.” – Mr. Cao professed.
Giving Week at Fulbright is an initiative to bring the Fulbright community closer together, to appreciate each other’s passion and dedication for education, as well as to create a tradition of unity. Throughout the week, Fulbright community members joined hands to contribute in various ways, from gifting a brick or a tree, to making other material contributions to Campus Building and Students Fund for Research and Community Service.
Giving was also expressed creatively in other non-material forms, such as writing a grateful note to the “silent knights” like the tea ladies, the administrative staff, finance team, and facility people, etc. without whose commitment Fulbright would be a train without wheels. There were also appreciation notes connecting professors, faculty, and staff, giving one another a pat on the back for all their hard work. Sincerities and encouragements came in all forms – hugs, handshakes, fist bumps – spreading positivity all around campus.
“Thank you, Hoa, for inspiring us with stories from the FETP days”, “I love seeing Hoa working diligently at his desk every morning I come in”, and “Thank you, anh Hoa, for your supportive instructions whenever we need resources from the library” – these were posted on One Week One Fulbright Appreciation Wall to the school’s librarian of 14 years, Mr. Truong Minh Hoa.
There also written: “Finance team always comes in early and stays late, working diligently every day in the office. Their indefatigability plays a great part in keeping our boat afloat, marching forward.”
The Appreciation Wall were embellished with gratified thanks: “Thank you, chi Danh – our lovely tea lady, for always comes in first at 6 am every day in the past two and a half decades”, “Thank you for taking care of us and gracing our office with cute little plants.”
“I believe in Fulbright”
It was the Labor Holiday right before Giving Week when student volunteers came to help decorate the campus. These students spent all day drawing and handmaking donation boxes.
“I was so moved by their pure willingness to contribute. I remember one student drawing and sweating a lot since the AC was turned off during Holiday. She did not utter one single complaint, just meticulously drew our tamarind tree while wiping sweat nonchalantly. I think at the end of the day, it is the students who inspire us tremendously,” shared by Ms. Nguyen Ha Giang, Development Associate, who was in the team initiating Giving Week.
Even though she absolutely believed in the importance of creating a tradition of giving and in the causes that donation was raised for, Ha Giang was still amazed by the overwhelming support and enthusiasm from everyone. Emphasizing that this Giving Week was created to celebrate the Fulbright spirit and to highlight the unity amongst community members, which are crucial to a young institution like Fulbright University Vietnam, Ha Giang trusts that One Week One Fulbright will cultivate a culture of appreciation and giving.
“People wrote to us saying they were very moved by their coworkers’ stories on Appreciation Wall. About 500 million VND were raised with messages like “for the future of education in Vietnam”, “I believe in Fulbright”, etc. There were students who donated their monthly budget for milk tea and the last cash bills they have at hand. I am particularly proud of Fulbright students. If they are ready to give at such a young age, I have no doubt that once they fly out there in the big world, they will always look back and “give forward” to Fulbright and its future generations.”
Nguyen Nhu Phuong Anh (Fulbright Undergraduate student, Class of 2023) was just chatting with a close friend studying abroad in America when the topic of Fulbright’s inspiring stories came up. The conversation ignited such heartfelt empathy that the two friends decided to donate together. Having never set foot in Fulbright, being halfway across the globe, Phuong Anh’s friend still doled out a large amount of her extra income to support the school’s mission.
“Fulbright is making a difference to Vietnamese students’ lives by giving them unique liberal education, making a difference to the society by creating future generations of changemakers. Thus, I’m giving to Fulbright, to make a difference,” Phuong Anh explicated.
Actively participating in Giving Week, Hoang Mai Linh (Class of 2023) revealed that she did not hesitate when she decided to #GivetoFulbright. Mai Linh reasoned: “As a student who received financial aid from the school, I am deeply grateful to be studying in such a nurturing environment. Although the amount donated is not much, I still want to show my responsibility to the community that is fostering my growth. This is also a promise to myself that I would come back and contribute more to Fulbright as an alumnus in the future, supporting Fulbright’s vision of reimagining higher education.”
The various and creative giving forms are all a part of the effort to build an institutional culture, as Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, Founding President of Fulbright University Vietnam, has delineated.
“Just little more than 5 years ago, Fulbright University was still a concept. We, in the beginning, were still wondered about the possibility of realizing such a bold dream. It has been amazing to see the university grow from an idea to an institution buzzing with students from our undergraduate and graduate programs. That idea would not have been realized without the enthusiasm, commitment, and dedication of everyone in the organization. As part of the efforts to bring together students, faculty, and staff, Giving Week was launched to demonstrate the cultural values of Fulbright, of unity and giving.”
About education and the future ahead
One of the main goals of Giving Week was to donate for Campus Building and Students’ Fund for Research and Community Service. In fact, Fulbright University Vietnam is fundraising to build the flagship campus in Saigon High Tech Park in District 9, in a 15-hectare land granted by the Ho Chi Minh City’s People Committee. That is why there were “bricks” and “trees” donated throughout the Giving Week in hopes that one day, when the campus is officially done, the donors can be proud of their entrusted contribution to this scholarly legacy.
Therefore, the culture of giving, of inspirational values will not be confined within the Fulbright community or within the Giving Week. As a not-for-profit institution, Fulbright shares its grand mission with the society, which exists because of the trust of the Vietnamese people to build a world-class university for Vietnamese students. That does not just belong to the Fulbright community, but also to the people.
Mr. Tran Le Nam was a Management Specialist at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the company that Fulbright University Vietnam has consulted in developing strategic plans in the early days. At the end of the consulting project, Mr. Nam decided to leave BCG to join Fulbright as the Director of Development and Strategic Initiatives. Having studied abroad in the United States thanks to a scholarship from Vietnam’s Ministry of Education, Mr. Nam understands the value of a quality higher education. His passion to create positive impacts has led him to pursue various projects in education, employment development, and creative, sustainable development. In designing and spearheading the Giving Week at Fulbright, Mr. Nam hopes to amplify the giving culture, the pay-it-forward culture.
“After all, education is not the responsibility of the Government alone. Everyone in society can act on the educational values that they pursue. For me, I hope my son could have an opportunity that I did not have – to choose between a great institution in the world and staying in his own country. Henceforth, giving to Fulbright is another way society can entrust their educational values to Fulbright’s vision.” – Mr. Tran Le Nam shared.
During Giving Week, many graduate students at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management donated with hopes that their children can go to Fulbright in the future. Ms. Nguyen Quynh Anh (Class of LM 22) asserted that giving to education is the best investment, for which “every penny of your investment would have an annuity return in a young generation who dares to think, keen to act, and eager to contribute for a better life.”
Mr. Chu Duc Manh, an alumnus of MPP 2019 believes that the core values at Fulbright are the foundation to create a ripple effect in society.
“Fulbright’s greatest value lies in its integrity. More generations of Fulbrighters are needed to help make Vietnamese society more open-minded. That is why I give to Fulbright.”
After almost three decades of working at Fulbright, Mr. Vu Trong Cao looks forward to seeing the school move to its permanent home. The day Fulbright left the Vo Thi Sau teaching facility, many people like Mr. Cao wanted to uproot the tamarind tree from that courtyard to replant it in the flagship campus in District 9. The tamarind tree has now become the historical symbol of Fulbright, representing an institution that continues to carry the grand mission of creating positive changes for Vietnam, and building a heritage of humanity and knowledge.
Fulbright University Vietnam’s official home will have aisles of bigger tamarind trees, with buildings filled with the entrusted bricks from not only the Fulbright community but also the entire social community. It is where anyone in society can join hands to create any educational values that they believe in, and be proud of.
- Xuan Linh