Empower : to promote the self-actualization or influence of. This is a fitting slogan for VietAbroader (VA), a non-profit, student-run organization “dedicated to helping Vietnamese youth pursue higher education abroad and attracting talent (back) to Viet Nam.” (Follow this link to learn about VA’s values.)
During my first trip to Vietnam in January 1996, a US diplomat told me that part of the mission of the Embassy is to “fill in the gaps and repair the damage caused by war,” recognizing that Vietnam was in need of “new ideas, information, knowledge, and skills.” One way to achieve this goal is to encourage and enable qualified young people to study in the U.S. and other countries. At the time there were fewer than 1000 Vietnamese students in the U.S. There are now over 15,000 studying in all 50 states and at all levels, including high school. (Vietnam ranks 9th overall and 2nd in community college international enrollment.)
When President Bill Clinton visited Hanoi almost ten years ago, he addressed a very enthusiastic and attentive crowd at Vietnam National University, where he noted that the histories of the U.S. and Vietnam “are deeply intertwined in ways that are both a source of pain for generations that came before, and a source of promise for generations yet to come.” Educational exchange has become one of the bright spots in a blossoming relationship, and VietAbroader has emerged as one of the key players in this area.
It is my honor and privilege to be involved with VietAbroader since the “early days.” (VA’s other advisor is Henry Nguyen, Managing General Partner, IDG Ventures Vietnam.) When I joined back in March 2004, shortly after VA was established, it had just a few hundred members.
The VietAbroader Forum now has 25,159 members, 9,728 threads and 147,539 posts (as of 31 July 2010). Its founders and original members have since graduated and are either working, or back in school – as graduate or professional school (e.g., MBA, law) students.
VietAbroader is, of course, much more than a forum, as valuable as that is; it is a dynamic, creative, and visionary organization that has enabled thousands of young people to pursue overseas study. VA has made seminal contributions to U.S.-Vietnam educational exchange through its summer study abroad conferences, VAPedia, business conferences, the 1st career conference this past April in New York City and other worthwhile initiatives.
I am inspired and gratified by what VA has accomplished through the herculean efforts of its members – volunteers whose reward is becoming part of something greater than themselves, having a lasting impact on the lives of others and “passing the torch.”
On a macro level, VA is fast becoming an indispensable member of Vietnam’s burgeoning civil society. It supplements and complements the work being done by other actors and contributes towards the creation of a culture of volunteerism, community involvement and philanthropy. VA’s work has a sizeable ripple effect: it benefits its members, the universities and colleges they attend, and the companies and institutions that provide sponsorship support, as well as U.S.-Vietnam relations and Vietnam’s development.
In case you’re wondering what the definition of “civil society” is, I like the one below from the London School of Economics (LSE) Centre for Civil Society:
Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.
US Ambassador Michael Michalak and I at the 2009 VietAbroader Study Abroad Conference in Hanoi after delivering our opening remarks (Photo courtesy of Kenh14.vn)