For two weeks, I had the incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the Vietnamese culture thanks to a study abroad program called U of A Faculty-Led: Global Community Development in Vietnam. This was my third study abroad program to participate in and my experience was completely different. The goal of this program is to engage students in an international community development project. We had 21 students travel to Vietnam and we were split into two teams: Business and Service-Leadership. While the two teams did activities together in the afternoons and weekends, I was on the Service-Leadership Team and our days looks completely different from the Business Team’s.
This program is unique because the University of Arkansas partners with Can Tho University in order to allow students to be successful in their projects. The second day of the program, Arkansas students were welcomed by the dean of the College of Rural Development and Vietnamese volunteers. Our volunteers helped us immensely. They translated for us, educated us on Vietnamese culture, and assisted us daily. Our first week focused on learning about and then building a biogas digester for a farming family. In short, a biogas digester allows pig manure to be heated by the sun, which is then converted to methane gas and used as fuel for a stove top. On Wednesday of the first week, we met with a family who had built a biogas digester the previous year with help from Arkansas students. While the construction is relatively easy, the amount of time a biogas digester saves the woman of the household is priceless. During a typically day, a woman would need to spend 4-5 hours collecting wood for cooking. With a biogas digester, she can spend this valuable time focusing on other responsibilities. When we met with the farming family, they were beyond thankful for the students who had built a biogas digester for them. They invited us into their home to show us how it functioned and also served us jackfruit. The next day, the Service-Leadership Team divided into two groups and set to work building two biogas digesters.
Building the biogas digester was one of my favorite days in Vietnam. We arrived at the family’s home around 9 am and after quick introductions, we immediately started digging a hole for the biogas digester. There were only 4 students helping build so luckily the family had already begun a hole for us. We dug for a couple hours, ate lunch, and then came back to complete the construction of the digester. The project was finished by around 3 pm and I have never seen a family so appreciative. Even though we had already eaten, the family cooked a feast for us and set out rice wine that they had brewed themselves. As we sat around three plastic tables pushed together, Chi, one of the Vietnamese coordinators, translated to us how happy the family was that we came and helped. Honestly, I think we were just as excited to be able to spend the day with the family. Being able to work as part of a team to build a biogas digester was by far one of the most meaningful things I have done with my time. The ability to create something useful was an amazing feeling.
Our second week in Vietnam was spent teaching classes. In the morning we went to the Hoa An 4 Primary School where we spoke to children about mosquitoes and the diseases that they can spread. Most of the kids only spoke a couple words of English, so the volunteers helped translate our short presentation about mosquitoes. After a little class time, we liked to go outside and play fun games in the courtyard. Sometimes we showed the kids games but I also learned many Vietnamese games! All of the children were adorable and so excited to meet “the foreigners.” Our afternoons were spent at the Hoa An High School. The students at the high school spoke more English and so their teachers wanted us to focus on teaching them additional English words. Another Arkansas student and I were in charge of one classroom and we decided to lecture on American holidays, animals, and food. After teaching for a little while, we played games like Pictionary and Hangman to help the kids remember the words in a fun way. Saying goodbye to all of the students was heartbreaking. The primary students sang us Vietnamese songs and gave us hugs goodbye. The high school students gave a short speech and some started crying. A lot of the high schoolers added us on Facebook and I hope to keep in touch with them.
During the program, I received credit for ENGL 3923H: Honors Colloquium (Cultural Identities: Vietnam) but the other courses offered were WLLC 423V, WCOB230V, and WCOB330V. Our class time was typically after lunch and we would discuss literature that the professor had given us. At the end of the trip, we were asked to turn in five journal reflections that were insightful to our time in Vietnam. I would recommend this program to students who enjoy learning independently and are truly interested in service.