Students from Vietnam and Montana swimming in Halong Bay, Vietnam. (Contributed by Elizabeth Harrison of the University of Montana)
Before traveling to Vietnam, 18-year-old Montana State University student Maggie Vann’s only understanding of the Southeast Asian country was through the perspective of the U.S. – Vietnam War.
The recent Hellgate graduate knew of the strained and often violent relationship the two countries had from the controversial conflict generations past, but after she spent most of her high school on Zoom in her home, she wanted to explore.
“As soon as I told people that I was going to Vietnam, their first thing they told me was to be safe, not to have fun. But so much has changed since the war, which is why we were even able to go to Vietnam,” Vann said. “But it was really eye-opening to see so many kind individuals welcoming us to their country even though they didn’t know us.”
Vann participated as one of 49 students, 25 from Montana and 24 from Vietnam, in the Hanoi U.S. Embassy-sponsored high school exchange program done through the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center. The program commemorated the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations through the U.S. Embassy in 2020.
The students were supposed to travel between the two countries in summer 2021 but instead participated in a virtual exchange January through June 2021. They traveled to Vietnam during July this year, and Vietnamese students spent the first two weeks of August exploring Montana.
The program focused on climate change, with Mansfield Director of Youth Programs Nicky Phear leading virtual small group presentation projects on conservation, zero waste strategies, climate change impacts and solutions and youth engagement. The students visited various nonprofits and did a variety of outdoor conservation activities while traveling in both countries for the in-person exchange.
“I love working on the programs where I get to work with youth leaders on topics related to climate change because so many of them already have knowledge they can share and learn from each other,” said Heidi Blair, the program’s manager through the Mansfield Center with a background in conservation studies. “This group of high school students, the younger generation, they’re deciding what they want to do with their lives and are so curious. I think it’s a really impactful time to be coming together with a group of peers to study conservation topics.”
Quan Duoc Linh, who goes by D-Linh and graduated from high school this month, is 17 years old and from the Tuyen Quang province. The rural mountain region where he’s from includes more than 20 unique ethnic minorities, with D-Linh identifying as Tay. Linh also said he is the first person to visit the U.S. from his area and has become a sort of celebrity in his hometown.
“I couldn’t believe I was in this program, but when I got in I think the point was to dare to dream. Minority people, people in my area, they just want to have a job to get by and earn money,” Linh said. “So, I want to inspire others to dare to dream and look for a better life. I want to do something meaningful to contribute back to my community.”
He became a part of the exchange program through the English Access Microscholarship Program in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, which serves Vietnamese students by teaching them English language skills and American culture lessons. The U.S. students learned some conversational Vietnamese before traveling but did not take classes.
His impression of America did not reflect the war; instead he admired the education opportunities here and envied American youth’s independence. Linh began studying away from home at a boarding school at age 10 and plans to study economics at an exchange school in Hanoi.
“I want to have the U.S. lifestyle; a lot of Vietnamese people rely on their parents. The people in America are so friendly and helpful,” Linh said.
One focus of the program was particularly relevant for him. Linh experienced climate change firsthand through unseasonable snow in Northern Vietnam, so he was excited to participate in the climate-focused program.
“[Climate change] is such a big problem not only in Vietnam but around the world. I’m happy and it’s my honor to study it because I had a better education than the last generation. It’s my responsibility to take action and stop climate change for a better life,” Linh said.
Vann, like Linh, saw climate change in her own life growing up in Potomac. She said fishing on the Blackfoot River became more restricted due to warming waters, but she was even more struck by the heavy plastic pollution they saw near the city Cantho in Vietnam, where she recalled watching a boat scoop up hundreds of pounds of waste out of the river at a time.
One of her favorite experiences was being filled with hope for the future by visiting a school in Vietnam where 9- and 10-year-old students showed them their recycling projects. She also loved kayaking in Halong Bay, where she was able to teach one of the Vietnamese students that had never kayaked before.
“People need to realize that we need to kick it into gear and start doing something, because right now I feel like most people are just posting on social media without doing anything,” Vann said. “Everyone needs to have an experience like my trip to open our eyes to the effect climate change has.”
Hiking throughout Montana was Linh’s favorite part of his exchange, especially given how dangerous trails are in the rainforest back in Vietnam. The Vietnamese students marveled over how clean the rivers in Montana are, and their time in Montana consisted of erosion prevention on the “M” trail in Missoula, learning about outdoor recreation and tourism in Glacier National Park and plenty of exploring outdoors across western Montana.
“People in my generation need to care more about the big problems like this not because they do it for themselves, but for ourselves,” Linh said. “When I’m married and have my family, they should have the same nature and planet we live in, so take action. Not for right now but for the future.”
According to Blair, the group benefited from the exchange being designed after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected many study-abroad and travel opportunities through UM. She was surprised that COVID-19 was not nearly as prevalent in Vietnam, where 90% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine compared to 79% in the U.S. Vann said none of the program participants contracted COVID-19 in Vietnam, but a few Montana and Vietnamese students did when in the U.S.
One of the primary focuses of the program, and Vann’s and Blair’s biggest takeaways, were the cross-cultural connections the travel formed between the students. The program emphasized learning about one another’s cultures through events like former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius’ visit to UM, where he helped dispel the framing of Vietnamese relations only through the war.
“We all had realizations about how interconnected our world is even though we live on opposite sides of the world, and we really need shared solutions to be able to improve things for the future,” Blair said.
Vann became aware of the tendency to jump to conclusions about others before experiencing their customs, and after her travels, she has made life-long friendships across the world. It’s been over a week since the exchange ended and Vann still connects to the Vietnamese students over Instagram, Facebook and FaceTime. She said she hopes to get the opportunity to visit them in Vietnam again.
Her trip to Vietnam has inspired her to become a travel nurse, and working towards that end, she is studying nursing at Montana State University this fall.
“The world is consumed with misconceptions about different cultures and people we’re unfamiliar with. I think if everyone took the time to travel and see life through another person’s eyes the world would be a way better place,” Vann said.
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