Written by Mary Stites, (University of Kansas) Student Correspondent CET Vietnam: Community-Based Learning, Summer 2018
After a rather disappointing phone call in December, I was graced with the largest blessing in disguise that I’ve had yet to encounter. Upon being told that my dream job position had been filled by a “more qualified candidate,” my mother sought to stop my tears by telling me she wanted me to spend the summer abroad. This didn’t sound too bad. So, upon returning to Lawrence, Kansas for my spring semester, I frequented the Office of Study Abroad in hopes of finding a summer adventure.
Originally, I had fully intended on going to South America to study biodiversity, public land policy, something of the sorts because I needed credit for my Environmental Studies major. But because KU, my home institution, offered no such courses, they directed me to the “Student Initiated Programs” office, the division in which students travel with other universities or study abroad programs such as CET. In this office, I was offered a long list of options of companies that KU had given the thumbs up on. From here, I spent hours clicking on hyperlinks, writing down names of different summer programs, lengths, costs, credit hours, until I filled the entire “notes” section of my agenda.
Early on, I found the CET Community-Based Learning in Vietnam and continued on my merry way. I added it to the ongoing list of possibilities—I was intrigued, but I was also VERY skeptical upon first glance. I continued on my search with this interesting, unique program lingering in the back of my head.
Eventually I would narrow down the list of over 50 programs to three: Biodiversity studies in Ecuador, Environmental Policy in Peru, and Community-Based Learning in Vietnam. One of these was not like the others: CET’s Vietnam trip includes no conventional classroom time and rather little room for “country hopping” like some programs in Europe or South America tend promote. But more importantly, your credit was granted through a physical infrastructure development project in rural Vietnam (this year we built a basketball court at the local youth center) and English education at a summer afternoon ESL program. This is where a great deal of skepticism came in: I have some rather strong opinions in regards to the growing voluntourism industry where people will spend thousands of dollars to travel to an “underprivileged” area to provide development assistance. And while I have a disappointment fueled by the fire of a thousand suns for these ethically and sustainably unsound efforts, I could not forget about the course.
On paper, this was the last program I should have done, but I was hesitant to move on to something else. So after a long meeting with my campus Peace Corps representative, I was able to verify that while this is inherently voluntourist-y, and this CET CBL course is being managed in a way that is ethical, sustainable, and has a long-term trajectory in mind. So I applied and continued to refresh my email every hour for a couple of weeks until I received my program acceptance. I continued to be nervous about the potential that I would fly across the world and not be able to stand behind the work I was supposed to be doing. As supplemental information began to flow in (i.e. further explanations of the groups we would be working with, the course syllabus that included endless work on sustainable development [including KU’s guidelines from the Center for Sustainability, rock chalk], and details on Quang Tri town) my nerves were eased.
However, amidst all of my hesitations, I can’t think of a better way to learn about the world than by actively placing yourself within the community. This program honestly throws you into water and it forces you to accept challenges as they come—cultural differences, language barriers, inherent differentiation and discomfort with a world that is completely different. This program is not your standard trip to a foreign country where you can tiptoe around immersion. While this might seem intimidating, certain aspects of the program that allow you to be a foreigner in a homogeneous town in Central Vietnam offset the inherent challenges. Furthermore, these challenges are well worth the struggle because they are how you learn and truly understand life on the other side of the world as more than pho in the mornings and heat at all times of the day. But rather, I have observed a community that is drastically different than mine, therefore broadening the spectrum by which I understand, conceptualize, analyze and validate the human experience and its worldwide variance.
In terms of our “course load,” rather than spending a few hours a day in a foreign university, our mornings are spent shoveling sand, mixing concrete and pumping water from a nearby wetland into said mixed concrete. This has fostered a unique awareness of the conditions of the world outside of America, ultimately pushing me to think about the unmatched standard of living that I have grown accustomed to.
While neither my lifestyle, nor the standards of the developing world reigns superior, I’ve assigned incredible value to the awareness that I have since acquired. I’ve began to question what it means to develop, variations in the context in which development occurs, and the larger social, cultural, economic and political implications of this forward trajectory. This observation has brought forth intriguing internal dialogue by which it is often times difficult to create broad speculation upon, but would have never occurred prior to this trip. Like many observations I’ve taken in these past months, I’m not quite sure what to make yet, but my role as a worker in Quang Tri has fostered the ability for this growth in understanding and one that would probably not be as present in a more traditional study abroad experience.
Furthermore, Quang Tri has approximately zero tourists. Which means we are approximately the only Americans. Which also means that it is extremely difficult to be an English speaker here. In personal travel, I’ve been able to navigate Hue, Hanoi, Ha Long City and even Saigon with minimal Vietnamese speaking capability. Point blank, a lot of traveling to really phenomenal places can be done via the presence of a linguistic safety net. However, this back fall is not present while in Quang Tri. While our local roommates who are usually with us offset this, there has been a substantial amount of struggle associated with language barrier.
Sometimes frustrating, but if I’ve learned anything, the most growth comes from situations that are difficult. In this, I’ve acquired a profound sense of humility, one that has allowed me to ask for help when I need it (something that I’ve always struggled with), and I have of course experienced the implications of a language barrier first hand. I often use the phrase “we out here” and holy moly are “we out here” in a small town in Vietnam.
Through the CBL course, I have been confronted with a completely different world, one that does not allow me to skate by within minimal engagement with the community around me. Often times in travel, beautiful cities with a plethora of attractions are rather foreigner-friendly, accommodating for the obvious differences (i.e. language, even food tolerance), which can lead to a sugarcoated experience. While there is value in this, I hoped to have an immersive summer, one that would force me to see and understand new things, and holy moly that is what I got.
Lastly, being in Quang Tri places you rather far away from an airport, which places a significant impediment on one’s ability to travel internationally. Initially, I considered this to be a downside, provoking me write “travel” on my pro/con list for this program.
A lot of other programs allow students to travel from country to country on the weekends with relative ease. And CET does not disallow this, but the majority of students opt to devote their weekends to domestic travel. I had originally hoped to travel to Thailand, China, maybe even Cambodia. But instead, I’ve spent every weekend in Vietnam—Hue, Da Nang, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay—and not only have I seen the most jaw-dropping things and eating the most mouth-watering foods, I’ve hardly made a dent in what this country has to offer. In my inability to embark on foreign weekend trips, I’ve been able to explore Vietnam to an extent that I would have never had. This country is one of the most beautiful places on earth and continues to drop my jaw every single day and I am forever grateful for the ability to dive deeply into a new place.
This past February, I made one of the most bizarre decisions of my life: to go live in rural Vietnam with a group of strangers even though I had a million reasons to pick any other program. Fast-forward, this CBL program has placed me in the midst of a place that I didn’t even knew existed and has then challenged me in ways I could have never even imagined. Through all of the sweat, through all of the times that I accidentally ordered a beef smoothie instead of avocado (tonal languages, darn it), and all of the weird ups and downs, I’ve realized that you cannot let your personal world shape your view of the world around you, but rather you must let the world around you shape your view of your world.