Reflections on Five (5) Years of Capstone Vietnam, Educational Consulting in Vietnam & Overseas Study Trends: Part II


This is the English version of part II of a two-part interview series with me that recently appeared in the Vietnamese media.  Follow this link to read part I.

Tiến sỹ Mark_ A_ Ashwill(1)

Do you have any advice to guide parents and students – their children – who want to study abroad?

Knowing that most parents and students seek the assistance of an education agent rather than applying directly to a foreign institution, my advice in this crucial area is to choose carefully when looking for a suitable educational consulting company to work with. Many companies have no qualms about cheating their clients in their pursuit of short-term profit. Be sure to ask a lot of questions and use your personal network to find out as much as you can about a prospective company. Most importantly, the company should be working on your behalf and on behalf of your son or daughter not the institutions that pay commissions. The company you choose should provide accurate information and find the best possible matches for your child.

There is an encouraging trend of rising consumer expectations in Vietnam.  More and more parents and students are becoming educated consumers.  This means that there is both official (i.e., government) and grassroots (i.e., consumer) pressure for companies to become better than they are.  Competition and effective official oversight will take care of the rest.

My other piece of advice is to combine educational advising with career counseling. To parents – What is your child good at, where do his talents lie, what is her realized or untapped potential? To young people – What do you enjoy (interests), what are you good at (abilities), what do you value/find rewarding, what are your goals? Then you need to think about where you plan to enter the world of work and what kinds of employment opportunities might be available for someone with your qualities, qualifications and background.

As you embark upon this exciting process, there are two relevant quotes to keep in mind, one from an American author, poet, philosopher, and naturalist from the 19th century and the other from an American entrepreneur, marketer, and inventor, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, Inc., who lived in the late 20th century. Both believed in the power of dreams and the vital importance of self-actualization.

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. Henry David Thoreau

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs also had these words of encouragement – in his June 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University – to young people, or anyone for that matter, who decides to take the “road not taken,” in the words of the American poet, Robert Frost.

You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.

I have one concern and some final advice. 37.5% of all Vietnamese students in the U.S. are studying Business/Management, by far the highest percentage of any place of origin. (Indonesia is a distant 2nd at 29.5%.) Why so many? My guess is that students and/or their parents believe that you have to study business in order to do business. In fact, most employers recognize and value the creative, communicative and problem-solving abilities associated with liberal arts majors as the most valuable qualities of new staff.

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In a 2013 essay entitled Business and the Liberal Arts Edgar M. Bronfman, who was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., advised young people to get a liberal arts degree, emphasizing the value of curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking, and describing it as “the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.”

For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically — to understand what people mean rather than what they say — cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.

A famous and exceptional example of someone in living and working in Vietnam who pursued this path is Henry (Hoang) Nguyen, who currently serves as the Managing General Partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam. Henry graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, which he attended as a Harvard National Scholar, in 1995 with a BA in Classics. He then earned his MD and MBA from Northwestern University Medical School and the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. His academic journey took him from studying the language, literature, history, archaeology, and other dimensions of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome to medicine to business, a true Renaissance man.

While I am not famous, I am also an example of someone with a liberal arts background at the undergraduate and graduate (MA/Ph.D.) levels, including political science, German history, intercultural communication, comparative literature, philosophy, economics, education, etc., who has been an educational entrepreneur for most of my career.

I know of many young Vietnamese who majored in the liberal arts (single or double-major, with or without business courses) and who have returned to Vietnam to pursue successful careers in the private sector either as owners or employees. Through their work they have made Vietnam a better place. Their broad education is one of their greatest strengths.

What are Capstone Vietnam’s plans for 2015 and beyond? What are your wishes for young Vietnamese as they relate to education and career opportunities now and in the future?

Our plans are to continue building capacity to meet the demand for existing and new services. While we’re aware of and have experienced the human resource challenges that are a stark reality for every employer in Vietnam, we are pleased with our team in both offices. Our excellent staff are dedicated, hardworking and knowledgeable. We have a solid foundation upon which to build.

These are our core beliefs and goals that will sustain us in the years to come in a very competitive environment. This is who we are and this is what we want for young people and all of Vietnam.

  • Innovation over imitation, substance over image, veracity over veneer.
  • Trust, respect, integrity, quality and service; these are actions not just words, words to live by.
  • Success measured not by short-term profit but by long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Success measured by making an impact. By giving back. By leaving a legacy. By taking Vietnam to the next level.
  • Do well and do good.
  • Stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize!

Vietnam’s greatest resource is its people – hardworking, motivated, always on the move and in search of ways to enrich their lives and enhance their marketability through education and training. Every individual has enormous reserves of untapped potential and undiscovered talents. Our goal at Capstone Vietnam is to help our clients “reach new heights,” tap that potential, reveal those hidden talents and make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of individuals, organizations and society.

My heartfelt wish for young Vietnamese is that they study what they like and what they’re good at, all the while keeping a realistic eye on an ever-changing job market, that they live “in their dreams awake”, do the work that they love and make it great. And, finally, that they keep in mind and take to heart this quote from Randy Pausch (1960-2008), an American professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “The key question to keep asking is, ‘Are you spending your time on the right things?’ Because time is all you have.”

Dr. Mark A. Ashwill is the Managing Director of Capstone Vietnam. From 2005 to 2009, he served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam. Prior to moving to Vietnam, Dr. Ashwill was director of the World Languages Institute, adjunct lecturer and Fulbright program adviser at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY/Buffalo). In the mid-1990s, he was a primary researcher for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Case Study Project in Germany, Japan and the U.S., a Research Associate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development (CHGD) and a visiting scholar at the University of Frankfurt and Northwestern University. In 2003, Dr. Ashwill became the first U.S. American to be awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to Vietnam.

A 2011 Hobsons consultant’s report noted that Dr. Ashwill’s work and that of former U.S. Ambassador, Michael Michalak, “helped to promote the United States as a destination for Vietnamese students, and strengthened the ties between the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and U.S. universities.” In June 2012, Jeff Browne wrote in his blog Vietnomics that “Much of the credit for the strengthening U.S.-Vietnam higher education link goes to Hanoi-based educator, Mark Ashwill, director of Capstone Vietnam and key adviser to student-run nonprofit VietAbroader, both of which help Vietnamese students navigate the American education culture.”

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